After spending 30 years in manufacturing and visiting no less than 500 companies, here are four common principles leading to business success. While one can argue that there’s more to being successful, these four principles offer a practical road map companies can implement over the coming months to satisfy customers and employees, as well as achieve important business goals.
As an on-going process to provide and reiterate clear direction, purpose, expectations, strategies, goals, current and target performance, and actions throughout the organization, effective alignment provides the ‘backbone’ to harness the power of people’s effort and creativity. Beyond simply creating and documenting a plan, alignment also demands policy deployment – the implementation of action plans, performance measures, accountability cycles, communication systems, and other alignment system components. Companies often create strategic plans. But the key to alignment is in the deployment, not the plan itself. Ask yourself, “Is every person in our organization pulling the same rope, the same direction, at the same time?” If not, practicing and perfecting alignment can provide tremendous results.
Many leaders focus only on results. In fact, how many times have you yourself said, “I don’t care how you get it done, just get it done?” This implies that process doesn’t matter. Great companies establish and execute patterns throughout all facets of the business. Regular, predictable patterns and routines are essential for establishing cadences and expectations, and serve to identify when abnormality occurs. Particularly for administrative activities, patterns create a rhythm and serve to ‘organize’ the work and related activities.
Many companies identify process steps that are necessary to complete the work (production or office). They may also have procedures and work instructions detailing how the work is done. But the notion of patterns also requires timing – when are the activities performed? Most understand the concept of month-end closing activities and the related timing is self-evident. But what about weekly, daily and even hourly activities?
Try this: Create a list of your activities over a 2 week period. You’ll likely find some level of repetition occurs. Whether making phone calls, sales calls, email, paperwork, meetings, invoicing, walking the shop or data entry; try establishing specific ‘time zones’ when the activity will be done. For example, Monday mornings, establish which activities will be done, likewise for Monday afternoons and so on. Exact times slots are not necessary when starting, and not every hour of every day should be scheduled with planned activities. Similar to alignment mentioned earlier, the power of patterns is in the execution, not the plan itself. Adherence and discipline are required. When the planned activity doesn’t occur when and as planned, successful companies see the incident as abnormal, seek to determine why and implement countermeasures. Instead of reacting and living in the daily cyclone of chaos, try establishing proactive patterns for everyone in the organization, including managers and supervisors.
Outputs of processes come in many forms. The easiest to understand is the actual product produced and delivered to a customer. But what about administrative processes? Sales orders, purchase orders, schedules, etc. are also products. Companies that persistently seek to reduce product delays from one operational step to another eventually improve flow. Ideally, a product should flow through its successive steps just like water through a pipe. This becomes the target condition everyone focuses on achieving. Increasing flow (the velocity of product moving through the system) ultimately improves cost, quality, delivery time, customer satisfaction and other key performance indicators resulting in increased sales and profits. But most look in the wrong place to achieve flow. They look at speeding up the operation step itself which does little to accelerate the overall flow of the product ‘unit’ through the system. The real key is looking at unit ‘dwell’ or wait time. How long does a unit of work spend stuck idle in-between operational steps? Imagine a bucket brigade with the water being the product. Are buckets accumulating everywhere around people’s feet? As buckets accumulate around each person from stacks of ‘work in process,’ product ‘traffic jams’ and delays occur tying up working capital and space, and separating the ‘moments of incurred expense’ from cash. The longer the product is in the system and the more it’s moved around, the greater is its ultimate cost. Start by understanding who the customers are and what they want, and the related activities, connections and flows that are necessary to provide them value. What is it you’re trading for dollars? What are the support systems – administrative, design, scheduling, etc. How are they performed and how long does it take (activity time versus total elapsed time)? Now, how do you eliminate, combine, rearrange, and simplify systems and activities with an emphasis on flowing products? By focusing on designing processes to allow products to flow, overall cycle times and management oversight is reduced. Quality, communication, and cash flow increase.And productivity, on-time delivery and customer satisfaction often soar without any capital expenditures. A horizontal view of delivering value to customers becomes the norm. In fact, superior companies purposefully realign the organizational structure to achieve horizontal performance and management instead of staying with traditional functional silos.
Creating a culture where employees regularly contribute to improving products and processes fuels employee satisfaction. Instead of ‘checking their brains at the time clock,’ engaged workers actively spend time working ‘on’ the business, not just working ‘in’ the business producing parts or paperwork, or populating computer screens. Few argue the merits of employee engagement, but the real question is how? When engagement is adopted as a core value, leadership must establish expectations, time, skills and abilities. Corporate statements and mandates with no further management support don’t work. The practical solution rests in what’s already been described above for patterns and flow. Establishing set times to eliminate, combine, rearrange, and simplify tasks and create flow creates the patterns. Also, look at the organization of physical objects, standardization of tasks, ways to improve safety, and product and revenue related enhancements and improvements. Establishing and executing management follow-up cycles reinforce patterns. When tied specifically to organizational level goals and objectives, it also fosters alignment and key results: improvements in revenue, cost, quality, delivery, productivity, safety and morale. It also reduces headaches and stress. “Working Under the Hood Together” serves as the glue that holds it all together. Engagement is a purposeful act driven and modeled by leadership, and when executed properly, you’ll be surprised just how much employees and managers alike will contribute to your business success.
Mark Sessumes is the Metroplex Regional Director for TMAC (www.TMACdfw.org), a Technical and Management Assistance & Consulting organization, and part of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (www.nist.gov/mep). TMAC works with companies to “Work Smart. Grow Smart.” by developing and improving their products, processes and people to accelerate profitable growth.
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