Category Archives: Systems; Processes

Management System Excellence–Highlights

It’s time to take a temporary break from the theoretical social-emotional development stuff and put the management system back hat on. I’ve been involved in several ISO9001 start-ups and re-toolings over the past twenty years, both internally and as a consultant. It’s been a hands-on chance to get a good feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Some of the following is Wisdom of the Ancients-things I’ve read or been told in my dealings with registrars and other assessors. Much of it is direct observations, summarized from my personal journal of this sometimes crazy management system journey.

One thing is certain: it’s tough to do everything right in a management system startup, but doing just a few things up front can dramatically increase the chances of achieving an end result that is effective and well-received by those the organization counts on to make it work. Several critical success factors and potential barriers are highlighted here.

“What Is” in a Nutshell

ISO9001 is an internationally recognized management model designed to guide a wide range of enterprises to more effectively execute their business plan. Organizations use the standard to demonstrate the ability to consistently provide products and services that meet customer and regulatory requirements. A steering committee of sorts assembles on a regular basis to review and improve the standard. Significant revisions are normally released every 6-8 years. My last ISO experience was with the 2008 revision, and 2015 saw the latest upgrade.

There are “shall” statements and “should” statements. A “shall” requirement means the company must show how they do it. There may be some “shalls” the company does not do because their processes do not require it or they simply did not consider doing it. For the first, exception clauses are included. For the second, if needed some additional elements may need to be added.

ISO is “non-prescriptive”—the company is not forced to do what they already do differently unless, while reviewing the standard, a better way of doing something is uncovered. ISO is a great benchmarking source as it holds the collective wisdom of numerous international experts. So while comparing current practices to the standard, process owner / experts may find a better way to do their work. This happens a lot, and it’s a great fringe benefit of ISO system design.

Certification does NOT mean the quality of an organization’s product or service is assured! It simply means there is a system in place that, IF consistently executed every day, ensures that requirements are met. Big difference!

Set Scope Wisely, and Strategically

The ideal is goals that are aligned with the rest of the company’s strategy, goals that people can easily connect to. Alignment is actually an ISO “shall” but too many design teams go to great lengths re-creating the wheel. You already have a vision, mission and strategies. Incorporate them into your quality policy and objectives, and the terminology you use.

_______ is a premier provider of _______. We have committed to the ___ standard to ensure we consistently, efficiently and effectively meet requirements in all departments and surpass internal as well as external customers’ expectations.

If certification is not a compulsory, externally-driven requirement, scope is yours to determine. Cover the bare bones—the “shall” statements only—and certification may be pretty painless, or use the disciplined best practices of ISO to develop a comprehensive business model. You’ll get out what you put in.

Sure, you can save money and “do” ISO without a registrar, without getting certified…IF the company has the discipline and the gumption to implement what is necessary then DO it every day, not just when it’s convenient. Hate to say it, but that kind of commitment is hard to find. A well-selected registrar is not just an external, impartial watchdog. The registrar can also be an invaluable business partner who ensures you get maximum return for your efforts.

Is it a “shall”? If so, how do YOU do it?

If it’s only a “should” would it help your business? If so, do it.

Say what you do, then do what you say you do, every day.

Then, prove it and continuously improve it.

Aim Low, Go Slow for Starters…

…but sight in on meaningful targets. It’s overwhelming to charge into documenting the whole enchilada at once, and it can be frustrating to set and (try to) stick to a comprehensive Master Plan / schedule. The right starting points establish enthusiasm, buy-in and momentum. People will see it makes sense, it removes gray areas from their work, and it even makes the work easier with fewer delays and mistakes. A little ROI never hurts either: see Dollars and Sense below.

Identify 3-4 work processes, not just “low hanging fruit” but areas where you’re experiencing an unusual amount of problems. When owners map their processes, then study and apply the standard’s relevant elements it never fails—improvements are sure to be identified, in both ease of task and quality of outputs. And people are learning how to do this ISO stuff too.

Shamelessly (But Honestly!) Sell the Benefits

Whether or not the cert is your primary driver, “we’re doing this to get certified” should never, EVER be publicly stated. Leadership must have a relevant, meaningful and believable pitch. Do-ers must believe that the management system is good for them, good for the business. Not cod liver oil good…tastes horrendous, but fixes what ails you…rather, they must believe that the management system will help their work get done better, smarter, faster, easier.

