Continuous Improvement -- Harness The Passion

Dec. 21, 2004
Every organization has the inner potential for greatness. Don't squander it.

Lately, in a deliberate effort to hear how the other half lives, I've been talking to people outside of manufacturing about the operational issues they face. (If you want to hear about some monumental organizational problems, talk to anyone in big-city government.) It doesn't take a root-cause analysis to say that no matter what business you're in, it all comes down to change and people, and people's willingness and desire to change. What struck me in these conversations was not so much how many of these bright and competent managers in health care, banking, auto service and non-profit work, are stuck within organizations struggling toward mediocrity. That's true no matter what industry you're in. What impressed me was how much these people cared. They care about the people who work for them. They care about doing their jobs well. They care about meeting their objectives. They care about their organizations. They care, but they're frustrated. They're frustrated by more than what the competition is throwing at them. That can be attacked head on, more or less. Mostly they're frustrated by their companies' inability to adapt, to learn from mistakes and to react to new opportunities. The manufacturing managers I talk to care deeply as well, and many of their companies suffer from the same organizational indifference and inertia. But not all. Following up on a recent trip, I asked the leader of a manufacturing operation that is overhauling its processes from the very early development stages to product retirement to serve its customers better and more profitably, to explain what's driving the transformation. As frequently happens, he said, it began with a change in management. The previous managers, comfortable with the status quo and suffering from a "not invented here syndrome," were replaced by new blood with a "passion for excellence," a keep-it-simple strategy, as well as a willingness to find and adopt best practices. The new managers recognized the obvious truth that someone somewhere in the manufacturing universe had already solved every problem that they would ever encounter, and that they in fact had a lot to learn. To implement the necessary changes, the new leadership recognized and promoted some people from within the organization. People whose ideas and effort had created pockets of excellence but whose impact on the overall operation's performance had been thwarted by the absence of a cohesive strategy. The new leadership team gave everyone some common tools and focused them on common goals. Today, if they aren't moving equipment or realigning processes every few months, people start to wonder what's wrong. Blessed by some truly formidable competition, everyone in this organization shares an understanding that they need to improve every day if the company's going to be successful in its markets. It's amazing how many barriers that unity of purpose breaks down. They care even more passionately because they see the changes and progress that's being made. Not only do they have the willingness and desire to change, but the go-ahead to make it happen. Your people, and your company, should be so fortunate. David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.

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