Don’t let the Zen garden fool you

I wish you a very happy 2012 as you make progress in your journey of operational excellence.

I am sure many of you must have traveled during the holiday week. On a recent trip I took to Orlando to attend the Annual Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) conference, a very common occurrence got me thinking. We all know how first-class and business-class members get the preferential treatment of boarding the flight before economy class passengers. In terms of customer service, that makes sense. They pay more and get to board earlier. 

What I find extremely ridiculous is that they get to walk on a small piece of carpet when they board the plane, while economy class passengers are diverted to a separate passage that bypasses the carpet. But only one entrance leads to the plane. As you can see in the picture, the airline managed to create a fake sense of “specialness” for first- and business-class passengers.

We see the same thing in hospital waiting rooms and other service operations. Excellent customer service would be no wait at all but service industries use the band-aid approach for the problem. They build Zen gardens and embellish the walls with beautiful artwork in waiting rooms to distract customers. Instead of improving the processes to reduce redundancies and waste, they focus on the perception of customers regarding wait times. If wait times increase beyond a certain time because of “unavoidable” circumstances, customers are given freebies in the form of free parking passes or gift certificates.

The key is to attack inefficiencies in the processes and give customers what they came for. If you went to a grocery store looking for your favorite box of cereal and had to spend a half-hour hunting, guess where you’d go next time? A competitor.

Customers can’t be fooled by superficial embellishments. Give them what they want. Improve the process, not the ambience. That’s true customer service.

Practicing what we preach

Even if many of the speakers who come before COE members have lean-transformation success stories to share, all of those tales have to start with some gory details about problems at their organizations. In the spirit of quid pro quo, I’d like to share one of ours and fill you in on what we’re doing to make it better. Think of it as the Fisher College version of US Weekly’s “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!”

Our Dec. 2 seminar featured fantastic and well-received presentations from Cardinal Health Inc. and Starbucks Corp. (don’t believe me? Check out these pics). If you logged in to watch either of these events via a live webcast, however, you got a front-row seat to some technical problems we had in the morning and afternoon. Live audience members in the afternoon were privy to an audio glitch at the start of the Starbucks presentation as well.

Fisher College COE cause mapping
COE joined with the audio and visual teams that helped with the Dec. 2 seminar to dissect some of its glitches.

In a world without lean thinking, we’d hoist the blame on the shoulders of the good folks at Fisher and the Blackwell Hotel who handle audio and video for us and be done with it. Easy? Sure. Fair? Not at all. So in the spirit of lean thinking, we spent a half-day this week creating cause maps with the audio and visual teams that revealed a number of issues that fueled the fire. And like the dutiful lean thinkers we are, we emerged with some proposed changes to our event planning and execution next year that should boost the quality of COE members’ experience and lower our blood pressure readings.

It’s disheartening and even scary to dig beneath the surface and expose the frayed wires in our process but they remain a problem waiting to happen until you do.

Discuss: How has operational excellence influenced the way you or your organization dissects problems after they occur?

Taking the pulse of your company

Having practiced as a physician, I can’t do my work on a chart or in a lab – I have to see my patients up close. With a thorough history and physical, I can examine signs of the illness and eventually reach a diagnostic conclusion. Simply taking a patient’s pulse gives me an idea of the condition of his or her heart. 

reading an EKG of your operation
Going to gemba is like reading an EKG of your operation

Going to gemba, the workplace, is like taking the pulse of an organization and how well it’s really doing. When you go to the shop floor, you know the conditions under which your staff is working – and seeing that can be a game-changer. Paul O’Neill, former CEO of aluminum maker Alcoa, went to the gemba and saw up close the unsafe conditions in which his staff was working, prompting a focus on his workers’ safety instead of profit margins. According to an article in Business Week, O’Neill took the company’s time lost because of employee injuries from one-third the national average to 1/20th.

If labor productivity is one of your concerns, leave the office and head to the shop floor or the clinic where your employees are working hard to do their best. You’ll see their challenges, their “firefighting” and you’ll start empathizing. Like Paul O’Neill, you’ll feel compelled to improve working conditions so your employees can focus on value-added work. Improvement in your financials will naturally follow.

Sleeping with the enemy

While hosting a colleague and her husband for dinner last weekend, somehow the conversation drifted to the topic of strange pets people keep. My colleague’s spouse shared the hands-down winner, a story of an acquaintance – we’ll call her Kelly – who was so attached to her pet python that she slept in bed with it. Everything was going well until she noticed the snake had stopped eating. Concerned, she took the python to the vet, who told her why: Kelly’s bedfellow was starving itself for the big prey – her!

Mrinalini Gadkari Ground Zero, NYC
Author Mrinalini Gadkari in Manhattan

We might not know it, but we’re cuddled next to hungry snakes every day: The defects in our systems and processes lurking beneath the reworks we perform and roundabouts we take. Toyota Motor Corp. has a way to find those: An “Andon” cord, which flags a problem, prompts a hunt for its root cause and potentially pauses production if it can’t be solved immediately. When Lean Enterprise Institute CEO John Shook came to our Master of Business Operational Excellence program in October, he mentioned that the cord is pulled about 15,000 times a day at Toyota’s factory in Kentucky. “Better safe than sorry” seems to be their motto.

We rarely look at the process as a whole, instead we fix one incident and move on. We do root-cause analyses and fix problems, but do we really track if those changes have succeeded? Most root-cause analyses become a part of files and folders opened only when a regulatory agency visits the organization. In the meantime, how many times do we allow errors and defects to pass on to the customer?

Reworks are like enemies in disguise. Keep them out of bed.

Understanding the Problem

Picture this:  You’re a leader in an organization, perusing financial and safety reports compiled by managers tasked to boost sales, cut costs, and grow safety and quality. In one report, you see exactly the opposite happening. So what do you do?

You call that manager, have him or her explain why this is happening and he or she insists: “There’s nothing to worry about. That has happened before, it was taken care of and this time it won’t be any different.” You hand out targets and a deadline and ask to stay updated. Case closed.

A great lean leader takes a different path early on in this process. The manager is called in, but the first priority is understanding every messy detail of the problem and making sure he or she does as well. Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a problem is “a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution.” The word “solution” isn’t last by accident.

While many of us are equipped to be “firefighters” and immediately jump to solutions, that’s tantamount to giving fever-suppressing paracetamol to a hospital patient. The symptom is resolved but the underlying cause is just waiting to come back.

First, we must recognize the type of problem at hand.

Author John Shook in his book Managing to Learn defines two types of problems:

Shook Problem Types
John Shook's Problem Types

It is important to understand that the presenting problem e.g. increase costs, a safety hazard, decreasing sales in some way relates to the way work is designed or being done.