Identify some of your company’s specific issues or ongoing problems that the management system will address. Very clearly spell out the benefits of applying specific ISO elements to those issues. You will create “want in” rather than “thou shalt comply, or else.” Big difference.

A Little Dollars and Sense Never Hurts…

In an article for ASQ’s QP magazine, Oscar Combs summarizes results of a Harvard Business School study comparing 916 organizations that have adopted ISO 9001 and 17,849 non-adopters. As Combs explains, the “business benefits” enjoyed by the ISO 9001 organizations included higher rates of survival and growth, increased wages, enhanced productivity, reduced waste, and improved health and safety performance.

“ISO 9001 offers more than quality benefits. The standard should be thought of as a business management tool an organization can use to drive value, improve its operations and reduce its risks.” – Oscar Combs, Standard Wise

Communicate and Demonstrate

Share with people what is happening and why throughout design and implementation, and ongoing application including current status and future plans. They must see the management system in action. Look for success stories and loudly trumpet the before / after. And, hate to bring it up but that pesky “leadership by example” thing is essential.

Watch Your Foul Mouth!

Unfortunately, ISO terminology is peppered with confrontational words and negative connotations: compliance, audit, conformance to requirements, nonconformance, corrective action. No wonder the townsfolk board up their windows and hide the women and children in the cellar when the assessor posse rides into town.

Andre Agassi once said “Image is everything”. For ISO too, a good image sure helps, and part of it is nothing more than what you call things:

  • We aren’t “compliant to the ISO standard”. We have committed to a set of management best practices to improve our results.
  • We don’t “audit”. We assess our system’s effectiveness. IMPORTANT: assessments do NOT judge a person’s performance, only whether the system is working and being followed!
  • We don’t “conform to requirements.” We do what’s necessary to exceed customer expectations at all times.
  • Assessors don’t find “nonconformances.” They identify opportunities to improve the system.
  • We don’t take “corrective action.” We initiate improvements.

Broad Ownership, Broad Improvement

The management system is much bigger than “product quality” alone. Position ISO as a tool capable of managing all aspects of the business, ensuring that goals are met, desired results are achieved, and customers’ expectations are exceeded.

Get ISO out of the Quality Assurance closet where it is traditionally hidden, starting with appointing a non-QA person as management representative if at all possible. Enlist assessors (!) from all walks of life and don’t train them to just go out and catch nonconformances. Assessors become process experts with new eyes and are an extremely valuable resource to the areas they assess. Assessors are management system ambassadors, and each assessment is a PR event for the ISO-based system as well as a learning experience for both assessors and those being assessed. The “closing meeting” shares results with the assessed area. It’s an invaluable learning opportunity.

Engage the Troops

Engagement is that magical state where people put forth exemplary effort AND are getting the maximum level of satisfaction out of their role…they are busting their butts and are darned happy to do it. Their hands, hearts, and heads are all fully utilized. There is plenty of research and data that clearly shows the correlation of high engagement to double digit bottom line improvements.

It’s good business to design engaging elements into the management system. Success hinges on two basic motivational truths: the people doing the job know it best, and involvement builds commitment. Bring the troops in early and often in the design and ongoing maintenance and improvement of the system, and keep them in. Their ongoing commitment and full engagement is assured.

(see Engagement and Mojo—Peas and Carrots)

“What is the ONE Determinant of System Success?”

That was the “time to summarize” question from the registrar selection team for my biggest project. The “winning” response has proven to be an absolute truth, whether an external assessment team or an internal assessment: the first, most critical area to examine every time is the corrective and preventive action process, starting with how past assessments and findings are handled. Is the assessment schedule maintained? How well are corrective actions reported and closed with true root cause analysis then followed up on to ensure actions are sticking? Last, are preventive / continuous improvement actions formally and effectively pursued?

Simply: say what you do, and verify you are doing what you say you do every day. If you’re not, resolve the issue! If you are, IMPROVE! ISO9001 is really as common sense as that.


Why Stuff Fails

There’s a recurring theme on several of the various discussion boards I frequent. ISO, Baldrige, six sigma, lean, performance management…all can be valuable operational process enhancers. Still, too many well-intentioned and much-needed initiatives fail badly. They never get the traction needed to climb the long hill toward sustainability.

Then along comes someone hawking culture, values, engagement, mindfulness, well-being, spirituality. Sensible leaders’ eyes glaze over if they haven’t already. Why?

To think about for starters: when you chase two rabbits both will escape.

