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 Stuck With A Sharper Stick

by Dave Garwood

Imagine a "lost tribe" of farmers challenged with the job of increasing productivity of their fields and the quality of their harvests. Right now, the tribe is turning the soil with sharp sticks and planting seeds one at a time.

After searching the surrounding tribes, our lost tribe found an expert on crop quality. After an intense session on problem-solving techniques, brainstorming, fishbone charts and what-have-you, the tribe was ready to attack their problems. By adroitly applying all the techniques they'd learned, they came up with a solution ... sharper sticks.

Let's say, though, that tomorrow a touring group of agriculturists from America show up, talking about tractors, crop rotation, beneficial insects -- the plow! The lost tribe is totally shaken. They didn't come up with any of that stuff. Instead, they were trapped in their old paradigm with a sharper stick.

They knew all the problem-solving techniques. They'd had tribal seminars on communication. They could ferret out root causes and had even drawn primitive SPC charts on tree bark, which proved their farming process was under control. But a tractor with a plow on it never came out of the brainstorming sessions. What if the touring band of agriculturists had arrived a couple of weeks sooner? What if the tribe had had a tractor and plow demonstration? What if they'd learned new ways to enrich the soil to keep from wearing it out?

The results of the brainstorming sessions would have been 100 percent different!

There are times when companies become trapped as the "lost tribe" of manufacturing. Factories without supervisors? Impossible! One hundred percent on time, all the time? Not a chance! Employees at all levels making decisions and solving problems on their own? About as likely as the sun rising in the west and setting in the east!

And we are left stuck in our old paradigm with sharper sticks.

The "lost tribe" story came from our associate, Dan Hull, after he'd spent some time studying companies actively pursuing quality improvement tools such as teambuilding and problem-solving techniques -- all absolutely necessary. But, he added, those techniques alone are not enough. It's unlikely, for example, that brainstorming sessions on delivery problems would yield a Sales and Operations Planning process. The focus would more likely be on "better expediting."

When we look at continuous improvement, we have to do so without our blinders. We've almost come full circle. A few years back, companies were gung-ho about putting the tools in place -- tools like MRP II and Just-ln-Time. They ran into a long list of obstacles, nonconformances -- quality problems. But the troops didn't have the basic problem-solving and communications skills to effectively attack the problems.

Now we see companies gung-ho on putting problem-solving techniques in place without providing the requisite tools for the job. We need both tools and techniques. But there's a third ingredient necessary to really carry us to World Class. That ingredient is imagination and the willingness to challenge the imagination of our co-workers.

When we talk about empowerment, what we should be emphasizing is giving our workers the techniques necessary to use the tools at hand to solve both orthodox and unorthodox problems -- then get out of their way while they do it!

For example, a secretary at one company used SPC charts to analyze the flow of interoffice memos and paperwork, with a resulting reduction in paperwork and a savings in dollars. She was able to grasp the problem, imagine a solution and reach out and find the right tool, however, unorthodox, to solve that problem.

A recent phone call from another company told a completely different story. They had successfully put in place an SPC program on one of their lines. It worked great. There were lots of charts and graphs. But there was still scrap, and nobody seemed concerned. The charts showed the process was out of control, and they had trouble figuring out what to do next. How to fix the problem. The general consensus was, "A little scrap is inevitable." So everyone stood in the corner, sharpening their sticks.

We can't mandate quality. We can't mandate empowerment. We can't mandate set-up time reduction. We can't mandate on-time delivery. If we could mandate those things, we'd have done them by fiat a long time before the Japanese showed up to push us helter-skelter toward World Class Performance. Our old processes, the old paradigms, aren't just "out-of-style." They can't deliver the speed and cost reductions we need to compete. Period.

What must we do to install processes that do work? The first step, as an executive, is to honestly audit your own processes:

1. Are you teaching your people problem-solving techniques in a vacuum, without simultaneously teaching them modern techniques to run the business better?

2. Do your people understand the tools well enough to use them?

3. Do you have a process in place to facilitate changes in old habits, mindsets, attitudes and the like, or is your process just lecture-driven, "learn-the-facts" education?

4. Are you constantly challenging old paradigms, seeking new "standard" practices that may have previously sounded impossible?

If you answered "no" to any of these questions, you may find yourself with a very sharp stick. And a very small portion of the global field to plow!

All Contents Copyright � 2002 R. D. Garwood, Inc. All Rights Reserved.