Monday, December 22, 2008

Defining the Problem

A few years ago, we had a mysterious scratching sound in our attic. My 5-year-old daughter was terrified, and everybody’s sleep was being interrupted on a nightly basis.

“We need to do something about the noise in our attic,” I told my daughter.

“No!” she cried. “Don’t go into the attic. It’s too scary.”

I talked to my daughter, and it was obvious that the vagueness and seeming enormity of the problem terrified her. She didn’t understand the problem, thus it was overwhelming. In my daughter’s mind, the sound in the attic could be bats, snakes, ghosts, vampires, or big hairy monsters. I took my daughter’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

“I’m a little scared, too,” I told her. “But if we can learn more about the problem, I bet we can solve it.”

My daughter seemed dubious, but she agreed to help me investigate the situation. We went into the attic with a flashlight, stabbing the beam of light into the dark and dusky corners. It didn’t take long for us to figure out the nature of our problem. We saw tiny eyes and furry little faces staring at us.

“They’re just squirrels,” my daughter giggled. “They snuck into the attic.”

“I guess the scratching doesn’t scare you anymore,” I said.

“No,” she said, “it’s not scary. We know what the problem is. It’s not scratching sounds; it’s squirrels.”

My daughter had made a profound discovery about problem-solving. She knew how to define a problem. Armed with that knowledge, she was prepared to help solve it.
We have to define exactly what the problem is. Big hairy problems are scary and unsolvable. We also have to move beyond the immediate symptoms of the problem and explore the deeper details. It’s OK to start with a big hairy problem, but we have to quickly sharpen our focus. Only then can we really understand what we’re facing and begin solving it.

The diagram in figure 1 illustrates the process of defining a problem. We start with the vague and symptomatic and move toward the specific and factual.

Specific details instead of symptoms

Symptoms (such as the scratching sound in the attic) are the raw materials of a problem statement, but they’re only the start. It’s usually necessary to do some preliminary investigation to determine exactly what the problem is. Just as my daughter and I went into the attic with the flashlight, you may need to examine your process, inspect products, talk to customers, and analyze data.

There’s a fine line between defining the problem and determining causes. In the attic example, one could argue that by stating the problem as “squirrels in the attic,” I actually began root cause analysis. Should we have backed up a step and stated the problem as “scratching sounds in the attic?” The issue is one of perspectives and how far we should push beyond symptoms. During problem definition, you generally want to get one step beyond the symptoms. Any more than one step and you’ve probably ventured into determining causes. One step beyond the symptoms, and we’re simply nailing down specifics; we’ll be much better prepared to take effective action when the time comes. The action we take with symptoms can be much different than the action we take with a well-defined problem. Consider the example in figure 2.

In both cases, we’re basically dealing with the same problem; we’re just choosing a different starting point. In the first example, we’re starting with the symptom as our problem statement, and this leads to drastically different solutions. In the second example, the problem statement goes beyond the symptom and gets specific.

Crafting a problem statement is one of the most important steps in problem-solving. If it’s done carelessly, the resulting problem-solving is doomed. Spend the time and the effort to nail down the problem statement in specific, factual terms. The process of developing a problem statement is an evolution in many respects, as illustrated in the diagram in figure 3.

Writing problem statements that move beyond symptoms is relatively easy. Simply define the facts along these angles, and you’ll have a workable problem statement:

• How was the problem first reported? This is the unfiltered problem statement, exactly as it came to you. In many cases it will be one or more symptoms, and it may not even be accurate. Problems reported by customers are often so brief as to be unusable, such as “no good” and “doesn’t work.”

• Who experiences the problem? Few problems are universal. Most only affect certain people, depending on a variety of factors. It’s important to know who experiences the problem. The people identified are usually the ones we need to interview to gain a deeper understanding of the facts related to the problem.

• What exactly is the problem? Here is where some preliminary investigation comes in handy. Find out what is happening beyond the raw symptoms. Take nothing for granted and attempt to independently verify all facts. If the problem was reported as “doesn’t work,” you will want to find out exactly what that means.

• When does the problem occur? If we can pinpoint when the problem is happening, we are much closer to understanding its causes. Interviews and data analysis are often key to determining the timing of problems.

• Where does the problem occur? Most problems are localized to a specific place or set of places. What those places are will often indicate the causes and dictate how the problem must be solved. Keep in mind that “where” can refer to a location within a facility or a location on a product (such as with a product defect).

• How often does the problem occur? Frequency of occurrence helps clarify the scope and magnitude of a problem. Armed with information about frequency, we have a much better idea of the resources that will be needed to attack the problem.

• Why does it matter? Problems never exist in a vacuum. For a problem to exist, a standard, requirement, or expectation must be violated. It’s very helpful to know what standard that is. Sometimes that standard itself turns out to be false and the problem simply goes away.

Eliminate bias

If we try hard to stick to the facts, we’ll likely have a problem statement that is free of bias and prejudices. We may believe the problem is that, “The idiots in the stockroom can’t manage their inventory,” but such a biased problem statement will not lead to any meaningful problem-solving. Check your problem statement by asking the following questions:

• Could anyone perceive something as a personal attack?
• Are any personalities specifically mentioned?
• Does anything sound biased or prejudicial?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the problem statement must be revised before proceeding. The best problem statements make no assumptions; they simply document the current state.

Keep suspected causes out of the problem statement

Smart people like to get ahead of the ballgame. After all, time and resources are in short supply, so it makes sense to combine steps and increase your mileage. This approach often backfires when it’s applied at the problem-definition stage. People are tempted to write the suspected root cause of the problem into the problem description. In other words, they jump ahead and short-circuit the entire problem-solving process. It’s all well intentioned, of course, but it needs to be avoided at all costs. Take a look at figure 4. Anytime you see these words in a problem statement, beware of assumptions being made.

Now is not the time for guessing at the cause of our problem. We will do that at a later stage. All we need now is to define the specifics of our problem as factually as possible.

Methods for defining the problem

There’s a certain amount of investigation that must occur to arrive at the problem statement. The challenge at this stage is to simply determine the facts. Find the facts and write them clearly. If you do a good job of defining the problem from all angles, the remaining steps of problem-solving are often easy. The methods we’ll discuss include:

• Observing the problem yourself
• Interviewing
• Analyzing data
• Photographing the problem

Observing the problem yourself

This is the single best way to understand a problem. Find out where the problem exists and go see it yourself. By seeing the problem first-hand, the facts of the situation are not filtered through someone else’s perceptions.
The act of observation can mean a couple of different things:

• Actually observe the problem occurring. An example is running a machine that always overheats. We can start the machine and watch as it becomes hot.
• Observe the effects of the problem . An example is examining the motor of the machine that overheated. It may be impossible to watch the machine overheat (as it may be completely broken), but we can certainly observe the results.

Depending on the nature of the problem, one of these conditions may be impossible to witness. That’s often the case with direct observation. In the case of a plane crash, for instance, the problem can only be observed once. If you weren’t lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to be on the scene, then you couldn’t have observed it. This is why interviewing becomes valuable. You may not be able to observe the problem, but there are people who did observe it, and they will probably be willing to talk to you.


Interviews build on the symptoms that have already been reported. The interviewer must guide the interviewee through all the questions necessary to move away from raw symptoms and factually describe the situation. One of the challenges of interviewing is soliciting specific details. People often speak in broad generalities, but this is no help in developing a problem statement. Anytime someone describes a problem in absolute terms, you need to drill deeper and arrive at specifics. Some of the words to watch out for include the following:
• “Always”
• “Everywhere”
• “Everybody”
• “Completely”

When faced with absolute terms such as these, gently challenge the thinking of the interviewee. If the interviewee says that the problem happens all the time, ask him if the problem happens at midnight. If the interviewee says that the problem happens everywhere, ask her if it happens in the front office. Narrow the focus to what the interviewee really knows to be true. Make sure that the interviewee understands that you’re interested in hearing about his or her personal experiences, not a restatement of what he or she heard from other people.

You may encounter people with strong opinions about the problem. In particular, you are likely to hear speculation about the potential causes of problems. It’s nice that people want to be helpful, but what are needed are facts about the problem, period. Thank people for their help and steer them back to the task at hand. You may want to make a list of people who seem to have deep insights about the problem; we may be able to use them later in the “determine causes” step of problem-solving.