Experience Shapes Perspective
Most of my career has been in Operations either directly or in a close supporting role, wandering through the maze of JIT, SPC, LeanSigma, 5-S, 6-S, RCCA and a host of others I’ve mercifully forgotten. Last, I’ve designed various control systems and have been a lead assessor for the ISO9001 and Baldrige models. Detailed because it needs to be clear: I’m not all about the soft stuff only.

On the “people” side I am a practitioner of engagement, change theory, the spiritual side of well-being and other human dynamics practices. I’ve been in the trenches for two major culture change initiatives and several lesser skirmishes, and am a regular facilitator of strategy development, alignment and execution, performance / project management, and other processes that impact performance excellence.

This broad experience shaped my perspective. The people background drives my commitment to engagement and leadership, my process lineage compels me to deliver hard results. There is no conflict when you understand you’re chasing only One Rabbit!

Proposed: doing stuff and producing results is less important than how you act while you’re doing it because the how is crucial to long-term sustainability. People and the soft fuzzies they crave are a vital part of the equation and cannot be ignored.

Performance excellence applies to people and process. You cannot improve one without the other. People fix broken processes, no production process in the world is capable of fixing broken people. People are the one differentiator. Technology can be bought but people and culture cannot be replicated. So which takes precedence?

I’ve turned it over, around and upside down again and it still looks the same: people issues, culture, values—soft stuff—are the key enablers of sustainable success for any initiative and for the organization itself. Still, people issues draw the short straw after the obligatory lip service is out of the way. The mantra:
“xyz initiative requires a cultural transformation, winning peoples’ hearts and minds, commitment and visible, genuine support from top leaders”.

It’s not so bad hearing the chant over and over because it’s absolutely true. What is hard to fathom is why ignoring this truth is so common, so predictable. Put simply: you cannot achieve optimal bottom line results without focusing on “people” issues!

Let’s Demystify and Downgrade the Voodoo
I was addicted to science fiction growing up. Now I enjoy studying really ‘out there’ business and social theory. But personal enjoyment has little bearing on what must be done. My mission: take the right approach to integrating the right soft stuff into the mainstream of running a business, by focusing on maximizing performance excellence and producing hard results. It’s a covert operation, which means killing the spotlight shining on engagement and culture, downplaying their significance. Do the right things the right way by leveraging repeatedly validated enablers of engagement. That does not mean preaching the gospel of engagement. If you don’t even utter the “e” word, engagement will come of its own accord and the right culture will grow, if you enable it.

(Part two, Sustainability in Initiatives outlines a process of integrating rather than alienating)

Engagement is not the high-performance motor that will win the race. Engagement is simply an additive for the fuel that makes the vehicle go down the road faster and longer. Essential, yes: without the right additives the motor will gunk up, bog down and eventually seize up altogether. And you’ll get terrible mileage along the way.

It makes such sound business sense and it’s been validated so many times over the past twenty years that it should be impossible to ignore. But the engagement industry’s approach isn’t conducive to earning mainstream acceptance; we’re guilty of making engagement inaccessible. It shouldn’t be surprising that leaders are paralyzed—we’re sticking pins into their dolls.

Physician, Heal Thyself!
I can say this because I was one of the guilty ones hawking my brand of silver bullet, expecting clients to learn a new language, new tools, new techniques even if the client was already doing basically the same thing by a different name and process and achieving similar outcomes. Demanding that clients become something they’re not.

I was introducing noise into the system, and resistance should have been expected. That’s OK, while we’re at it let’s learn about change management….ka-CHING!

Integrate, don’t alienate! Unless things are really beyond repair, why re-create wheels? Simply check the pressure, re-balance, align, rotate. Don’t buy a whole new set of tires. Lean and six sigma tools and techniques can be seamlessly integrated into nearly any operation. ISO and Baldrige are both highly adaptable and they do not require full implementation. They can be a supplement to counter a specific vitamin deficiency, an exercise regimen to address a specific weakness or train for a specific event.

Still, we’re too often guilty of jumping straight to a heart transplant and we risk losing the patient on the table. Or they elect not to have that scariest of all surgeries and grab onto whatever quality of life they may have left without any intervention.

A Lesson to Learn From Spirituality. I read a beautiful article by a bonafide swami who insisted that yoga was the One True Path to spirituality. I’m not a scholar, but I am an avid student. I feel we collectively need a higher level of spirituality, in some form.

