If you’ve been following my blog regularly, you know that my Lean Applied to Business Processes course is actually the product of what I’ve learned over a long and successful career in aircraft maintenance—and, over time, figuring out that the principles that make manufacturing more efficient can work wonders in the business office. It usually entails taking a concept traditionally applied to manufacturing and adding a twist. You may find that hard to believe, but it works!
Here’s an example—a parallel between manufacturing and knowledge work that I realized only recently.
The pressure to produce in manufacturing or MRO sometimes creates unintended consequences—in the worst cases, a pressure to compromise critical attributes of a successful organization. Namely, safety and compliance. (I documented this pressure in an article for Aviation Maintenance Magazine in 2014.)
The solution is what I call Disciplines of Speed. No matter what organizational pressure or initiative comes down through the chain of command, you must always consider these five disciplines in order:
- Safety. This always comes first. No task is worth compromising the safety of passengers or coworkers.
- Compliance. Compliance is a prevention checklist for safety and against violations.
- Quality. Do the job right the first time.
- Productivity. Increase speed, but without compromising the first three steps.
- Economy. Try to save the organization money, but without compromising the first four steps.
This list worked like a charm for every situation I encountered in aircraft and component maintenance. Regardless of your position, wherever you have an opportunity to affect operations, you can use this discipline to make sure you’re doing things the right way.
The New Top Priority
When I began applying lean to business processes, I put this concept on the shelf for a while because safety was not an obvious concern for administrative processes. Recently, I took the time to reconsider, because it dawned on me what the parallel pressure is in the business office: the pressure to compromise integrity to meet deadlines. In your list of five disciplines, here’s your new number one:
- Integrity. No task is worth compromising your honesty or the trust placed in you.
As you’re experiencing the positive stress of continuous improvement in producing the outputs of the office—strategy, plans, metrics, oversight, reports, and feedback—the challenge is to execute with integrity. That means honesty, transparency, presence, balance, and respect for people. As the popular saying goes: do the right thing even when no one is watching.
- Be honest, starting with yourself. Have you articulated your purpose in order to know if you are true to it?
- Be transparent by sharing your thoughts and being open to others’ thoughts.
- Be present in the company of others, even on a telecon.
- Be balanced in your drive to meet your metrics by making sure you aren’t optimizing one part at the expense of the whole.
- Be respectful of all people—coworkers, subordinates, leadership, and customers—and be mindful of your impact on the environment.
Under stress to produce, leadership may spend more time engineering financial reports and metrics than engineering better products and services for the customer. I’ve seen it firsthand. When things get really bad (think WorldCom, Enron, and recently Wells Fargo), they may resort to misleading or fraudulent reporting, or cutting corners on safety and compliance, which gets regulatory agencies involved (SEC, OSHA, EPA, EEOC, FAA, etc.).
Cutting corners of any kind sets a bad example down the hierarchy, no matter how subtle the change. Some common examples:
- Changing your metrics from lead time (the time the customer waits, which is what you should be focused on) to the lesser cycle time (how long it takes to do the work).
- Not measuring any work in process (WIP) older than one year.
- Driving one metric at the expense of another metric and not being transparent about it —say, driving up production but hiding increased overtime or on-the-job injuries.
- Using statistical charts dishonestly to exaggerate or disguise.
- Failing to communicate expectations and delivering performance feedback only once a year, so that people can’t adjust in real time.
We might convince ourselves that these techniques are fair, but are they transparent? Are they respectful? Do they show integrity?
Moving on to the other four disciplines for the business office:
Once integrity is set as the number one priority in the business office, compliance is the legal form of doing the right thing. (I guess it’s possible to be legally compliant and still lack integrity, but I doubt you could stand still on that slippery slope for long.) It’s important to maintain compliance or your organization’s existence can be threatened by regulatory agencies.
Doing the job right the first time should be on everyone’s mind regardless of industry, but it seems to be a bigger issue in business processes as the costs of poor quality are not as immediate, physical, or obvious. For your business processes, what percent of the time do you receive inputs that are one hundred percent complete and accurate? Working with clients in many fields, my empirical evidence says . . . less than 10 percent. Often quality is compromised for speed of communication, causing rework whose cost is rarely objectively measured.
We all want processes to go faster and produce more. I believe in most organizations there is a backlog of required activity in business processes that represses creativity and innovation. For instance, the excessive effort of creating reports limits the time spent on analysis. Using process improvement to reduce effort can create space for reflection, creative thought, and inventiveness.
In business processes, in order for an organization to be more profitable or have more mission effectiveness, it is important that the overhead not grow in cost as output or revenue goes up. The overhead business processes can provide far more value (and savings) by supporting customer service or main operations than by cost cutting. Cost cutting for its own sake almost always leads to cutting corners—and, from the customer’s perspective, cutting value.
When there’s pressure to increase output in one process or drive a metric in a certain direction, I often see a tendency to be myopic about balancing metrics, which are just as important. The Disciplines of Speed are a reminder to not optimize one part of the process at the expense of others. Go faster, and produce more, yes—but with discipline.
By the way, if you’re interested in learning to apply Disciplines of Speed to your workplace, I offer this as a condensed one-day course that teaches you the fundamentals and helps you develop an action plan to right your ship. By placing integrity at the top of your priority list, you’ll have a rubric for decision-making that you can always trust when you feel pressure to go faster.