You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

I have spent most of my adult life trying to help companies improve a part or all of their operation by overcoming the myriad of factors that limit performance. One would think that by now I would have adjusted to the idiosyncrasies of the decision-makers that one deals with daily. But some things continue to amaze me, no matter how many times they have occurred before.
The first is an almost universal sense of denial. Decision-makers often seem to be totally blind to the real world that surrounds them. They do not, and it seems cannot, see the deficiencies or inefficiencies that are all around them. Even when their data clearly shows shortcomings it is ignored or rationalized by the simple statement “But, you don’t understand, we’re different. We cannot be held to the same performance standard as our competitors.” Or we hear that equipment is old, labor rates are too high, and a thousand and one other reasons for their difference.
Some of these decision-makers will eventually agree that their operation could be more effective and efficient—after all there is always room for improvement. But trying to get agreement on how to go about improvement is another story. Again, the “but you don’t understand, we’re different” argument rears its ugly head. The logic goes something like this: “Yes, improving our planning would increase the productive time of maintenance crafts, but we can’t do that—our labor agreements won’t let us.” Or, “Yes, having our operators follow standard procedures would eliminate variability, but it won’t work here – our culture is much too ingrained. It can’t be changed.”
While I cannot deny that each and every company and plant is different, certain principles must apply to all. They must universally follow standard procedures for every aspect of their business from selling products or services through collecting payment for sales. All are bound by the laws of physics, regulatory compliance and other physical boundaries, but all else is controllable and can be changed. Variability throughout the corporate structure is the primary reason that too many companies cannot compete in today’s market. Yet many refuse to implement and enforce standard work, thus allowing almost infinite variation in the methods individual plant functions and employees use to perform their day-to-day jobs. As a result, they build business plans that defy the laws of physics.
As an example of the latter, we continue to see strategic business plans, e.g. five-year plans, in which the company’s growth is based on an increase in production volume that would require operating the plant’s capital equipment more than 24 hours per day or rates far beyond their capability. In other cases, all downtime is eliminated from the plan to achieve the desired throughput. It should be intuitively obvious that some downtime is necessary. How else will a minimum level of sustaining maintenance be performed?
With perseverance one can sometimes work through this phase of the transformation process, but the difficulty is not over quite yet. Once the decision-makers have finally and reluctantly accepted the fact that their operation is not perfect and that change can really be achieved in their world, the next step in logic takes over: “We can do this ourselves—we don’t need outside help.” They will argue “there’s nothing extraordinary about changing the way we do business. We’ll just schedule a managers’ meeting and write new procedures. That will fix everything.” Or, “We’ll send a team of front-line supervisors to a Lean workshop and they can then transform our plant to Lean.”

Many companies are blessed with a very intelligent, motivated workforce that will put forth almost any amount of effort to achieve a goal, but with few exceptions, they cannot transform their own company or plant.
There are many reasons for this statement, but the single most important factor is simply “They don’t know what they don’t know.” They do not have a first-hand vision of what the resultant of change looks like. At best, they may gain a second-hand vision from books or seminars, but that cannot replace first-hand experience in an effective organization. Moreover, changing the way the workforce, including the decision-makers, thinks and goes about their normal business, is not and will never be easy. Culture change is perhaps the most difficult of all business transactions. I will always remember the remarks of a steel company’s CEO when asked about a recently completed transformation. He explained, “It was like pulling an impacted wisdom tooth without Novocain, but I’d do it again in a minute. The difference in our performance and the quality of life in our plant has improved so much that any pain was more than justified.”
His statement following a five-year transformation process sums up the degree of difficulty rather well. Transformation is difficult, but any company can be competitive, improve its effectiveness and efficiency and implement change management methodologies that will work for any company. The one thing you must always remember to be successful is “You don’t know, what you don’t know.” Be receptive to and embrace new ideas and listen to the advice of your workforce, especially those who have made this journey before. Keep an open mind and accept outside help when it is needed. None of us can succeed alone, but together we can overcome all obstacles.

"You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know"

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,
R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

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