What are you doing to improve, and how do you know if you’re winning?

If you survey American manufacturing leaders and ask them these questions, no doubt you would receive many varied replies. There are lots of approaches to continuous improvement.

I remember our first application to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA), in 1990. We knew we were good—we worked hard, we were smart and many of our products were innovative.

What else do you need?

Our Chief Executive saw trouble ahead and fully supported the MBNQA as an excellent set of criteria to pursue for drastic improvement and as a game changer. The Department of Defense (DoD) budget was headed down and competition was going to increase for the smaller portions and dollars of revenue.

Since DoD budgeting was under an annual contract basis that was dependent on the nation’s annual budgets that were then allocated to various programs and projects, we had a little time before we would see the impact on the bottom line. However, the CEO saw we needed to take action now—the proverbial “burning platform.”

So we applied to the MBNQA, which was barely underway. Motorola had won the first award, and they were a good role model with lots of recognition and clout at the time.

After we submitted our application and then upon follow-up, we explained to the examiners and outlined our systems, goals and processes based on the criteria of the award. We all smiled and felt that we had impressed them.

A short time later we received a courteous letter explaining that while we were doing many things right, we did not measure up enough to qualify for a site visit, much less the award!

If you do not have continuous improvement goals based on benchmarking and benchmarks, you do not know how you compare!"

They sent us a feedback report identifying five areas as opportunities for improvement. We knew what the answer was … “they did not understand us! We were a DoD business, and the criteria were not appropriate for us! And so on and so on. We’ll get back to work doing our own thing, now.”

No such luck!

Our CEO asked, “What did we learn and what were the opportunities/shortcomings that we need to fix.” He assigned five vice-presidents to be personally responsible to fix each of the opportunities.

My life changed at this time.