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Are you learning to improve?

Are you learning to improve? The film 12 Years a Slave tells the powerful story of an educated and articulate Negro freeman from New York; Solomon Northup, robbed of his freedom and sold into slavery.

Kidnapped by slave traders, he was set to work on a cotton plantation in the Deep South. 

Although warned not to draw attention to his himself – “If you want to survive down here” – It quickly becomes apparent that Solomon Northrup is a practical problem solver – quickly improving productivity and reducing waste on the plantation. 

But Sep, his overseer, regarding him as an insubordinate threat to his authority and is determined to ‘break his rebellious spirit’.

In one scene – expressing his frustration and sense of injustice, Solomon cries out:

“I did as instructed. If there’s something wrong, it’s wrong with the Instructions!”

Thankfully slavery has been abolished, but Solomon’s cry of frustration still reverberates through organisations with dysfunctional systems and processes, where people are overwhelmed by disruptive initiatives that fail to deliver the promised improvements.

Like Sep the overseer, managers promoted beyond their competence may feel insecure and threatened by the natural curiosity and problem solving skills of the Mavericks they employ. As Solomon Northup identified the inefficiency and waste of plantation life – he was compelled to innovate ‘making a difference’ – but risking Sep’s anger.

Maverick ‘problem solvers’ still expose management mistakes and incompetence, without fear or favour – and may at times be regarded as dangerous subversives. But, when given time to mature they develop an intuitive understanding of the organisation’s weaknesses – challenging people to rethink how they operate. 

In the 1980’s a group of senior executives from the automotive industry gathered to share their thoughts about the future of the industry. After listening to a series of presentations from European and American companies showing how they were going to improve quality, one of the Japanese engineers responded:

“You can’t compete with us, because you employ 10,000 hands – but we employ 5,000 minds and get their hands for free”.

The workplace culture can liberate people to think creatively as they develop new and improved ways of working – or constrain them to ‘following orders’ while managers do quality improvement – without understanding the effects of the proposed changes.

Management gurus like Phil Crosby and William Edwards Deming recognised the importance of ‘Problem Solving’ and the ‘Continuous Improvement Process’, But in the real world, effective problem solving remains the exception rather than the rule, as managers and political leaders seek ‘short-term fixes’ without grappling with the underlying causes of our current difficulties.

In his book Quality is Free, Philip Crosby set out some basic principles for a problem solving culture, arguing that:

  • Quality is Conformance with the Requirements
  • The standard is Zero Defects
  • The measure is the Price of Non-Conformance (PONC)
  • The method is Prevention
  • The system is Continuous Improvement

Crosby focused on the hidden Price of Non-Conformance to drive continuous improvement, arguing that the Price of Non-Conformance (PONC) consumes 25% – 30% of the available resources – time, material and energy – in most organisations. But this waste is well hidden by managements systems that accept failure as normal – to protecting the manager’s ego and bonus by denying the possibility of improvement.

Are you learning to improve? When organisations are struggling to make a profit – reducing waste by 50% would transform their profitability. But promoting ‘continuous improvement’ as a ‘cost reduction program’ is counter-productive – because it becomes associated with the threat of redundancy – in a stagnant and saturated market.

So, successful companies must use the resources they liberate from waste creation to develop new innovative products and processes that allow them to create new market opportunities – driven by a long term strategy rather than short term profit.

While Phil Crosby’s approach to quality improvement was at times philosophical – Edward Deming developed the statistical tools and techniques needed to identify and control the sources of unwanted variation. 

However, Crosby and Deming agreed that there are no prizes for doing the wrong thing more efficiently than your competitors, so we must understand ‘added value’ and market requirements in order to eliminate waste and reduce the price of non-conformance.

The tools and techniques required to solve complex technical and organisational problems have now matured into a well-documented body of knowledge that is freely available, but their application remains patchy and inconsistent, as recognised by Deming in Out of the Crisis when he wrote:‑

“Measures of productivity are like statistics on accidents: they tell you all about the number of accidents in the home, on the road and at the workplace, but they do not tell you how to reduce the frequency of accidents. It is unfortunate that in many places quality assurance means a deluge of figures that tell how many defective items of this type or that were produced last month, with comparisons month by month and year by year. Figures like this tell the management how things have been going, but they do not point the way to improvement.”

