Asking the Right Questions, Driving the Correct Behaviors

It’s a challenge to attain any type of significant improvement in business. I am certain that many of you, like me, have tried every method you know to drive improvements in your operation only to find that things pretty much stay the same, or even get worse. You ask yourself “Why can’t we get better?” Well, if you dig deep enough in the mountain of information at your disposal, you might come to the realization that the answer is looking at you in the mirror every morning. You may actually be driving bad behaviors in your organization by asking the wrong questions.

You may recall an old one-man show by comedian Bill Cosby (Bill Cosby, Himself), during which he takes us through a series of events in his home when he discovers two invisible kids who live in his house, “Not Me” and “I Dunno”.  These two imaginary kids were the responses he routinely got from his kids when he asked “Who did this?” or “Why did you do this?”  As funny as this skit was during his show, it was also a perfect example of the bad behaviors brought on by asking the wrong questions.

Routine Activities

We measure performance by routinely applying some type of metrics in our organizations. We cannot survive without measuring our performance against some goal or target. Deciding “what” to measure is generally straight-forward. There are a plethora of meaningful metrics that we can use in our daily operations.  

Maybe the first question to ask, after deciding what to measure, is “how do we refer to the desired state?” Is it a target or a goal? There are a couple of ways to look at this, but I see a “target” as something you must hit or attain as an absolute minimum to ensure survival, while a “goal” is something to aspire to or strive for as a measure of improving on previously achieved “targets”.

The second question is “what are we going to do with these metrics after we measure them?” We can use metrics as a hammer to drive improvement through fear and intimidation (this will usually be short-lived), or we can use these metrics as a tool to help us determine “how” things occur and develop logical plans to improve the conditions and behaviors that drive the metrics.

It is certainly possible to achieve “target” conditions by mandate – a “do this or else” approach. Achieving a goal requires an environment that allows for trial and error, improvement on marginal performance, and top-to-bottom organizational support to reach new levels of performance in our organization.  

Whatever you call them, and however you decide to measure them, metrics need to be highly visible to the people who are affected most by the success (or lack of success) of these metrics, the people on the floor. They are the ones who must do the right things and display the correct behaviors to improve those things over which they have direct control. Placing your metrics on the company intranet may be a good method of disseminating information among managers and sites, but it won’t cut it on the floor. In my experience, people on the floor rarely visit the company intranet unless directed by someone. Of course, as I mentioned above, management must also display the correct behaviors to set the example and create the environment of continuous improvement.

Additionally, what and how you capture metrics must be the real deal.  If you create an environment to work only toward the metric, your people will ensure that the target is met, even if it means the use of some creative mathematical calculations. However, if the goal is improving  the business through good analysis and smart decisions, people are more likely to take some ownership in the improvement effort, honestly report the true conditions and metrics, and fully participate in striving to improve.

At the management level, we must continue to ask the right questions to ensure continued success and improvement. Just as important as the “what” to ask is the “who” to ask for critical metrics in the organization. For example, maintenance cannot complete necessary preventive, predictive or corrective work unless production releases the asset for the work to be accomplished. It makes sense then, to make the production manager responsible for PM Compliance and maintenance Schedule Compliance metrics. The ability of an asset to operate to its full potential depends on completion of all required maintenance activities, completed on time and correctly. Therefore, the Maintenance Manager should be accountable for Production-related metrics such as OEE/Uptime, units produced/shift, quality, etc. As facility/plant manager, when you are asking why PM compliance or number of units produced are not at desired levels, make sure you are asking the right person about the cause and method of improvement needed to improve metrics.

When things go wrong

Eventually, more often for some operations than for others, something will go wrong. An event will occur that will cause asset breakdown, possible collateral damage, customer dissatisfaction, and perhaps personal injury in your facility. The method you use to begin analyzing the event will determine the detail to which you will get to the actual root of the problem.

You have probably already established some precedents in problem solving with your people, and hopefully you have not earned a reputation as a “headhunter” in a crisis situation. While it is important to use a systematic approach using established root cause analysis techniques, if you start your analysis of the situation with “Who did this?” or “Why did this happen?” you will create a defensive situation in which no one will tell you the whole truth. It’s just human nature to try and protect oneself from pain, punishment or ridicule whenever we are put in a defensive position.

A more productive approach would be to first simply ask “What happened?” and “Was anyone injured?” followed by “How did it happen, and could it have been prevented?” These types of questions will tend to put everyone at ease that you are simply trying to get to the cause of the issue, and not looking to discipline anyone.

When things go right

We go to work each day hoping that this will be THE day when everything goes our way-asset up time, production throughput, quality, customer satisfaction-all UP, UP, UP!  When this happens, we tend to enjoy the day awash in the euphoria of success, only to be crushed the next day when everything seems to go in the opposite direction.

Analysis of the good days is just as important, if not more, as analysis of the bad days.  At the management level, you have to be searching for that magic recipe that allows you to achieve the highest possible production EVERY DAY. How do we create an environment where top performance is the norm rather than the exception? I think one of the most important things management can do is to stay focused on those things that create good behaviors and actions by the people on the floor. Don’t get caught up in the “next great thing” and cause chaos the floor. We are all resistant to change, and the more change we introduce, the more chaos we will see on the floor. If you must initiate change, make sure it is well-communicated, and that everyone in the organization knows the who, what, where, why, when, and how the change will take place, as well as the relative priority of the changes you want to initiate.

When exceptionally good days occur, or when someone in your organization does something that is really stellar and provides a much needed boost in morale or improvement in safety, recognize it quickly and employ the same root cause analysis tools to these successes as you would if something goes wrong.  Using these analysis tools consistently in both good and bad situations sends the proactive message that we really are interested in identifying the root cause of failure or success so we can employ the correct measures to eliminate failures or repeat successes.

Ask “How did we achieve this success?”, “What did we do right?”, “What tools or training can we employ to allow us to repeat this success daily?”, and most importantly “What can I do to help YOU repeat this success?”

Be quick to publicly recognize and reward success, ask the right questions, employ the analysis tools at your disposal, and enlist the participation of everyone in your organization to repeat successes and make success the norm rather than the exception.

Do it right, first time, every time

W. Edwards Deming left us with many prolific quotes, learned the hard way through personal experience, I am sure. “If your system is not working, don’t blame the people, blame the system”, and “Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you are getting” are just a couple of the more profound suggestions he gave us to make our businesses more successful.

We humans have grown to be a very impatient and unforgiving society in the past 50 years or so. As the quest for wealth and immediate gratification has grown into an insatiable monster, so has our lack of long-term thinking in our view of the business world. When things don’t go our way we become more “who-mans” than humans, demanding that heads roll and any losses we may have experienced in the process be immediately reimbursed by the company or person we think is at fault.

Patience and good analysis of the metrics and issues will lead to more fruitful and long-lasting corrective measures in business than head-hunting and shooting the messengers. If you are fighting asset or people problems in your organization, good root cause analysis, fixing it right the first time, and clear communication of the vision will lead you to improved performance.

If you are fighting a downturn in customer demand, the ability to obtain raw materials, or some other outside influence on your business, develop an interim strategy and hold on. History tells us that the economy will turn around – we just have to wait on it and do what we can to survive in the interim. Developing a solid interim plan, getting our asset reliability as high as possible, communicating often and freely with our people, and asking the right questions will see us through.

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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