More than management speak

Posted on 12 Nov 2010 by The Manufacturer

Ephemeral management-speak or a new language for success? Martin Wing, European Managing Partner at operational improvement consultancy Kepner-Tregoe, talks to TM about why manufacturers need to get comfortable with ‘thinking’ as a means to unlocking the real profit and productivity potential of their organisations.

Having some familiarity with Kepner-Tregoe (KT)’s conceptual approach to problem solving and decision making, termed ‘rational process’ by the company, (see TM September 2010 for the original interview with Martin Wing) TM reporter Jane Gray asked Wing if the company ever met with resistance from potential clients who saw their approach to business as ‘woolly’.

Martin Wing (MW) – “Yes I think it would be fair to say that people sometimes see our approach as ‘woolly’ at first. The way we articulate our approach is conceptual. At first it has to be. We are framing the way that people think and it can be difficult to quantify the impact of this since thinking processes remain locked in people’s heads until they are acted upon.

“Manufacturers and engineers are quite analytical by nature and can therefore be initially suspicious of some of the language KT use about thinking for improvement. However, in my experience they are ultimately less concerned with the process and more concerned with the end result. This combination of factors means that the majority of first time business we win is through recommendation. Clients refer other businesses to us after achieving great results.

From another perspective however our repeat business is undoubtedly founded on the fact that people come to believe, not only in what we can deliver, but how we deliver it. You might argue that that is the same for a lot of consultant companies but I do believe that there is something in the way we transfer capabilities to those we work with that is a little bit unique”

Jane Gray (JG) – “Do you think the rational process approach, with its accompanying conceptual language, is the remit of leaders and managers in manufacturing organisations or do you see a broader scope for the use of KT’s problem solving techniques?”

MW – “I think fifty years ago you might have a case for saying that having a rational approach to problem solving, decision making and process improvement was the responsibility of management.

That was a time when manufacturing was low skilled and there was not a great deal of automation. Today, with the advent of new technology in manufacturing and increasingly complex value-adding systems you do not have that unskilled work force. This means that the nature of manufacturing in the UK demands that everyone in an organisation must be able to leverage their attributes and apply their skills in an appropriate way. They need to be confident about making important decisions within the boundaries of their role and appreciating the consequences. Just as technical skills related to key disciplines need to be grown for competitive strength in industry, so analytical skills for challenging and understanding new situations are needed. If there is one thing we can be sure of it is that nothing remains the same.

Modern apprenticeships are starting to teach this kind of thinking.

“Of course at the pinnacle of an organisation’s concerns when they are looking at techniques for improvement and decision making are tangible business results. At the next layer there is an interest in what activities this will involve, but the foundation of all benefits lies in the behaviours, attitudes, skills and knowledge of the people in the business.

Without these there will not be the ability to enact the activities appropriately and the results sought by the organisation will not appear. For me, issue resolution, problem solving, the ability to make sound, robust decisions and confidence in being able to plan for what might go wrong, are the key behaviours which, coupled with appropriate technical skills and knowledge can ensure that foundation is secure across the whole business – be that in the procurement function, the maintenance team or with the line technicians.”

JG – “In terms of applying this thinking and taking action on it can you give me an example of a significant breakthrough you have seen a client make recently?”

MW – “I was with a client early this month, who had been scratching their heads for almost four weeks as to why a critical part in an assembly process didn’t fit where it was expected to. The entire team had struggled. They were planning to make fifty capital intensive units and they had had to re-work the first four so it was critical the issue got resolved so that the expensive work-arounds that had been put in place over the previous weeks were no longer needed.

We introduced and practised using some KT concepts about how to structure thinking so that the data was addressed in a much more disciplined way and within six hours the team had identified the cause of their problem which was revealed to be incorrect tooling. This had not been picked up because, with the best of intentions, the team had identified what they thought was the issue, broken the kit down and reassembled it, then tried to work around the recurring problem. They had not seen the true cause because they were analysing their data based on experience and jumping to quick rather than permanent solutions.

They were trying to map what was going wrong against what had gone wrong before – when in fact this issue was entirely new. What was needed was a change in the kinds of questions being asked, an understanding of the different ways that people involved in the process were thinking and a means of aligning that thinking in a disciplined way so that all the available information was presented free from influence of assumptions.” This is just one of many examples where KTs approach to rational process has exposed faults in the way data is analysed and the misalignment of thinking around problem solving. In the next issue of TM Kepner-Tregoe will describe how robust data capture, through OptimumFX’s LineView System, and thorough data analysis, is essential to identifying the improvement opportunities for OEE performance in Coca Cola Enterprise’s bottling lines.