We need accurate data to understand our processes, and so we can intervene when things are going wrong – but data gathering must not be confused with problem solving.

Only when we accept that failures and quality problems are caused by the way we design our products and processes, will they become preventable – if we are prepared to make improvements and use  appropriate controls to prevent, detect and mitigate the causes of failure. 

Although radical changes to the product and process design are sometimes required, progressive optimization through a process of continuous improvement is usually more effective – and is the key to business improvement and profitability.

To create a learning organisation we must nurture and encourage the problem solvers. Firstly, we must challenge the complacency that accepts ‘failure as normal’. 

This requires an ‘aspirational vision’ to motivate people – and a commitment to achieving that goal. 

During a recent training course, in a small engineering company:

  • The Quality Manager explained “You will never achieve Zero Defects here, because there are too many variables in our process”
  • While his demotivated staff complained “We don’t have time to follow the process properly, as we have to meet unrealistic delivery schedules”

Although rework was disrupting their production schedules – creating a vicious circle of chaos and mistakes, they were shocked when we discovered that 15-20% of their capacity was being consumed by ‘scrap and rework’, with a hidden cost of £8,000 per month.

Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) are an important way of communicating in the workplace, although frequently misused. 

Properly implemented KPI’s:

  • Allow people to monitor their manager’s performance as well as their own.
  • Alert people when the process is ‘out of control’ or unstable
  • Prompt people to intervene when necessary to maintain quality

But, identifying the causes of failure, so that we can prevent recurring episodes, requires the ‘tactile knowledge’ of process operators and the ‘intellectual knowledge’ of the experts who designed and manage the process – so we must bridge the divide between them.

Secondly, at all levels of the organisation we must take ownership of the problems we encounter, striking an appropriate balance between delegation and micro-management

Organisations that allow managers to abdicate responsibility for the ‘technical trivia’ that determines their success or failure, will breed Teflon-Managers – who lack the credibility to drive continuous improvement. Believing their failures are caused by ‘random events’ and ‘external factors’, they will avoid responsibility for their actions. It is never their problem!

On the other hand, micro-managers often have a detailed knowledge of the process, but have become control-freaks unable to delegate or trust the people working for them. Unlike mentors, micro-managers are firmly committed to ‘command and control’. They know that the problems would be avoided – If only people would do what they are told!’

Micro-Managers and Teflon-Managers are equally confident that ‘other people’ cause their problems, making is difficult for problem solvers to question their way of doing things, or suggest improvements that may prevent chronic and recurring failures.

In a learning organisation Effective Managers know they are responsible for the process and its failures, so they will not try to shift the blame onto others or abdicate responsibility for their own decisions. This gives problem solvers the freedom to question and ultimately improve the systems and process. 

When managers ask problem solving teams to help them improve their own performance, they sweep away the cultural impediments to process improvement.

In his book Creativity, Challenge and Courage, Eiji Toyoda wrote:

“Society has reached the point where one can push a button and be immediately deluged with technical and managerial information. This is all very convenient of course, but if one is not careful there is a danger of losing the ability to think. We must that in the end it is the individual human being who must solve the problem.”

But their problem solving skills must be nurtured and developed – supported by managers willing to accept responsibility for poor product and process performance as well as poor organisation when these are revealed to be the cause of the problem.

Are you learning to improve? Problem solvers are not just dissatisfied moaners, they are compelled to understand and solve problems to reduce the waste and inefficiency – so set them free!

Phil Stunell
Phil Stunellhttp://www.stunell.com/
Phil Stunell is an experienced engineering manager – who has detected and investigated all sorts of ‘things that can go wrong’ in product design and manufacturing processes - learning from experience how people and organisations can confidently fail. Phil is passionate about improving the way organisations recognise and control risk – training engineers and management teams to understand Product Liability and improve their management systems.

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