Analyzing data

Data are recorded information, typically in the form of numbers or measurements. Paradoxically, some of the most closely held beliefs are the most flawed. The old quality control adage is useful to keep in mind as you define your problem: “In God we trust. All others must bring data.”

Data generally fall into two categories:
• Primary data. These are data that are collected for a specific purpose, such as problem-solving. These data didn’t exist until we began collecting them.
• Secondary data . These are data that already exist. They have been collected for some purpose unrelated to the problem that we’re facing, but we can still use them.

Whenever possible, you should make use of existing data (i.e., secondary data). It relieves you of the burden of collecting your own data and enables you to focus on the analysis, which will help shape your problem statement. Most organizations are not lacking in data; they just need to be located, organized, and analyzed.

Photographing the problem

A photograph can communicate complex information at a glance. It can also put you on the scene of the action, in cases where it would be very expensive or logistically impossible to see the problem yourself. Even if you are able to see a problem first-hand, a photograph can help you communicate it to others in a way that words can’t. The beauty of digital photos is that they can be shared instantly, considerably expanding the range of problem-solving.

When photographing a problem, keep the following points in mind:

• Get permission to take photographs. This is needed when you are on someone else’s property, such as that of a customer or supplier. Some organizations are very sensitive about the presence of cameras.

• Photograph from different angles and perspectives . Just as you want different viewpoints with your interviews, you want different viewpoints with your photographs. A photograph with an unusual perspective can often reveal a detail that gets missed by many astute inspectors.

• Indicate the scale. Depending on the context, it can be difficult to know the size of something in a photograph. This is especially true with close-up photography. If there could be any doubt about the size of something being photographed, include a reference item (such as a penny) or a scale (such as a ruler) within the photo frame.

• Use a tripod for close-up photography. Most cameras are prone to produce blurry close-ups unless they are held very still during exposure. An alternative can be using a flash, but this often causes reflections and overexposures with close-ups.

Use a variety of methods to define your problem. Mix and match them with the objective of writing a problem statement that truly defines the obstacle. The output of this step serves as the input of the next step, so do whatever is necessary to produce a good product. A poorly conceived problem statement results in an effective solution only by luck.

Friday, August 15, 2008

High Impact Auditing

Internal auditing, the process by which an organization examines its ability to meet internal and external requirements, can be one of the most effective tools for triggering continual improvement. It can also be an expensive waste of time and a source of endless frustration and conflict. Which it becomes for you depends on how your organization plans and manages its audit system.

Auditing is not only a balancing act--identifying positive and negative aspects of a company’s performance--but also a planned activity, with auditors and auditees agreeing on the audit’s time, place and scope. Surprise audits are neither necessary nor desired. Internal audits generally use an organization’s existing personnel for the task, although outsiders are occasionally called in.

Internal audits offer huge benefits, both to the organization’s top management and the auditors. Top managers can:
* Discover what’s really going on within the organization, which allows for more objective decision making
* Learn of potential problems before they explode into issues that pose significant risk to the organization
* Ascertain where failures occur, enabling the containment of these problems and initiation of corrective action
* Identify where resources should be directed
* Determine how effective their training efforts are
* Learn which processes and personnel are particularly effective, which can trigger recognition

For their part, internal auditors:
* Gain exposure to other parts of the organization, which broadens their experience
* Are exposed to best practices they can implement in their own departments
* Learn how they contribute to the organization’s success, which increases motivation and employee retention
* Expand the organization’s competency and knowledge base through their experience

An effective internal audit system must work in concert with other systems, especially corrective and preventive action. An internal audit takes a snapshot of the organization, identifying nonconformities, opportunities for improvement and positive practices. Auditors don’t propose specific actions, fixes, solutions or recommendations. They simply identify where failures and successes occur. By their nature, audits typically identify more failures than successes, and these failures are called audit nonconformities.

Requirements vs. opinions

To identify a nonconformity, a requirement is needed. You might have a concern, remark or opportunity, but it’s not a nonconformity unless it’s clearly tied to a requirement, a fact that’s often overlooked.

Any activity, process or outcome that doesn’t meet requirements is a nonconformity. A number of sources, such as ISO 9001, inspection checklists, purchase orders and product specifications, could introduce specific requirements the organization must implement. The auditor’s opinions, notions, philosophies and personal experiences, however, don’t constitute requirements. When people audit with an eye toward driving continual improvement, requirements are sometimes “invented,” albeit usually with good intentions. One of the best techniques for ensuring audit nonconformities are written correctly is insisting that they’re structured in two parts:

Requirement--Exactly what the organization has committed itself to do

Finding--Exactly what the organization has or hasn’t done that contradicts the requirement

Objective evidence

Objective evidence is a factual recounting of what was seen, heard or experienced during the audit. Gathering this evidence takes the most time and effort.
It is recorded in the “finding” portion of the requirement and describes exactly how the organization failed to fulfill the requirement.
Objective evidence meets a number of criteria. Among other things, it’s:
* Not subject to bias or prejudice. Auditors can’t allow their personal feelings to influence their interpretation of the evidence.
* Traceable. As many identifiers as possible should be recorded (e.g., date, time, function, department, machine, customer, order number and product code).
* Expressed as simply as possible. Sometimes auditors will provide a paragraph or more of detail, thinking that more data will provide more convincing evidence. However, the objective evidence is best streamlined and to the point.

Objective evidence is stated in such a way that the first half of the nonconformity directly contradicts the requirement. Enough detail is provided to facilitate traceability--but not so much that it overwhelms. Auditees expect concise and clearly written findings.

Consider the following correct audit write-up:

* Requirement: The general manager stated that all employees are expected to understand the facility’s key measures and how to contribute to them. (Note that the requirement comes from the general manager’s statements, which function as requirements when he’s talking about something under his control.)
* Finding: Three out of five employees sampled randomly in the shipping department didn’t understand the facility’s key measures or how to contribute to them. (Note that the finding’s language mirrors that of the requirement, stating exactly how the organization failed to meet its commitment. The sample size is defined, and the location is also identified. Employee names, however, are appropriately omitted.)

Now look at this incorrect write-up:
* Requirement: All employees should understand key measures. (Note that it isn’t clear whether this is an opinion or a requirement. Where did this “should” come from?)
* Finding: Employees were ignorant of the organization’s objectives and strategic direction, and they were obviously unprepared to assist in continual improvement. (Note that here, the finding’s tone is subjective and accusatory. Sample size and other identifiers are omitted, which provides insufficient traceability.)
It generally takes a number of audits before an inexperienced auditor can confidently draw conclusions from objective evidence and write nonconformities clearly and concisely. Practicing the audit process with an experienced auditor is time well spent.

The system, not the people

One of the best ways to understand the system and its effectiveness is through people: how they receive and interpret information, carry out instructions, produce goods and deliver services according to requirements, and satisfy customers. Nevertheless, an audit must always focus on the system itself.

Some auditees might suspect that an audit constitutes a personal attack on their jobs, and auditors must be prepared for that reaction. They should calmly explain that the audit process is all about the system, put the auditees at ease and depersonalize the process as much as possible. If people are uneasy about the audit process, they won’t provide objective evidence, and the audit, in turn, won’t trigger continual improvement.

Does this mean people never screw up? Of course not. But when failures are identified during an audit, they’re system failures. Very few nonconformities occur due to willful employee misconduct. If someone makes a mistake or fails to carry out a job step, it’s usually because the system is flawed and error-prone. Fix the system, and people will have less opportunity to screw up.

Auditing strategic processes

Not all organizational processes have the same strategic significance. An internal audit system that’s oriented toward continual improvement will focus on strategic issues. Most management system standards such as ISO 9001 require that organizations schedule audits based on status, importance and prior audit results. This means organizational processes with more strategic importance will be audited more often.
The following audit questions reflect on processes that typically have high strategic importance:
* Customer satisfaction. What methods does the organization use to capture customer perceptions? How are data on customer perceptions reported and analyzed? Has overall customer satisfaction improved?
* Corrective and preventive action. Is there proof that root causes or potential root causes are being identified? Are actions taken to eliminate root causes or potential root causes? Are data on corrective and preventive actions reported and analyzed?
* Leadership. Has the organization determined its mission and strategy? Are organizational performance and direction communicated throughout the organization? Has top management led the review and action on key measures and other important information that indicates organizational success?
* Internal auditing. Do auditing schedules clearly reflect the strategic importance of processes and the results of previous audits? Does the organization’s management take corrective action on nonconformities raised by audits? Are the corrective actions effective, based on the evidence?
* Design and development. Are design inputs and outputs recorded and approved? Is progress against the design plan periodically reviewed? Is the design process’s output validated under conditions of application or use?
* Transformation. How is work planned and scheduled? What information guides work performance in general? How do employees receive feedback on their work? Do employees understand how their efforts affect key measures?
These audit questions are examples and might not be applicable to all organizations. Other processes could have strategic significance, depending on the organization’s nature and competitive environment.

