Apr 20, 2007

History repeats itself, sometimes in a good way

Neither Graham Richard, current mayor of Ft. Wayne, IN, nor Joe Sensenbrenner, mayor of Madison, WI, from 1983-1989, knew of the other’s work to bring data-driven quality methods to city government. Yet there are a number of similar strategies they used.

First, they added the word “customer” to city employees’ vocabularies, as well as the concepts of internal and external customers.

Each promoted making change through gathering data about a problem and applying statistical problem solving. Sensenbrenner called it “Quality and Productivity” or QP, and Richard chose the current favorite label, six sigma.

Each offered training to any city employee who wanted to tackle problems in their part of the system, whether they were managers or front-line workers. Each emphasized teamwork in project-oriented improvements. Top-level managers were required to take some quality orientation training, even if reluctantly. Those folks who really took hold learned about leadership in Richard’s Leadership Roundtable and Sensenbrenner’s Leadership and Facilitator Training (LFT) program.

Each created ties to external partnership organizations. Richard was a founding member of the Northeast Indiana TQM Network some years before he entered office. Sensenbrenner built up the Madison-Area Quality Improvement Network, MAQIN.

Both Richard and Sensenbrenner reduced the number of aides allowed them to create a full-time position for a quality coordinator and leader, yet both made it a point to interact with the people throughout the ranks who were moving the quality improvements ahead.

The mayors both reached out to community resources to help foster and guide their efforts. ITT and Raytheon in Ft. Wayne, among other companies with six sigma expertise, shared knowledge with the city. Madison is a university town, not a manufacturing town, so it was University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty who came in, mostly gratis, to foster the development of statistical quality thinking.

Getting the word out repeatedly created visibility for the programs driving improvements that were paying off in better service to customers, as well as better use of tax revenues. The local press frequently published stories about what was going on. Then Richard wrote and published a book, “Performance is the Best Politics,” about what could happen when a public sector organization grasped quality methods, and Sensenbrenner’s article, “Quality Comes to City Hall,” appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

Unions became partners in both cities’ progress. Union leaders expect participation in policy in future administrations, and will negotiate with the aim of keeping members in the forefront of a continued drive to perfect services.

Each firmly grasped the reality that a mayor’s powers are limited and temporary. Thus, they deliberately planned for sustaining the gains after they would leave office.

Middle managers with experience in quality projects are the future leaders of government departments, and their joy in creating change would keep them motivated. If systems change enough, they will persist. Publicity created awareness of what was going on in city hall, and citizens would expect that excellence would continue, and would give them reason to ask future mayors about continued progress. External organizations, the TQM Network in Ft. Wayne and MAQIN in Madison, would keep local companies in a position to influence and aid city leaders. Joe Sensenbrenner still serves on civic boards, and makes it a point to stay in touch with the current mayor.

Finally, each began to organize broader knowledge-sharing in national-level organizations. Sensenbrenner helped develop the ASQ government division, still in existence today, even if its peak of activity may have passed. Richard is developing a High Performance Government network, drawing the involvement of government leaders in Indiana in preparation for a national drive for public sector improvement.

So is it good or bad that Richard was unaware of Sensenbrenner’s pathfinding, and Sensenbrenner didn’t know that Richard was transforming a city’s operations? It’s unfortunate that Richard didn’t know he had a potential mentor and source of new relationships just two states away. It’s unfortunate that Sensenbrenner didn’t reach out to foster Richard’s efforts. Or at least they didn’t know about each other before I started talking to them.

The good news is that the inherent wisdom of statistical quality and productivity improvement methods has persisted and spread long after people like Deming and Juran have gone. Newer teachers have come along to inspire leaders in business, academia and public agencies, who in turn teach those in their organizations how to love and drive change. Maybe there’s hope after all.

Apr 7, 2007

Extreme gemba

In her book, "Animals in Translation," Temple Grandin talks about her work as a designer of animal handling systems in feedlots and slaughterhouses. Temple Grandin, also the author of "Thinking in Pictures," is a woman with autism who uses her different way of thinking to unique advantage. She is highly sensitive to details in an environment and has learned that animals react in much the same way. Things that alarm animals are usually unnoticed by the average human.

Grandin believes that as long as we're going to raise animals for food, we have a responsibility to treat them humanely, and when they need to be moved with force, there's something wrong with the system. In the animal-handling business, she is called in when systems break down.

When she goes to the gemba, she follows the process from the point of view of the product - the animal. One of the common conditions that spook animals is sparkling reflections on puddles. Here's her description of one investigation:

"I got down on my hands and knees and went through the chute the same way the pigs did. The managers probably thought I looked crazy, but that's the only way you can do it. You have to get to the same level as the animals, and look at things from the same level of vision.

"Sure enough, as soon as I got down on all fours I could see that there were a lot of tiny, bright reflections glancing off the wet floor. Plant floors are always wet, because they're always being hosed down to keep them clean. Nobody could have seen those reflections even if they did know what to look for, because the humans' eyes weren't on the same level as the pigs'.

"Once we knew what the problem was I got back down on my hands and knees, and while I was pretending I was a pig the employees moved the big hanging lights overhead with a stick until each little reflection was gone. And that was that. Once the reflections were gone the pigs walked right up the chute."

Not only did Grandin walk the process, she crawled it. While you might not want to crawl through a machining center, observing as though you were the material being processed might be just the way you could solve a perplexing problem.

One more thing about Grandin's approach. She's demonstrated that when animals react with fear, that's not "just the way things are." They don't know they're about to die. They just don't like to encounter a lot of little unexpected things. Grandin had compiled checklists of these that are readily available to animal processors from her website.

In good systems, animals will flow smoothly from walking in at the start of the process to leaving in a refrigerated truck packaged as pork chops. Employees know they are treating the animals with respect and kindness, and suffer less stress themselves. In this industry, Dr. Deming's admonition to drive out fear has a double resonance: Eliminate defects and respect employees at the same time.

Apr 2, 2007

There's a two-way street in Fort Wayne

As I noted a few days ago, I’m learning what’s happening in the city of Fort Wayne, where Mayor Graham Richard is applying lean and six sigma concepts to government. He has a few words for both government officials and business leaders about what they should be doing.

Richard says the “convening authority” of the mayor is underestimated and undervalued. “If you’ve got a problem,” he says:

Call up five or six CEOs and ask, “Would you give me a person for a half day a week for the next six weeks, to help understand the nature of a problem and make suggestions for improving it?” If you clearly state what you need, show you understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and what is the end point -- I’ve never been refused.

Every politician knows you can’t raise any money for your campaign unless you ask. But then all of sudden they get into office, and they quit asking for help. Part of it is the fear that there will be bad stuff uncovered and it will all get in the papers. And I say to people, "Uncover it yourself first and announce it, ask for help, and you’ll look really good.”

At gatherings of business leaders, Richard asks a few tough questions:

"How many people in this room have ever asked a member of the local school administration, the county government or the city government to come and have a brown-bag lunch at your plant, your factory, or your business, and take a tour? Have you ever done that?”

And rarely do I get anyone whose hand goes up. You have so much to offer. Maybe one of the cheapest ways you can get your taxes at least stabilized instead of going up is to offer to help improve local government.

Just opening a dialogue – not even applying any tools – is the first step. Link the supplier -- the city -- with the customer -- the business that pays taxes and wants services.

Of course, readers of this blog are more likely to be the business customers of local government, not the public officials who need to start paying attention. So get the mayor, the police chief, the fire chief, the head of the department of public works, or all of them, over to your plant. You’re not going to instantly convert them to lean, but you’ll find something in common and begin laying the groundwork for a better community.
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm