It's the Process, Not the People

Dec. 10, 2011
Why playing the blame game works against continuous improvement for manufacturers.

All businesses have specific processes they use to conduct their operations. It's the way things are done in delivering products and services to their customers. Senior executives and managers attempt to ensure these processes are robust and can handle all the different issues that may arise in the business, but in today's complex world, these processes often fall short of being able to handle all the different permutations that exist.

When this happens and the results deviate from the expected outcome of the process, in many companies the search begins for who "screwed up." The vast majority of the time, the answer is that it is senior managers' fault because the processes in place are not up to the task of handling all the variation that exists in today's businesses. As a result, they have not enabled the organization to continuously improve its processes.

The very successful companies, the leaders in their industries, generally have senior executives and management teams that understand it's not people screwing things up, it's the processes that are not up to the challenge of today's business complexity, and it's the processes that need to be improved. This is where they focus their continuous-improvement efforts, and they encourage the organization to identify the anomalies so they can be addressed.

If organizations really want to have a continuous improvement effort focused on improving their business, they celebrate the mistakes and errors that result from inadequate processes so they can be corrected. They don't look for someone to blame for the problem. These organizations have their sensors turned up to identify problems that will inevitably arise and encourage their people to expose these issues rather than try to bury them and cover them up.

In organizations where people are blamed for these variances, there is a culture of "hide it and cover yourself" to protect themselves from the blame and potential disciplinary action rather than a culture of exposing process variations so a continuous-improvement team can improve the business process to prevent future occurrences of the same issue. In a blame culture, these variances from expected results will continue to occur due to the inadequate process, and the people will continue to bury the issues whenever possible rather than exposing them so they can be fixed permanently.

There will never be a shortage of variations from expected results in today's business world, but you have to have the data systems and sensors in place to identify them when they occur so they can be exposed. You also have to have a culture that encourages people to elevate these issues when they arise rather than trying to hide them to protect themselves from blame. Treat variances from expected process results as valuable pearls of opportunity that allow the organization to improve instead of costly errors that "somebody" made. You have to ask yourself, "What do I want in my business? Do I want a culture of blame and cover up or one of problem identification and resolution using my continuous-improvement teams?"

The successful organizations that lead their industry both financially and in growing their revenue and market share take the latter path and constantly work to identify problems and encourage their organizations to use continuous-improvement tools and techniques to make their business processes more robust to prevent reoccurrences in the future. The choice is yours. I hope you choose to become a learning organization that constantly strives to identify the shortcomings in your business processes and then have your entire workforce engaged and motivated to continuously improve them, so your business is a standout success in your industry.

Ralph Keller is president of the AME Institute and former president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

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