Training auditors

Many audits produce poor results because auditors haven’t received proper instruction or been given opportunities to practice what they’ve learned. The organization must invest the necessary time and effort in making its auditors competent and confident before they’re assigned an audit.

Auditors must be familiar with:
* Practical interpretations of the standard adopted by the organization
* The audit’s purpose and how it drives continual improvement (i.e., by providing a balanced picture of the organization and triggering corrective and/or preventive actions)
* Phases of the audit and various activities within each phase
* Sources of audit requirements (e.g., the standard, procedures or sales orders)
* Methods of gathering objective evidence and drawing valid conclusions
* Diplomacy skills and effective interpersonal communication
* Audit role-playing under controlled conditions
* Writing nonconformities in the prescribed format
* Actual auditing with an experienced auditor

Auditor training doesn’t necessarily need to be formal or even classroom-based. The style and format of training will differ significantly from one organization to the next. However, auditors must have a conceptual understanding of the process and a practical grasp of techniques, both backed up by sufficient practice. When auditors truly understand their roles and responsibilities, the process should result in strategic continual improvement.

A successful audit almost always results when an individual takes personal ownership of the process. He or she must be able to carry out the following five complex and linked activities, which create strategic continual improvement.

Audit scheduling

An audit schedule defines the auditing that will take place during an extended period of time, usually six months or a year. The purpose of the schedule is to communicate when and where the audit team’s services will be needed, when the organization can expect to be audited, and what requirements will be included in the audit.

Audits scheduled far in advance always produce better results. Note, too, that the processes considered more strategically important to the organization are scheduled for audits more often. Processes and functions that have performed poorly in previous audits are also scheduled for frequent audits. Regardless of other considerations, all processes, functions and departments within the scope of the management system must be audited at least once a year.

The schedule can be keyed to organizational processes, departments, functions, facilities, an ISO standard element or something else. However, it must clearly communicate which audits are coming up and when. Audit schedules should provide enough detail to guide the overall process and help with the next step, audit planning.

Audit planning

An audit plan is focused, detailing a single audit’s scope, objectives and agenda. The plan provides a chronology of the audit from start to finish: which processes will be audited, exactly when they’ll be audited, who will do it and which requirements will be audited in each segment. Even details such as meetings, breaks and lunches are shown on the plan in order to clear up any timing conflicts between auditees and auditors and keep the audit on track.

Typically, the audit plan is distributed several days prior to the audit. Auditees often request alterations to the plan based on logical concerns and existing commitments. By all means, modify the plan to accommodate them. The one variable that usually never changes, however, is the audit’s scope.

Audit supervision

The audit’s on-site phase consists primarily of gathering evidence. The lead auditor takes part in this and also manages the overall process. These duties typically include:
* Leading the opening meeting
* Managing and communicating changes to the audit plan
* Ensuring that the audit stays on track
* Insisting that auditors remain objective, consistently evaluating all evidence
* Encouraging auditors to write up their findings during the audit to avoid a time crunch directly before the closing meeting
* Reviewing all nonconformities to ensure that they’re logical, valid and clear
* Providing performance feedback to audit team members so individuals can target areas for their personal improvement
* Resolving all conflicts constructively
* Apprising the auditee of the audit’s progress
* Leading the closing meeting
* Ensuring that the entire audit is conducted professionally and positively

If these duties sound difficult, it’s because they are. Many organizations have ineffective audit processes because the so-called lead auditor doesn’t understand his or her responsibilities. An accredited lead auditor course is a very good investment for individuals who function as lead auditors for their organizations.

Audit reporting

The first formal reporting that takes place during an audit is the closing meeting. The lead auditor presents a verbal summary of the audit, including positives and negatives. Depending on the audit’s size and duration, the closing meeting might last from 15 minutes to more than an hour. The meeting allows for back-and-forth dialogue between auditors and auditees. During the closing meeting, auditee management is presented with the written audit observations and/or corrective action requests, and these form the basis for discussion of the audit results.

Subsequent to the closing meeting (and occasionally during the closing meeting), an audit report is presented to the auditee management. This summarizes the audit’s overall themes and trends. Usually it’s written by the lead auditor, based on evidence gathered by the entire audit team. The report doesn’t belabor every audit observation because these should have already been addressed during the closing meeting. Audit reports should be as concise and streamlined as possible. Graphics such as matrices and Pareto diagrams are helpful.

Verification and closure

The auditee management is usually asked to respond to audit nonconformities by an agreed date. The response should include investigation into the root cause, proposed corrective action and a date when the action should be completed.

The lead auditor reviews the responses to determine whether the investigation and proposed corrective actions are adequate. This is the first stage of verification.
One of the most important jobs the lead auditor and auditing team can perform is a careful scrutiny of auditee responses. Accepting weak investigations and/or corrective actions does nobody any favors and certainly doesn’t trigger continual improvement. If a response doesn’t identify a plausible root cause or propose a corrective action related to it, the lead auditor must diplomatically reject the response and explain to the auditee why it’s adequate. The auditee is the audit process’s customer and should be treated with the same respect that any other customer would receive.

The second stage of verification occurs when the auditee notifies the lead auditor that corrective action has been implemented. At this stage, the lead auditor or a team member will verify that the corrective action has been fully implemented and the root cause of the original nonconformity has been eliminated.
Verification is sometimes performed by reviewing records or documents submitted by the auditee; alternatively, an on-site visit is made to review evidence in person. The nonconformity’s nature and significance will determine whether on-site verification is necessary.

Once all audit nonconformities have been addressed with effective corrective action, the audit is considered closed. However, this doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. A high-level discussion of audit results is an important input to the business review process, and audit trends influence resource allocation and strategic decision making.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Improving the Quality of Leadership

Leadership is the genesis of everything that takes place within an organization. From idea to launch, growth to maturity, decline to demise, leadership affects everything that takes place within an organization. Nothing is more important to success, and yet many organizations suffer from poor leadership because nobody understands what it is and how to practice it.

How do we define leadership? It’s the process of influencing personnel, strategy, decisions and activities to fulfill an organization’s mission. To some, this definition implies that people in most organizations won’t have the opportunity to lead, but that’s a narrow interpretation. Everybody has an opportunity to influence business excellence at some level. The more people who practice leadership, the stronger an organization will become.

Leadership is composed of four basic elements:
* Clarity--possessing a clear vision for the future
* Communication--passing along that vision in an understandable way
* Credibility--being worthy of trust
* Character--demonstrating the inner qualities that facilitate true leadership

Let’s examine each of these components, see what they really mean on a practical level and figure out how to put them into practice.


The world offers countless variables and uncertainties. A leader can sort through these complications and point out a clear path to a company’s goals. As a result, people become less anxious about the future and more confident about where the organization is heading. Leaders can’t necessarily reduce uncertainty, but they can help others understand its aspects, which in turn will strengthen the organization to meet future challenges.

A leader’s clarity can reveal the following to an organization:
* Unique ways of securing resources
* Opportunities for success
* Threats and associated risks
* Insight into competitors’ actions
* Internal strengths and the best ways to leverage them
* Constructive evaluation of internal weaknesses
* Helpful alliances
* How events affect employees
* Objective analysis of internal performance

Clarity is an analytical process. Leaders who possess clarity can see relationships and solutions where others see only confusion. Granted, leaders often receive expert advice on various topics, but ultimately they’re the people who draw diverse information into a coherent whole. A leader’s clarity successfully drives the organization’s strategy.

The analytical strength required for clarity can be developed in much the same way that athletes perfect a skill. The requirements are the same for both: practice, hard work and discipline. Like athletes, leaders’ training programs never end. As long as they’re focused on providing clarity to their organizations, leaders must continually sharpen their analytical skills.

