How to admit when you don't know

May 17, 2007
There seems to be a universal sense of denial amongst decision-makers, says Keith Mobley in this month's Boiler Room. Find out how to admit what you don't know, and how to improve your plant in the process.

As many of you know, I’ve spent most of my adult life as a transformation consultant helping companies improve a part or all of their operation. One would think that by now, I’d have adjusted to the idiosyncrasies of the decision-makers I deal with on a daily basis. But some things continue to amaze me no matter how many times they’ve occurred before.

The first is a nearly universal sense of denial. Almost without exception, decision-makers seem to be totally blind to the real world that surrounds them. They don’t – and it seems they can’t – see the deficiencies or inefficiencies that surround them. Even when their own performance data clearly shows shortcomings it’s ignored or, better still, rationalized by the simple claim that “you don’t understand, we’re different.” How can they be held to the same performance standard as the competitors because their operation is different? Their equipment is old, their labor rates are too high, and 1,001 other reasons for there being a difference.

Some of these decision-makers will eventually agree that their operation could be more effective and efficient. After all, there’s always room for improvement, but trying to get agreement on how to go about improving is another story. Again, the “but you don’t understand, we’re different” argument rears its ugly head. The logic goes something like this: “Yes, improving maintenance planning would increase the productive time of maintenance crafts, but we can’t do that. Our labor agreements won’t let us.” Or, “That’s a great idea, but it won’t work here. Our culture won’t change.”

While I can’t deny that each and every company and plant is different, certain principles really do apply to all. They must follow valid, consistent procedures for every aspect of their business from selling products or services through collecting payment for sales. In addition, they’re all bound by the laws of physics, regulatory compliance and other physical boundaries. Yet, many continue to violate the procedure dictate by allowing wide variations in the methods that individual plant functions – and even individual employees – perform their day-to-day jobs, and build business plans that defy the laws of physics.

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As an example of the later, we continue to see strategic business plans, the so-called five-year plans, in which the company’s growth is based on an increase in production volume that would require operating the plant’s capital equipment more than 24 hours per day. In other cases, all downtime is eliminated from the plan to achieve the desired throughput. It should be intuitively obvious that some downtime is necessary. How else will a minimum level of sustaining maintenance be performed?

With perseverance, a good consultant can work through this phase of the transformation process, but the difficulty isn’t over quite yet. Once the decision-makers have finally and reluctantly accepted the fact that their operation isn’t perfect and that change can really be achieved in their world, the next step in logic takes over: “We can do this ourselves. We don’t need outside help.” They’ll argue, “There’s nothing extraordinary about changing the way we do business. We’ll just form a cross-functional team and write new procedures. That will fix everything.” Or, “We’ll send a team to a Lean workshop and they can then transform our plant to Lean.” Many companies are blessed with an intelligent, motivated workforce that will put forth almost any amount of effort to achieve a goal. But with few exceptions, they can’t transform their own company or plant.

There are many reasons why I say this, but the single most important factor is simply “They don’t know what they don’t know.” They don’t have a first-hand vision of what the results of change look like. At best, they might gain a second-hand vision from books or seminars, but that can’t replace the first-hand experience of an effective organization.

Moreover, changing the way the workforce, including the decision-makers, think and go about their normal business isn’t and won’t be easy. Culture change is perhaps the most difficult of all business transactions. I’ll always remember the remarks of a steel company’s CEO when asked about a recently completed transformation: “It was like pulling an impacted wisdom tooth without Novocain, but I’d do it again in a minute. The difference in our performance and the quality of life in our plants has improved so much that any pain is more than justified.”

His statement, following a five-year transformation process, sums up the degree of difficulty rather well. Transformation is difficult, but any company can be competitive, improve its effectiveness and efficiency and install proven culture change methodologies. The one thing you must always remember to be successful is “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Be receptive to new ideas and to the advice of others. Keep an open mind and accept outside help when it is needed. None of us can succeed alone.

E-mail Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley, CMRP, principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering, at [email protected].

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