There are so many models out there for process improvement that I fear the reason for having the models gets lost. You can’t see the wood for the trees. How do we get back to seeing what is in front of us?
What lies at the heart of all of the improvement methodologies?
I would argue that the reason for doing any of this is the same; a basic desire to improve the business. The next question is to improve what? Why improve at all? All businesses are there to service the needs of their customers, whether that need is for doughnuts, cars, phones, accountancy services, medical aid, it doesn’t matter. If we can find a way to service the customer’s needs better, then perhaps we can find a way to make everyone’s job more secure and grow the business. If we can make more money along the way even better.
So why do we obsess about all these different methods?
Everyone tries to understand how someone else, who we perceive is better at something, does it. We all study someone, we are taught subjects in school, how to answer questions, how to solve problems, how to make things better. Unfortunately, our education systems teach us to copy, imitate rather than innovate, so we look for models and systems to copy since that is our conditioning.
Therein lie the seeds of ruin for many improvement projects. We go, we study, we focus on what, but we fail to understand why. The real question for improvement is, why do it? Many companies who engage in process improvement, lean or six sigma projects do so to reduce costs. That cost reduction is often accompanied by job losses, which works in the short terms, but destroys trust between workers and management, and makes future improvement projects almost impossible. This is because there is an internal, short term focus for the business. Management are changing every 3 to 5 years, every new set of management focus on the perceived deficiencies of their predecessor, then proceed to change the direction to make things better. W Edwards Deming identified these factors in his seven deadly diseases. Short term goals, lack of constancy of purpose, job hopping by management, performance reviews, focus on visible figures, excessive medical costs, excessive legal costs.
American Management thinks that they can just copy from Japan. But they don’t know what to copy
W Edwards Deming
How do we succeed?
As Simon Sinek observes, we must start with why. Why do we want to improve? Is it to better serve our customers or to make more money? As United Airlines have recently shown, just saying that your customers are a priority isn’t enough. If customer service was at the heart of their principles, that video of security guards dragging a paying passenger from a flight would not have been possible. To truly succeed, a business must focus on improving the aspects of their product or service their customers value most. It must not be done to simply improve margin, but to reduce the level of defects, improve customer satisfaction, eliminate the opportunity for defects, reduce lead time, reduce waste.
This focus will lead the business to look at the process for creating customer value; reducing defects, eliminating the opportunity for defects, reducing waste all deliver lower costs for the business and better service for the customer. Reducing waste and defects means that less time is wasted on defect correction and replacement, this gives a shorter lead time and lower costs. Determining a long-term strategy, and setting in place a review process to ensure the strategy is sustained will ensure constancy of purpose. Focusing on these factors and ensuring that all the changes are sustainable for the long term may be harder, but is ultimately much better for the business.
In summary, focus on your customer needs, plan for long term success, and make changes that are consistent with your long-term goals. Don’t copy what others have done, understand the link between their long-term goals and improvement activities. Once this is understood for their business, focus on your own business and use only the tools and techniques that support your own long-term goals AND your customer’s needs. If you ever find a conflict between these demands, always choose your customer’s needs; long-term success can only come from repeat business, and repeat business only comes from satisfied customers.
Profit in business comes from repeat customers, customers that boast about your project or service, and that bring friends with them.
W. Edwards Deming