As a leader, how can you do this? Here are some practical steps:
* Avoid passive activities such as sitting in front of the television. Passive activities slow down brain activity and encourage analytical laziness.
* Read a wide range of material and avoid falling into ideological ruts. Leaders seek out books that don’t necessarily mirror their own thinking.
* Question pronouncements of fact, especially when they’re asserted by authority figures. Leaders verify facts for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Skepticism and curiosity are useful tools.
* Strive for a constant state of learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking formal classes, but make a point of cultivating new ideas and deepening your knowledge of old ones. This keeps your mind limber and strong.
* Stay physically fit. Fitness reduces stress and improves clarity. Mental fitness and physical fitness are closely related for most living creatures.
* Become an active listener. Simply listening to what people say can provide a great deal of clarity in itself. People who want to impress others talk often; leaders talk less and listen more.
* Pursue creative outlets of expression. Whether you enjoy oil painting or hedge trimming, be creative in your recreational activities. Such creativity will enhance your clarity during normal working hours.
* Embrace unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. Learn to conquer your fear of the unknown. Leaders are masters of dissecting the unknown and making sense of it--and they don’t scare easily.

Get into the habit of analyzing facts from a unique perspective, drawing conclusions and making decisions. Don’t allow fear about the risks and challenges facing your organization to paralyze you. If a decision you make leads the company in the wrong direction, reverse course. “It’s common sense to take a method and try it,” observed President Franklin Roosevelt. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” These are wise words for all prospective leaders. As long as you can learn from your mistakes, they have value.


The best leaders are often known as great communicators. Communication is the vehicle by which a leader’s clarity is shared with the rest of the organization.
A leader communicates most effectively in person. Others are less likely to doubt their leader’s beliefs and commitments when he or she has the courage to voice them. Written policies, declarations, memos and e-mails can be effective but are best used as backups to a leader’s spoken words.

As with other aspects of leadership, communication skills can be learned. A number of distinct attributes characterize effective communication:
* It’s smooth, but spontaneous. A rehearsed speech often comes across as stiff and bureaucratic. Does this mean public addresses shouldn’t be rehearsed? No. In fact, leaders should continually practice and sharpen their communication skills, emphasizing a natural, free-flowing style.
* It’s appealing to each person. Leaders recognize that an organization consists of individuals. Everyone hearing the communication will inevitably analyze it in terms of how it relates to him or her personally. Thus, a leader helps each person understand why a course of action or decision is important.
* It’s convincing. Leaders must really believe in what they say and provide specific examples. The message then becomes personal, delivered directly from the heart. Everyone listening to the leader will understand why the message is relevant.
* It’s free of errors. Nobody’s perfect, but leaders in particular must get their facts straight before they speak. The communication should be grammatically correct, coherent and factual. A wise leader enlists the help of competent proofreaders and fact-checkers before communicating.
* It’s concise. A smart leader keeps his message streamlined. It’s worth noting that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, considered one of the most significant speeches in U.S. history, is fewer than 300 words long. Now that’s concise.

Some people never develop clarity, but communication skills can be mastered with practice. Study communicators whom you particularly admire. Note the attributes that make them great speakers. Which of their traits can you cultivate in your own communications? Overcome your resistance and take every opportunity to practice in front of groups.


Like beauty, credibility is in the eye of the beholder. One person might find a leader credible, while a different person won’t. Although neither determination is necessarily correct, both are legitimate because they’re perceived as such. Perceptions are facts--at least to the perceiver.

Leaders must acknowledge credibility’s capricious nature. Because no one is capable of universal approval, wise leaders will aim for a credible middle ground by appealing to a wide audience. Results and behavior both influence credibility.
Nothing builds credibility like positive results. Leaders who can demonstrate success inspire confidence and trust in others. Positive results particularly impress when they relate to an endeavor the organization is currently pursuing, but a leader can garner credibility from an almost limitless list: new products, gained market share, games won, goals scored, donations received, legislation passed, etc. In fact, successful leaders often move from one field to another--for example, a trusted business leader who wins an elected office. Even without political experience, business success lends credibility to the new endeavor.

Past results might get a leader in the door, but the ability to consistently achieve results sustains credibility. Leaders must take actions that produce positive results, and they must let everyone know about them. These announcements should be low-key, factual and generous in acknowledging others’ roles. The point is not to brag about achievements but to maintain credibility and prepare for continual positive results.

Leaders’ behavior is constantly scrutinized. Every action is analyzed for flaws and errors that cast doubt on their credibility. Although this isn’t particularly fair, it’s a fact leaders must understand and manage. They’re held to a higher standard than everybody else.

People have vastly different standards for what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Behavior that can damage credibility includes the following:
* Illegal activity. Sometimes even an unsubstantiated charge is enough to damage credibility.
* Sexual indiscretion. This includes extramarital sex, aggressive flirting, suggestive remarks and blatant interest in pornography.
* Recreational drug use
* Excessive alcohol consumption. Depending on the environment, even moderate consumption can harm credibility.
* Offensive or insensitive language. This includes dirty jokes, profanity, derogatory statements, insults and racist remarks.
* Self-serving decisions and actions
* Lying and spreading misinformation
* Inconsistent or unfair treatment of subordinates
* Indecisiveness
* Irreverent or sacrilegious actions
* Tattoos, body piercing or unusual hairstyles
* Frequent emotional outbursts
* Unorthodox hobbies
* Unusual viewpoints
* Flamboyant dress

Obviously, not all of these are equal in import. Some are legal issues, others moral or ethical, and some simply matters of personal choice in a free society. However, they can compromise credibility, depending upon the observer. Leaders must decide whether their behavior will harm their credibility. Some of the items listed are private issues, but keep in mind that they, too, can affect credibility. And credibility affects that most elusive of leadership qualities: character.


Character consists of those inner qualities that guide and motivate us. Strong character enables leaders to choose the right fights, make the right decisions and reach their goals. While credibility focuses outward on other people’s perceptions, character concerns internal qualities that only the leader and his or her closest confidants can really perceive.

Like other elements of leadership, character can be studied and improved. It’s the most difficult element to change, though, because much of it is hardwired into a person’s psyche. Many leaders act upon character qualities without realizing it. Character resides in the mind and heart, operating on both conscious and subconscious levels.

Character revolves around three basic components: leading for the right reasons, acceptance of responsibility and humility. Let’s look at each of these and explore how someone might use them to develop their own leadership abilities.
People have a wide range of reasons for wanting to lead, and not all them are good. The best leaders want to lead because they believe they can raise their companies to new levels of success and in doing so, benefit everyone in the organization.

Exceptional leadership focuses outward and concerns what the leader can do for the organization. Of course, leaders are often well-compensated for their efforts, but the compensation isn’t why they wish to lead. They’re dedicated to excellence and improving the lives of those around them. Does this sound contrary to the way many leaders behave? Unfortunately, it is.

Consider some of the right reasons for leading. These include:
* Carrying out a positive vision for the organization
* Reducing organizational risk
* Ensuring long-term survival
* Making improvements
* Outperforming competitors
* Removing obstacles
* Enhancing clarity and creativity
* Helping the organization’s mission evolve as the company grows
* Holding oneself to unimpeachable standards
* Challenging oneself to be the best
* Providing a positive future for one’s family
* Being a role model

Some of the wrong reasons to lead include:
* Stroking one’s ego
* Impressing people
* Getting rich
* Settling scores and acting on grudges
* Fulfilling a sense of entitlement
* Elevating one’s social status
* Enjoying special perks and privileges
* Benefiting a subset within the organization
* Helping friends at the organization’s expense
* Imposing extreme ideologies contrary to the organization’s mission
* Attracting members of the opposite sex

Only the leader truly knows the reasons for his or her desire to lead. Others can speculate, but all leaders must look within and honestly appraise their motivations. If they fall into the “wrong reasons” column, leaders must seriously evaluate their fitness to lead. When these negative motivations manifest themselves in a leader’s behavior, credibility is damaged.


No greater responsibility exists than leading others. Many people rely on leaders and their ability to assess situations fairly and accurately. Successful leaders understand and accept this responsibility. It might sometimes require them to make decisions that don’t necessarily benefit themselves but that will benefit the organization. True leaders are no strangers to self-sacrifice.

