Redefining Excellence – Beyond Firefighting

Redefining Excellence – Beyond Firefighting

Guest writer Sara Hanks highlights the importance of existing beyond the emergency situation in “Redefining Excellence – Beyond Firefighting.”

In today’s business environment, the spotlight often shines brightest on those who extinguish fires rather than those who prevent fires from igniting. This dynamic has increasingly highlighted the misalignment within companies regarding quality and continuous improvement principles. While saving the day deserves recognition, the diligence of preventing problems goes unrecognized. Over time the motivation to be proactive and focus on process improvement diminishes. This trend undermines the core values of continuous improvement and quality management, but also creates long-term risks to operational excellence and customer satisfaction. When competition is low, this is exponentially worse.

The recent events with United Airlines suggest that companies may have lost their way when it comes to quality and operational excellence. A quick Google Search, or CoPilot prompt can show that 3 incidents occurred recently, which I find rather alarming. If the aviation industry, which is notorious for high regulation, has visible mistakes, what is the culture like in other companies? 

Historical shifts in quality and operational excellence often arise from moments of intense challenge and competition. A classic example is the U.S. automotive industry’s response to the introduction of superior-quality Japanese vehicles in the latter half of the 20th century. American companies to adopted Lean Six Sigma and other continuous improvement methodologies that emphasized defect reduction, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. This begs the question: Are we waiting for another moment to realign our priorities towards prevention and quality, or are we already in the thick of challenge, driven by a post-covid rut.

Regardless, it’s imperative for organizations to adopt a culture of continuous improvement. Here are some recommendations for individuals and organizations looking to instigate meaningful change:

Establish a Rewards System for Prevention

Create a rewards system that equally acknowledges both the resolution of existing problems and the identification and prevention of potential issues before they arise. As part of regular operating rhythms and meetings, highlight success stories related to prevention, or good corrective actions that prevent recurrence. Share stories and case studies within the organization to provide examples for people to learn from, and more importantly give credit to those who implemented the projects.

Build Comprehensive Training Programs

Training programs should include basic overview training for all employees in the company, and in-depth measures that include application. Here are a couple suggested training topics:

  • Process Mapping and Waste Evaluation – develop training programs for employees at all levels on how to conduct process mapping exercises and evaluate processes for waste, inefficiencies, and opportunities for improvement.
  • Data Analysis and Problem-Solving Technologies – offer training on the latest data analysis tools and technologies that facilitate problem identification and resolution, including visualization tools and artificial intelligence.

Create a Mentoring Program for Projects

Create a mentoring program that pairs less experienced employees with seasoned veterans to foster a culture of learning, sharing, and continuous improvement. If the expertise is not available within your company, hire a consultant to develop key talent internally, then expand. Promote cross-functional teams to work on improvement projects, facilitating knowledge transfer and a broader understanding of the business processes.

Set Ambitious Continuous Improvement Goals

Tell me how you will measure me, and then I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way, don’t complain about illogical behavior. — Eli Goldratt

It’s amazing when people’s job performance is tied to a metric, actions are taken to meet the goal. Here are a few examples of continuous improvement goals:

  • Cost Reduction – evaluate non-value add cost, such as scrap, rework, redesign, or warranty.
  • Defect Reduction – focus on areas of process rework or physical defects.
  • Cycle Time Improvement – focus on reducing cycle times for key processes and product deliveries, enhancing responsiveness and customer satisfaction.

Leadership Commitment and Involvement

Conduct regular reviews of continuous improvement initiatives, adjusting based on results and feedback to ensure alignment with overall business objectives. Ensure that leadership actively participates in and supports continuous improvement efforts, setting the tone for the entire organization. Educate the leaders on asking questions that prompt investigation and plans to prevent recurrence, as opposed to demanding explanations or expecting action before root cause is understood.

By embracing these strategies, companies can shift their cultures towards valuing and rewarding the crucial work of preventing problems before they occur, thereby laying the foundation for sustained excellence and competitiveness.

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