One discussion responder stated that yoga has been linked to demon worship. Not that he believed it, he was just making a valid observation. Perception is reality.

When spirituality or a derivative is linked to a formal practice and especially to religious doctrine, it’s bound to take potshots from purists of another belief system. Intolerance is our heritage dating back to the Inquisition and beyond. The really “out there” fringe cries “demon worship, heresy, eternal damnation!” Look at the current situation—at the fanatics who are terrifying disruptors of global peace and social well being.

I highly respect devoted practitioners of any religion, of any discipline like yoga until they try to drag me down the “my way or the highway” path. What level of “spirituality”? What form of “enlightenment”? What’s wrong with my beliefs? If you don’t like them can’t you just stick to yours? Whatever works for you is great by me, we can co-exist.

Numerous best practices can help individuals discover their own path to spirituality and enlightenment. It’s too individual to assign specifics and labels or prescribe a cookie cutter course of action. Best practices are not exclusive to one discipline or belief system.

The reason for this spirituality sidetrack: any initiative can suffer from the same issues. Think about it, and read the Spirituality section again with that perspective.

(It’s dangerous for me to take this position, because I’m leaving myself wide open to attack by a whole lot of fringe purists from several religions at once. But maybe we can talk about it before we blow each other up)

CI Boot Camp Beyond Tools and Techniques

(this is also featured at LinkedIn’s Pulse)

You’ve probably also noticed numerous discussions in the various communities that all ask the same basic question: why do our ______efforts fail? I took that to task in Earth to Big Thinkers a while ago, am targeting continuous improvement (CI) specifically here.

My formal CI training and practitioner experience goes back to the middle 90’s with SPC, early TQM and just-in-time, evolving more recently to leansigma, ISO and Baldrige management systems, performance excellence and engagement theory. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a good deal of hands-on systems design and implementation support via training, project team facilitation and follow-up.

To me there are essentials that are too often not considered, a layer underneath the mechanics, toolbox and techniques of continuous improvement: the human and organizational dynamics of CI. Please add your own to my short list of success factors that are too often forgotten:

  1. Deming’s public enemy number one was variation. Goal: consistency in process and outputs, but also in methods. In the spirit of standard work, the framework of a formal approach to continuous improvement is a necessity. People need to speak the same language;
  2. The most direct path to results starts at the ground level. Like anything, a strong foundation allows an enduring structure to be built. Informing and educating helps to achieve buy-in, making it much easier to involve the right people, give them the right tools, then facilitate their progress toward improving the way they do their work;
  3. Change management rules apply! The standard list of questions people have when faced with doing something new or different: what exactly is involved? Why do we have to change this? How does this affect me? Why should I care? What if I don’t want to do this differently? Have real and plausible answers ready ahead of time and make sure they are part of the foundational work;
  4. The same as 5-S, the first few steps are a cake walk compared standardizing and sustaining improvement. It’s human nature to backslide to the comfortable way of doing things when nobody is looking. People tend to hunker down in their foxholes, thinking “this too shall pass” if they keep their heads down. Controls and measures must be implemented and the improvements verified for effectiveness on an ongoing basis.
  5. Direct in-process communication, ongoing communication of project status and results and then follow-up from leadership with improvement teams provides encouragement along the way and reinforces the new way of doing things. Let people know “we’re really paying attention to what you’re doing, and we appreciate what you’ve done!”
  6. As noted in “Earth to Big Thinkers” simplicity must be the standard. An over-abundance of theories, tools and application methods makes it easy to over-complicate continuous improvement. It is what it is…CI experts are more highly valued the more formal certifications they possess, and their expert status is generally viewed more favorably by leaders the more technical and detail-intensive the reports and results are. But CI lives and dies at the non-expert level, in the hearts, heads and hands of the do-ers.

Earth to Big Thinkers….Come In Big Thinkers

Systems Thinking World is a discussion forum for both experienced systems thinkers and those wanting to learn their way around systems thinking. I’m somewhere in between, and one of my current Big Thoughts is that there must be more awareness of system dynamics incorporated into employee engagement. So I’m in hot pursuit of understanding both concurrently. Most importantly, I’m studying how to communicate both in a way that sinks in.

This question was posed to the systems thinker community…why is six sigma so widely accepted, when systems thinking is not?  A great many responses followed, deep and scholarly assessments of the state of systems thinking, level of understanding and, more importantly, level of acceptance with the general public. Big concepts, big words…vast amounts of tasty thought morsels were offered by the systems thinking community. But not much in the way of resolution.