An eye-opening exercise for leaders is to list all the people who depend on them: employees and their families, suppliers, customers, stakeholders and others. Any leader who isn’t humbled by this exercise hasn’t fully grasped the depth of the responsibility involved.

Leaders are responsible not only for the people they lead but also for their own actions. Many leaders ignore this responsibility, however, and become detached from the ethics of their own actions. In their minds, they’re bigger than life. Their actions become less important than pursuing their objectives. Failing to act ethically eventually derails them. For this reason, humility is another attribute that leaders must cultivate.


Leaders are not perfect. Even the best have flaws like everybody else. This is a fact, though you wouldn’t know it from the way many leaders act. They’re showered with money, perks, privileges and praise, and they begin to think they must indeed be perfect to merit all those rewards. This means trouble.

All leaders must have a healthy confidence in their abilities, balanced by a sober understanding of their own failings. A leader’s strengths won’t shine every day of the week. Leaders are only humans, not deities; they’re stuck down here with the rest of us.

Leaders who lack humility will exhibit a number of dangerous traits, such as:
* Denying facts that run counter to their policies
* Reluctance to take advice
* Selective data interpretation
* Exhibiting anger toward views that challenge their own
* Unwillingness to change course, even when evidence suggests the need to do so
* Cultivating sycophants
* Discouraging risk-taking and the entrepreneurial spirit
* Willingness to lie and deceive in order to bolster their positions
* Inability to laugh at themselves
* Lack of accountability for their own behavior

Leaders who lack humility will eventually destroy their organizations. In the short term, they might propel their companies to outrageous heights, but inevitably hubris will plunge them, and those counting on them, into chaos. Mark Mendenhall of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga refers to this phenomenon as the “Icarus paradox,” after the figure in Greek mythology whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. All leaders must fear the sun’s effects on their own wax wings.

Hubris is a poison that spreads from the leader and infects the entire organization. Smart, independent-thinking people defect, leaving only “true believers” or those too tired to fight. The healthy dynamic of dialogue and debate disappears, and the organization becomes stilted and inflexible.

Every leader must guard against this. How? Luckily, the same activities that breed clarity also tend to generate humility. True wisdom, which is the pinnacle of clarity, recognizes how little one really knows. When a leader begins to perceive this, humility follows naturally.

The leader’s journey

Leadership represents a lifelong journey. It must be pursued with discipline, persistence and great personal strength. Mastering clarity, communication, credibility and character are the necessary first steps. Integrate these qualities into the activities you face daily. If you consistently practice them, you’ll grow into a true leader, and your organization will achieve many of its goals as a result.

Friday, June 6, 2008

ISO 9001 in Plain English

New Book Translates International Quality Standards into Plain English

Buy it HERE

Although international quality standards were written to apply to a wide variety of organizations worldwide, many companies have a difficult time interpreting them. To address this problem, Craig Cochran, the north Atlanta region manager for Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, has written a new book, ISO 9001: In Plain English (Paton Press, 2008).

“To make the international standards applicable to everybody, they are not particularly applicable to anybody,” he noted. “The words and phrases used are not typically those that workers are accustomed to using. If you don’t have extensive experience interpreting international standards, putting them to use in your own company can be very difficult.”

ISO 9001 is an international quality management system standard that presents fundamental management and quality assurance practices applicable to any organization. The generic requirements of the standard represent an excellent foundation of planning, control and improvement for just about any enterprise. Companies that are ISO 9001 certified have a demonstrated baseline of managerial discipline and control, and, according to Cochran, they also have higher rates of customer satisfaction.

The newly-released book is targeted toward anybody who has to implement or audit within an ISO 9001 management system. After a 20-year career in quality, Cochran wrote the book to share some of his experiences in implementing quality systems.

“People interpret ISO 9001 in diverse ways, including those that are often just plain wrong. Because I’ve been working with the ISO 9001 standard since 1988, I thought people might benefit from my experiences,” he said. “I have assisted in implementing ISO 9001 in nearly one thousand organizations, ranging in size from two to 20,000 people, and in every imaginable industry.”

Cochran’s book includes sections on process approach, relationship with ISO 9004 (a standard on continual improvement), compatibility with other management systems, application, vocabulary and definitions, general requirements, management responsibility, resource management, product realization, and measurement, analysis and improvement. For additional information about this book or Georgia Tech’s quality services, please contact Craig Cochran (678-699-1690); E-mail: (craig.cochran AT

About the Enterprise Innovation Institute:
The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.

Press release writer: Nancy Fullbright

Buy the book HERE

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sound the Alarm!

It's odd to think of complaints as customer satisfaction tools. After all, they indicate the polar opposite of customer satisfaction, don't they? But that's exactly the point: An effective complaint system is your customer satisfaction warning signal. Imagine a big red light mounted on the wall of your conference room. When a customer complains, the light blinks a glaring shade of crimson as a deafening buzzer blares. This is how your complaint system should function.

Complaints communicate customer perceptions, and perceptions compose the largest determinant of customer satisfaction. Unfortunately, however, complaint systems are completely reactive: You're not reaching out to your customer--you're relying on the customer to reach out to you. This is a risky proposition. Many customers simply aren't going to take the time to lodge a complaint. They may believe their time is too valuable, might not have confidence in your ability to solve the problem, have decided to take their business elsewhere or have a hundred other reasons not to complain. For every complaint your organization receives, there may be four or five others you'll never know about.

Because of its reactive nature, a complaint system should be used in combination with one or two proactive tools. These extend an organization's tentacles deep into the environment, while the complaint system acts as the last line of defense. If the proactive systems are effective, you'll hear about many issues long before they escalate to a complaint. But the complaint system will still exist--a monolith guarding the entrance to your customer satisfaction realm.

Point of contact

An effective complaint system must be easily accessible to your customers. A single toll-free phone number is typically the best mode of contact, even if your organization is a large multifacility company. Don't confuse your customers with instructions such as: "If you're calling about our outdoor recreation products, dial the Chuckamucka facility. If you're calling about our watercraft products, dial the Simpleville facility…"

Provide one phone number for complaints, and make sure it's posted prominently in multiple places (e.g., the user's manual, the assembly guide, the packing list, the exterior box, the invoice or the thank you note). Make it clear to even the most casual observers how to call if they have a problem. Don't fret that you're treating your customers like children. They want to be treated like children, at least in terms of getting in touch with you easily.

Customers stand a significant chance of becoming irritated when they call to complain. Don't put them on hold or send them into voice mail. They'll only become more irritated, and this will hamper their ability to communicate the details of their problems. Establish whatever staffing or infrastructure is necessary so that customers can speak to a real person. It's a good investment.

Another communication faux pas is transferring a customer from one telephone extension to another. The first point of contact should be adequately trained and have the necessary tools for soliciting and recording the complaint's details. If the employee isn't able to carry out the task, take whatever action is necessary so that it can be carried out. Practicing complaint calls raises an employee's confidence and facilitates his or her ability to deal with the customer.
Although other communication media such as faxes, e-mails or Web forms can function as first points of contact for complaints, voice contact is still the best. Customers with complaints want to talk to someone, and fast. Speaking directly with a human provides assurance that the problem will be solved and everything will turn out OK.


Empathy is an important part of dealing with customers who have complaints. What exactly does empathy mean? Simply that the person talking to the customer understands the situation from the customer's point of view. He or she understands why the customer might be upset, is able to share some of the same feelings and lets the customer know that he or she would probably feel the same way.

Is it appropriate to express regret because of the problem? Sure. The customer has experienced something unpleasant, and it only makes sense to say you're sorry about it. Saying, "I regret you had this problem" isn't a confession of guilt. You're merely saying what one friend or business partner would say to another when something goes wrong. However, the organization's representative should stay away from any talk about guilt or fault-finding.

Empathy allows the customer to feel that he or she isn't alone in the situation. The customer has an ally of sorts, an advocate. Creating this feeling in the customer is critical to defusing any anger or ill feelings the customer may possess. Empathy is also the first step toward turning the negative experience of the complaint into a positive one and ultimately rebuilding the customer satisfaction that might have been lost.

