Monday, February 22, 2010

Requirement One for Continuous Improvement Culture-Significant Emotional Event

The Significant Emotional Event (SEE or Epiphany) is what is required to start down the road to developing a continuous improvement culture. CI culture change is driven by the survival instinct.

So what is the SEE? It is the realization that creeps into the leadership of a company that if something doesn't change, things are gonna get alot worse around here. Maybe the SEE comes from competition taking away market share, or customers firing you, or significant drops in sales and revenue. If the SEE comes from those kinds of things, chances are, the ship is already lost or at least the battle to turn things around will be alot tougher.

The trick is to sensitize the organization to EARLY signs that help deliver the SEE, while there's still time to right the ship. So what are the early signs? First, before going into that one thing that must be said is that the organization must saturate the company with the Voice of the Customer (VOC). I've talked about one of my favorite books on this; The Customer Driven Company by Richard Whiteley. In The Customer Driven Company, Mr. Whiteley makes the point that quality is from the customers' viewpoint. This is a common idea to lean practitioners where value is defined by the customer, same idea. The bottom line is that the organization has to start by accepting what the customer says as the truth and understand that we are all in the business of satisfying customer needs, not producing goods. Once the customer version of the truth is endorsed, metrics dashboards need to be built and monitored that give those early warning signs of trouble. That's not enough, however. You have to act.

A recent example illustrates the point. The Voice of the Customer for Company A stated, among other things, that responsiveness on quality issues and effectiveness of the response were key factors for improving customer attitudes towards the company. Metrics were established for measuring time to key milestones for response on customer complaints. Performance against these metrics was poor. In many cases Company A did not meet any milestones for any complaints in a given month, dates slipped, excuses started flying.

What didn't happen next is what was important. When the monthly metrics reviews showed continued poor performance, and a continuous improvement project was suggested, no action was taken. Why? Who knows, pick your excuse. Too much firefighting, not sure if its really important or not, can't be fixed. We heard 'em all. The bottom line is, the excuses worked. Management was lulled into indecisiveness because they decided it was easier to dismiss the metric as unimportant than to act on trying to improve it.

If the Voice of the Customer was truly present in this situation, the metric would drive a decision to improve the process based on the poor measured performance and the understanding that it is an important characteristic of quality in the customer's eyes. The hard lessons of the Significant Emotional Event would send a message throughout the organization that says "Believe what the customer tells you, it's important to our survival."

To quote a recent political expediency, "Never let a good crisis go to waste, its an opportunity to do important things you would otherwise avoid". Quality Leaders should recognize the early signs of the crisis and push the message for all its worth.