Engagement suffers from the same problem as systems thinking—no mainstream acceptability —very probably due to the same root cause. I played with this same thought some time ago, in Much Ado About Nothing.

thinker-doerExperts, a challenge: step back a few paces and read your field’s literature and discussions through the eyes of a novice sneaking a peek at your stuff for the first time. Systems thinking, engagement, even basic continuous improvement—this applies to all these disciplines. Most regular folks’ eyes glaze over in a hurry and survival mode kicks in when they take that cautious peek. Every now and then an innocent entry-level question is met with a deluge of scholarly responses that go nowhere with substance. Result: the neophyte is pushed even further away and the safer survival instinct is reinforced: don’t fight and ask questions, simply flee.

Hypothesis: experts have made systems thinking and engagement too complex, too theoretical, too “expert” to be accessible to the mainstream. The various community experts, especially in engagement and systems thinking, have pretty much earned their reputation as unapproachable purveyors of dark, scary practices. Too much high-level thinking and theoretical musing to be attractive to most, not enough doing and results to sell the do-ers and decision-makers.

Does this exchange sound familiar?

What do you do?
I’m an engagement specialist (or…I’m a systems thinker)
OK….(quizzical look)…come on man, what do you really do to earn your paycheck?!

    SixSigma has numerous tools that can be used within the DMAIC framework, but most practitioners and projects stick with only a handful of heavy lifters. Some sixsigma training still insists on reviewing the entire toolbox gamut. Impressive to few, confusing to most;
    A Microsoft Project power user produces a mind-blowing Gantt chart that the project’s worker bees can’t make sense of. Who benefits, what is accomplished?
    SixSigma is based on statistical formulas. While it is essential to understand variation, and what “sigma” means, is it really necessary for all the players to understand how sigma is calculated?
    The purpose of engagement is to maximize performance, but too often the stated emphasis is more like “our goal is to raise employee engagement levels”. A fuzzy target rather than tangible action and real results;
    SixSigma focuses on specific problem characteristics and generates tangible, measurable results using a specific process with specific tools. However,
    Systems Thinkers and engagement experts cruise at 50,000 feet where the air is simply too rare for most. Should the experts expect others to do without oxygen, or should we make a greater attempt to cruise at a lower, safer altitude, fill the seats and still get to where we need to go?

In a continuous improvement project the goal is to make something better, period. As facilitator or project manager I must be aware of systemic dynamics as they are critical and someone must be mindful of them. And there is always an opportunity to preach the gospel of engagement, as engagement practices will help standardize and sustain the initiative.

But those add-ons divert the improvement team’s focus away from the basic target: improve. It is much better to simply involve the right people, give them the right basic tools, and facilitate the improvement journey. Along the way, throw in an occasional guiding nudge of systems thinking or engagement theory as the opportunity comes up. Don’t force the issue.

With this casual drive-by approach it isn’t even necessary to reference systems thinking or engagement by name. Doing so only begs for further explanation. The message will be plenty meaningful if presented in the right context—accomplishing the task at hand. It does not and should not be center stage.

The same message would not be so easily received if delivered in a full-blown presentation on systems thinking and engagement theory. However, if the team or organization ever gets to the point that systems thinking or engagement officially takes center stage, these casual hands-on project touches are invaluable examples: “hey, this is nothing new. Remember when we….?”

One discussion respondent suggested that system thinkers “….design (or borrow) a meeting or process to move this valuable discussion out of the casual discussion stage and into the “let’s get serious about discovering a solution that works” stage.” In other words, find a concrete way to further systems thinking. A reply to that: “…contributors have provided a snapshot of a dynamic through their experiences…a hypothesis needs fully testing. Do you have a hypothesis?”

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Much ado about nothing. Thinkers exploring concepts is critical as it furthers our understanding. But when we need broader acceptance, maybe a separate application-only discussion group is called for:

  1. Describe the situation;
  2. What is the best action and desired outcome of that action? And,
  3. Very briefly, what is the theory or concept the action is based upon? (just for context, to placate the deep thinkers).

Would it work? Could we stave off the urge to confound the issue by burying it in complexity?

Is this idea just another Big Thinker Thought in disguise? The whole point of this post is…all this wonderful thinking is pointless if it doesn’t lead to stickiness and action / results. So, what next?