Obviously, the more upset and emotional a customer is, the more empathy will need to be applied to the situation. Everybody's communication style is different, but the essential message that most customers must hear is this:
* I can certainly understand how you feel about this situation.
* We regret that you were inconvenienced.
* We'll investigate this problem as quickly as possible and let you know what we learn.

Getting the details

In addition to expressing empathy, the person receiving the complaint must gather the details. Exactly what went wrong? Allow the customer to provide a general description, then begin to sharpen the particulars. Typical information includes the following details:
* What was the exact nature of the problem? Generalities won't cut it. The problem statement must provide enough detail and depth to facilitate investigation.
* When did the problem occur? The date is certainly necessary, as might also be the time.
* Where did the problem occur? The state, city, plant, retail outlet, department, production line and machine all might be important.
* Who were involved in the situation? What roles did they play?
* What product was involved? What were the part numbers or service types?
* Were there any specific batch numbers, serial numbers or other identifiers that provide traceability?
* Was the problem isolated or generalized across all products?

Consistently gathering this breadth of information is difficult without a structured form. Most organizations custom-design complaint forms based on their individual needs. Decide exactly what information you need to investigate customer complaints and take effective action; then design your form around these needs. Certain sections of the complaint form are almost universal, including:
* The person to whom the complaint is assigned
* The response due date
* The cause(s)
* The action taken
* A verification of action taken
* A closure signature and date

Also make sure to include proof of follow-up communication with the customer as one of the requirements of the form, if that's something your organization elects to do (it's a very good idea).

Project management

Each complaint should be assigned to a project manager whose job it is to assemble the necessary resources and ensure that all phases of the problem-solving process are carried out. This individual should have the project management skills to ensure that the correct people are involved and that they have the proper tools to address the problem. The project manager should also have the authority to remove barriers and motivate action. The space on the complaint report labeled "assigned to" is usually where this manager is designated.

This might sound a little overblown to some people. After all, we're just talking about a customer complaint, right? Yes, but a customer complaint can be a very complicated affair. Consider all the steps that constitute a response to a typical customer complaint:
Clearly defining the problem
Identifying the root cause
Proposing a range of acceptable corrective action
Choosing the action
Implementing the action
Following up to ensure the action was effective
Reporting the action and results back to the customer
Updating procedures and other documentation as necessary to reflect changed methods

More steps could be added, depending on the nature of the complaint; complex projects require a project manager. Think about the effective and ineffective corrective actions you've been a party to. One of the keys to the effective action most likely was assigning someone responsible for driving the project through to completion, i.e., a project manager.

Effective project management of customer complaints includes at least three distinctive hallmarks:
* Clear assignment of ownership for each complaint
* A defined problem-solving method. This is a logical step-by-step process for addressing the problem in a lasting way. The eight steps previously outlined constitute a problem-solving method.
* Involvement of a wide range of personnel. It goes without saying that managers don't have all the answers. Organizations must use all their available creativity and intellect when customers complain. Executives, managers, supervisors, operators, trainers, technicians, administrators and troublemakers could all be drawn into the problem-solving process.

Like a fire alarm, the best complaint systems swing the entire organization into action. The more people involved in the complaint investigation, action and follow-up, the more likely it is the organization will learn from the experience and not repeat the same mistakes. Team-based problem solving is a particularly effective tool for getting personnel involved. This doesn't necessarily mean decision making by committee, which is usually a disaster. It simply means that a wide range of people are contributing.

The overall management of the complaint system should be assigned to a complaint administrator. This person has a number of important responsibilities:
* Supervising the input of information into the complaint database
* Routing the complaint form to the appropriate project manager
* Ensuring that fields in the complaint database are updated as investigation and action proceed
* Escalating the complaint when investigation and action aren't proceeding according to plan

Organizations have a habit of assigning the role of complaint administrator to someone with very little real authority. This is a mistake because it may be misinterpreted as an indicator of how inconsequential the customer complaint system really is. The role of complaint administrator is a big one, and its assignment shouldn't be taken lightly.

Complaint management software

Complaint management software can facilitate the tracking and analysis of complaints significantly. The software's complexity and sophistication is meaningless; the important thing is that the person managing the complaint system can determine the status of all complaints at a glance and easily convert raw data into graphics.
Many complaint management software packages can be bought off the shelf, and many of these are effective. It's often much cheaper and easier, though, for the organization to develop its own software tools. A complaint database can be developed in a matter of minutes using relational database or spreadsheet software. Complaint databases typically include fields for most of the spaces found on the complaint form. It's also a good idea to put the complaint database on a server, with read-only access granted to the organization as a whole.

Justified vs. unjustified complaints

Some organizations have decided that it's a good idea to classify complaints according to whether they are "justified." This makes logical sense, but it's the worst thing a company can do for building customer satisfaction. If I'm a customer, all my complaints are justified. Why else would I bother complaining? If you try to tell me that my complaint is "unjustified," it's only going to make me angrier than I already am.

Once the customer experiences a problem, it becomes the company's problem. Regardless of the fault of the problem, customer satisfaction has been affected, and action must be taken. Consider these scenarios:

* The customer used the product incorrectly, and the performance was adversely affected; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But why did the customer use the product incorrectly? Was the application known prior to the sale? Were the instructions unclear? Is there any chance that the customer was misled, even unintentionally?

* The customer says the product was damaged, but the type of damage described could only have happened at the customer location; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But should the product's packaging be improved? Should you provide guidelines for proper handling?

* The customer said the shipment arrived late, but he or she selected the carrier; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But should you stipulate longer lead times when this carrier is used? Should you offer to contact the carrier on the customer's behalf? Should you assist the customer in selecting alternative carriers?

* The customer said the service person was rude, but the truth is that he was provoked by one of the customer's employees; the complaint is deemed unjustified. But should you provide your personnel training in dealing with difficult people? Should you coach your employees in conflict resolution?

In each of these cases, an argument could be made that the problem was the customer's fault. Taking this position, though, does nothing to enhance customer satisfaction, nor does it further the organization's long-term objectives. Savvy organizations will look for ways to error-proof their products with customers.
Of course, some problems are truly the customer's fault. When these situations occur, the organization might not be obligated to replace the product, provide credits or refunds, or accept returns. In all cases, however, customers must be treated in a diplomatic, cordial manner.

Reporting back to your customer

Humans are naturally curious. If you give someone feedback, it's difficult to refrain from wondering what the person does with it. This is especially the case with negative feedback based on a purchased product. Customers want to know what action has been taken. After all, the customers had a negative experience related to something they spent their hard-earned money on. They even took the time to tell the organization about it. Now they're curious. What are you going to do about it?
If your organization is interested in turning the negative experience into a positive one, someone must take the time to report back to the customer. The communication should include three key elements:
* The results of the investigation into the problem
* The action taken
* A statement of thanks for reporting the problem

Reporting action back to the customer closes the loop on the issue. It also lets the customer know that you take his or her feedback seriously and are committed to making improvements. In some cases, it can determine whether your organization remains a supplier to this customer.

Implementation procedures

The following steps represent implementation guidelines for an effective complaint system:
* Determine what information is needed in order to investigate and take action on customer complaints. Build your complaint form around this information.
* Establish contact methods for customer complaints. Remember that voice contact is preferred by most customers. Test the contact method in various situations to ensure it works.
* Develop a written procedure for how complaints will be handled. Stipulate responsibilities, authorities, protocols and problem-solving steps, as appropriate.
* Appoint someone as the complaint administrator. This person will be responsible for inputting information into the complaint database and routing the form for investigation and action.
* Educate the customer on how to contact the organization in the event of a complaint.
* Train all employees in their roles within the customer complaint system.
* When a complaint occurs, use structured problem-solving techniques to address them in a systematic manner (Refer to the article, "Six Fundamentals of Effective Problem Solving," Quality Digest, September 2002).

Communication about complaints

Complaint information should be one of the most widely disseminated topics in an organization. Trend data should be posted on every departmental bulletin board, along with the details of relevant complaints involving that department. Complaints, their root causes and eventual corrective action must be made topics of any regular communication that takes place throughout the organization.

