The best never rest, Continuous Systems Improvement

Success has many fathers, as the saying goes. One sire to my company’s exponential growth was our obsession with improving the way we did things. We were fanatical about identifying roadblocks, unearthing errors, and fine-tuning our system. Part of our campaign included benchmarking the highfliers; one way we did that was an occasional Intel-gathering field trip. Once, we chartered a twin-prop plane for our regional managers, Wayne Shimmer, and me to investigate a top national chain’s Omaha locations. The company had a great reputation and did a lot of things right—and they were about to invade the twin cities, our most lucrative market.

We split into three teams, rented cars, and went shopping. We got oil changes at every store and watched their MO. “While we waited,” Wayne recalled, “I’d say to the manager, ‘That looks like a great computer system. How does it work?’ And he’d explain the whole thing in detail.” We flew home fat with improvements that we immediately clicked into place, like installing windows between the bays and the lobby so customers could watch the progress of their cars.

The big boys tend to pursue structural precision through a process called Lean Enterprise, a hybrid of TQM (Total Quality Management) and JIT (Just in Time). Essentially, Lean Enterprise integrates quality commitment, waste elimination, and employee involvement within a structured management system. Its primary purpose is to perform all functions—from product development and production to sales and customer service—so that steps that don’t create value for the end-user are eliminated. This allows steps that do create value to flow unimpeded in the value stream.

Get in the game by taking these steps.

■ Seek employee input. They’re in the thick of the action, so every month ask each person, “What’s working and what isn’t?”

■ Implore employees to report all errors as soon as they happen. Welcome mistakes with open arms. Finding and fixing errors prevents major headaches down the road.

■ Abandon any part of the system as soon as a better way emerges.

■ set up a hotline number. Some employees aren’t comfortable making even the smallest wave. Partner with a loss-prevention company to provide a hotline for employees to confidentially offer suggestions and point out problems.

■ Establish system-improvement committees to hunt bottlenecks in your systems, from machines and materials to communication and training. Do whatever it takes to repair broken links.

Building a systems-disciplined organization

➤ Focus on strategic planning. It’s the cornerstone of a proactive, healthy organization. Don’t let the process intimidate you. Strategic planning exploits your strengths and opportunities and diminishes your weaknesses and threats.

➤ Execute in four steps. Define expectations, then inspire, teach, and follow up. The execution solution helps employees avoid obstacles, or get back on track when they do trip up.

➤ methodically solve problems. When an individual or department underperforms, don’t blame, shame, panic, or pander. Cooperate and explore, don’t fight and accuse. The right attitude and the right systems turn problem-solving into no problem at all.

➤ Manage your meetings. Disorganized meetings waste time and drain energy. Productive meetings run on tight pre-meeting preparation and strict protocol.

➤ Troubleshooting is a year-round sport. Beyond high- concept theories like Total Quality Management, tell your people that their company is a work in progress.

Last word

Dedicate yourself to continuous process improvement. Constantly scout the competition, abandon bad systems, establish internal hotlines, and consider partnering with con sultans.

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