Top management should be the most knowledgeable about complaints. Business review meetings should include a discussion of complaints as one of the primary agenda topics. Top management should aggressively review progress on determining root causes and taking effective action. When this happens, the effectiveness of the overall complaint system increases significantly and customer satisfaction stands a chance of being salvaged.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dear Boss

Dear CEO:

I'd like to thank you for the nice pizza party you threw at our ISO 9001 kickoff event. Everybody enjoyed it and appreciated your inspiring words. The joke you told about the elephant, the preacher and the procedure notebook was very amusing. Your sense of humor is exceptional, especially for a member of top management.

The purpose of my letter is to prepare you for the work we have ahead of us. I know how busy you are, and it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day issues of running our organization. However our new quality management system (QMS) is the way we're going to run our organization, and you'll be a key to its success. Your engagement in this effort will determine whether we use our QMS to become more competitive and customer-focused, or if it will be only a piece of paper on the wall.

Chief, we need a little strategic planning

As you know, identifying processes is a key step in implementing our management system. Let's make sure we identify at least one customer for every process. Whether it's an internal customer or an external customer doesn't matter. What matters is that the people working within every process understand that they serve someone outside of their own little kingdom. Right now, some of our processes operate as if they serve only themselves. We need to drive a customer focus from one end of this organization to the other, and our QMS will help us do it.

One of the key processes is strategic planning. ISO 9001 doesn't require strategic planning, but it's the logical starting point for a lot of things that the standard does require. Everything we do demands the high-level guidance that strategic planning delivers. At least once a year you should assemble your best and most diverse advisors and scan our competitive environment. What do our customers require and desire? How are these requirements and desires changing? As an organization, how well are we positioned to address the changing market and our ever-evolving customers? We need to match ourselves against the realities of our environment, identify actions that will drive us forward and implement these actions with a clear plan. This is the essence of strategic planning. If our ISO 9001 system is disconnected from strategy, then we have a serious problem.

Ditto for objectives

Objectives flow directly from our strategic plan. They tell everyone what specific initiatives are important to our success. Please help us choose strategic, hard-hitting objectives. They should tie directly to our strategic plan, translating that document into simple metrics that everyone can understand. Because our strategic plan will be focused on better serving our customers, our objectives will also be tied to customers. Each process will have objectives that directly relate to the customers it serves.

Resist the temptation to have two sets of objectives, one for the sake of ISO 9001 and the other for "really" running the business. We only need one set of objectives that everyone understands. Don't bother to call them "quality objectives" because that will only cloud the issue. Somebody might hear the term "quality" and try to narrowly define what the objectives may address. Our objectives should address how we drive success, period.

As chief executive, you are uniquely qualified to communicate our objectives and their significance. This message could come from somebody else in the organization, but it's much more effective coming from you. Explain to everyone how each of our objectives affects our long-term success, and ensure that all employees know exactly how they contribute to achieving objectives. Above all, make sure that we all know how we affect our customers in our everyday actions.

Which brings me to management review

You should strive to make management review your forum for reviewing data and making decisions. We're not doing it for the sake of ISO 9001; we're doing it to ensure our success. Management review should occur regularly and rely on timely information. If we already have top-level meetings for reviewing our organization's progress, then let's just turn these into our management review. It doesn't matter how we do it; the only requirements are that the review is your event, and we must cover the specified inputs and outputs. We can get as creative as we want. Management review should never be done just to satisfy an ISO 9001 requirement. The point is to review data, make decisions and become a more successful organization over the long term.

Communicate broadly about all aspects of our QMS. We have a wide range of communication media; it's just a matter of using them. Take every opportunity to talk honestly to our organization about what we're doing and where we're going. Try to connect your message to the things we're doing in the QMS and how they affect our customers. Don't assume that we'll immediately understand. Be very explicit in your communication, and don't forget to allow room for us to respond.

You rule customer feedback

Customer feedback is another key aspect of our QMS, possibly the most important. It's certainly the most critical data we receive. It communicates even more than our financials, which tell us only what has already happened and are poor predictors of the future. Not only can customer feedback predict our future, it's our gateway to long-term success.

As our chief executive, you need to obsess about customer feedback. You should thirst for every bit of feedback we collect--positive or negative. Collect it we must because we can't sit around and wait for customers to call us. We need simple, concise tools for capturing feedback proactively. To collect feedback, let's use existing customer interactions instead of inventing new ones. Our organization already has multiple contacts with customers day in and day out, and these interactions can easily be leveraged to gather feedback.

When customers complain, you should take it personally, mobilizing all of our resources to take corrective action. Not everyone realizes how critical customer complaints are, so you must remind them. Make it easy for customers to complain, and make it easy for us to fix their complaints. When customer feedback indicates something positive, find out what's causing the satisfaction. Share what you learn with everyone, and make it our new standard. If you're constantly asking about customer feedback, everyone will understand how important it is.

Can you fix this?

Another thing to keep on your radar is our corrective and preventive action system. I suspect we're going to have difficulty motivating people to use these processes. Nobody likes extra work, and very often that's what these appear to be. Investigating and solving problems aren't extracurricular activities--they're a key job function for everyone. When problems come up or customers complain, you should say, "Let's open a corrective action." When a potential problem is revealed, you need to say, "Let's initiate a preventive action." In both cases, make sure that adequate resources are applied and that we follow through to completion.

Very few of us have had training on problem-solving techniques. Can you fix that? Getting everyone up to speed on problem solving will be a huge step in our development as an organization. It will prepare us to take part in the corrective and preventive action process. You should participate in the training, too. You're busy, but you're not too busy to become a better problem solver. Your presence would also underline the significance of this training. If you're agreeable, I'll have a purchase order on your desk tomorrow for problem-solving training. Becoming better problem solvers is one of the best investments we can make. The better we are at problem solving, the better we will be at addressing the changing needs of customers.

One word: training

That brings me to training in general. Training is one of our key processes for preventing problems in the first place. It's not optional. We don't have to spend piles of money and weeks of time, but we do have to train our people. I've worked for too many organizations where training was considered good to do if time and circumstances allowed. Once we got busy, training was abandoned. "Hey, we've got work to do!" everyone shouted. "Who's got time for training?" Then they wondered why customer complaints skyrocketed. It's simple cause and effect: Neglect training, and people will make mistakes.

Here's a deal for you: We'll strive to keep the training lean, concise and relevant. In return, you'll frequently ask managers and supervisors how their training programs are going. Maybe you could periodically drop in on training to remind trainers and trainees alike of how important this process is to our success. You should keep yourself in a constant state of learning, too. Nobody needs training more than you, given the huge responsibilities that you face.

Let's work smart on internal auditing

Internal auditing is a process you'll be involved with in the near future. You may never actually perform an audit (although it would be great if you did), but you'll certainly be an essential part of the process. A key role you'll play is making sure that audits are properly resourced. Insist that smart, insightful personnel are selected as auditors. Don't let auditor selection become an exercise in "who can we spare?" Invest the process with smart people, and the results will drive improvements. When audits reveal opportunities, ensure that we take corrective and preventive action. Our audits should focus on important, strategic issues. Ask how the audits are helping us become a better organization. Ask why our customers should care that we're doing audits. Help us keep our eyes on the things that matter, and audits will produce strong results.

Boss, are you listening?

One of the final topics I'd like to talk about is trust. Please trust me when I recommend that we do something to improve our organization. It's your prerogative to disagree with me, of course, but at least trust that I have our organization's best interests in mind. Just because I'm an employee doesn't mean I can't have good ideas. Too many business leaders fall into the trap of thinking that great ideas have to come from outside the company, especially from someone with a briefcase and a business card with the word "consultant" printed on it. The answers to most problems lie right here within our organization; we just have to listen to them. The title CEO should be changed to CLO, for Chief Listening Officer. You'll listen to data, listen to customers, listen to competitors, listen to suppliers and, of course, listen to us, the employees. All this listening, combined with wise action, will ensure that we do the right things.

You hold the key

Finally, be aware that our QMS is a bellwether of our success. A failing management system is a predictor of much larger failure. If we let our QMS decay, become bureaucratic or too inwardly focused, we'll seal our doom. We must use our system to look outward and see where the market and our customers are moving. Your interest, involvement and leadership are the only ways that our QMS will remain viable and improve. If a piece of our system serves no purpose, have it removed. If we're not following our procedures, find out why. If something we do doesn't make sense, investigate further. The words "why" and "I'm listening" are your best friends. You have the power, through these words and your own innate wisdom, to keep us customer-focused and always improving. You hold the key.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Building a Balanced Scorecard

Most sane people wouldn't consider steering a ship by looking backward, but that's exactly what most companies do when they focus entirely on financial measures for decision making. The balanced scorecard, one of the most significant management philosophies of the last quarter-century, confronts that stratagem head-on with a simple core concept: Stop trying to manage your organization by financial measures alone. Why? Because financial measures always look backward. They tell you what happened last month, last quarter or last year, but they say little about what will happen in the future.

Financial measures are important, but so are others. Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, authors of The Balanced Scorecard (Harvard Business School Press, 1996), advocate the use of a balanced portfolio of business measures. What exactly is a balanced scorecard? It's a model of metrics, with four boxes representing different measurement categories. The four categories drive performance across different time frames: short, medium and long term. The intent is that organizations will analyze their performance across all four categories of metrics instead of just analyzing and acting on financial measures. Focusing on a balanced portfolio of measures will drive improvement over the long term. Anyone with any amount of business experience knows that financial success in the short term doesn't always translate into long-term success, and that's the underlying wisdom of the balanced scorecard.

The specific measures that reside within each box of the balanced scorecard will be different from one organization to the next. In fact, one of the challenges of the balanced scorecard is in determining logical measures and getting accustomed to acting on them. Here's a summary of the four boxes and how they relate to one another:

• Financial measures. These metrics drive performance over the short term because actions taken to improve financial measures show results quickly. Examples include revenue, profit and cash flow. Financial measures are important because they represent the immediate survival of the organization. They are usually considered the starting point for any balanced scorecard.

• Internal performance measures. These drive achievement in the medium term because actions take longer to show results. Examples include efficiency, innovation and inventory turnover. Internal performance measures rarely show up on financial and accounting reports, but they indicate how well the organization manages its internal processes. Success on internal performance measures will have a direct, positive effect on financial measures, but the effect may take a number of months to appear.

• Customer and marketplace measures. These drive success over the medium to long term because actions might take months or years to show tangible results. Examples include customer perceptions, brand loyalty and market share. Customer and marketplace measures look at success through the eyes of customers, a point of view that is often ignored or minimized. These directly affect financial measures but shift gradually over time. Once customer perceptions begin to move, their momentum is hard to control. This underlies the importance of having a strong grip on what customers really think and what the organization plans to do about it.

• Human resource measures. These drive success over the long term because actions might take years to show tangible results. Examples include hours of training per employee, employee survey results and employee retention rates. Human resource measures are possibly the furthest removed from financial measures because they're often difficult to trace back to bottom-line numbers. But make no mistake---how well an organization manages its human resources certainly affects financial success.

Organizations should try to produce effective results not just for next month but also next year and next decade. Actions taken to improve medium- to long-term metrics are investments in the organization's future. Other themes of the balanced scorecard include linking metrics to strategy, communicating metrics to all personnel and regular progress reviews. These common-sense concepts fit perfectly with the ISO 9001 requirement for measurable objectives.

Are you ready to build a balanced scorecard for your organization? If so, here are some steps that will help ensure success.

Involve top management

The balanced scorecard represents a significant shift in the way organizations gauge their performance. For this reason, top management must embrace the concept fervently enough to become its primary champion. This kind of sales job is no small feat. How do you generate such enthusiasm for a seemingly radical concept? Here's one path:

• Describe what the organization is doing now, which is using financial measures primarily to make all decisions. Show how this has led to shortsighted decisions and mistakes. Make sure to be very diplomatic in how these problems are portrayed.

• Describe the balanced scorecard and explain why it's superior to the measurement methods used by most organizations. Discuss companies that have utilized the concept and provide examples of the measures they used. Make sure to mention that the measures on a balanced scorecard are derived directly from the organization's strategy, which links them perfectly with long-term success.

• Describe how the balanced scorecard could be used in your organization. Outline the strategic benefits to managing a balanced portfolio of measures that drive performance over the short, medium and long term. Explain how a balanced scorecard would remove the ambiguity and confusion that usually accompany the deployment of strategy.

Get top management energized by the concept. Having top management's ear can be very helpful. To achieve this, your sales job is actually twofold: You must sell the people who have top management's ear and then have them assist you in selling top management. The concept almost sells itself when presented correctly. Kaplan and Norton's book can facilitate your preparation, as can a number of others. If you've sold yourself on the concept and truly believe in it, then you'll be in a good position to spread that enthusiasm.

Your best allies during this sales and education process can be your finance people. This might sound a little strange because these would seem to be the people with the most to lose from focusing on things other than financial measures. A smart CFO understands the pitfalls of managing for the short term, though. Use the financial leaders in your organization as sounding boards. It's likely that they'll see the obvious benefits of the approach. Once you have the finance people convinced, your president or CEO should be easy.

Ask the right people the right questions

After top management has become engaged by the concept, someone has to do the dirty work--i.e., build the scorecard itself. A project of this sort will be challenging because the metrics of the past and present might not be much help. The starting point is the organization's strategy. What broad actions are you taking during the next year to stay competitive? The measures on the balanced scorecard will support the strategy, examining it from the perspectives of four quadrants: financial, internal performance, customers and the marketplace, and human resources. That means you'll have to go to the process owners and stakeholders who are tied to these perspectives. Typically, these are the people who are best prepared to assist in developing the respective parts of the balanced scorecard:
• Financial measures: finance, accounting, top management and sales
• Internal performance measures: production, design, quality assurance, engineering, purchasing and logistics
• Customer and marketplace measures: sales, marketing and customer service
• Human resource measures: human resources, training, health and safety

Note that top management is present in only one of these groups. This is so it won't unduly influence measures in the other three groups. There's no benefit to upholding the paradigms of the past when building a scorecard.

The best way to engage each group is through a facilitated session during which you guide participants through an exploration of their own experiences and knowledge about the issues at stake. If the organization has a well-defined strategy, this process is relatively simple. What measures will support achieving the strategy? Define these from each of the four quadrants, and the resulting set of measures will become your balanced scorecard.

The problem is that many organizations don't have a well-defined strategy. Some never get around to doing strategic planning at all. In that kind of organization, developing a balanced scorecard will prove challenging. Even when there's an existing strategy, it's often the result of "group think" or has little connection to the organization's practical requirements.

I recommend holding a series of facilitated meetings with representatives from the four groups listed earlier. During these sessions, you'll guide the participants through a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis specifically focused on their functional areas. For example, participants in the customer and marketplace group will examine strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats through the eyes of their customers. The resulting measures will seek to maximize strengths and opportunities, and minimize weaknesses and threats, as viewed through their customers' perceptions. Here are some of the questions in each of the balanced scorecard sections:

• Customer and marketplace SWOT analysis:
--In the eyes of our customers, what do we do especially well?
--What was our biggest customer service success last year?
--What problems do customers keep telling us about?

• Human resource SWOT analysis:
--What makes our people better than employees in other organizations?
--What employee skills and abilities could be improved?
--What skills and abilities do we think will be critical 10 years from now?

• Internal process SWOT analysis:
--What part of our organization experiences the least waste? What enables this efficiency?
--What efficiencies do our competitors have that we don't? What could we do to adopt these efficiencies?
--What's one process improvement we could implement that would put us ahead of the competition?

• Financial SWOT analysis:
--What financial assets do we manage especially well?
--What problems do our accountants keep telling us about?
--What financial advantages do our top competitors have we that we don't?
--What are the three most likely ways our capital could dry up in the next
five years?

The full versions of these SWOT worksheets are available for download:
SWOT--Human Resources
Proposed Measure Evaluation Worksheet

Each of the SWOT analyses will produce a set of measures. Not all the measures will appear on the final scorecard, of course, but at least one measure from each group will. The groups can trim their lists through a multivoting methodology (i.e., where each group member casts a predetermined number of votes) or through a more quantitative process. A tool called the proposed measures evaluation worksheet is also available at Quality Digest's Web site. Regardless of the method used to select your final measures, keep your list short. Having a punchy list of five to 10 measures will clearly communicate to everyone what matters most. If you adopt more than 10 measures for your balanced scorecard, the focus becomes diminished. People are able to concentrate on only a few things at a time, so don't overcomplicate the process. If your balanced scorecard is linked to your competitive reality, then it can be an indispensable tool to drive your long-term success