I am often called into companies to identify opportunities for improvement in processes, products and also the Quality Management System as well. These projects give an opportunity to learn how an organisation ticks, its strengths and its weaknesses. Often management initiates the process by giving me their list of systems that they believe are broken or at least not operating as efficiently as they would like. But not always. They want these worked on but sometimes are reluctant to consider the systems they consider working well. Or maybe these “working systems” are the ones without the loud squeaky wheel attached. That is, the one flying under the radar and silently deficient.
I usually take these lists and negotiate with the company that I should look broader than those that they have identified. That is not to create billable hours but rather because of efficiency. While they may have identified some of the deficient systems, they may not have all. Also it may be that the ones they consider working well are in fact not working well at all or they may have a system with overkill in place. Now, if there are some very good systems, you can learn a lot about an organisation if you can understand why some are good and others not. What causes this? it can be an uneven management or a pocket of progressive people who are 100% dedicated in the face of adversity.
The key is to bring me in once to identify all the opportunities rather than bring me in twice. It costs more. It adds months to the timeline if I have to do it twice.
So what do I usually find? First, management often does have a good perspective of the “bad” systems. Often they have identified the very painful ones – the ones in dire need of improvement. But not always. This has to be teased out by careful interview of process owners and stakeholders and users alike. In the interview, it is critical that it is the system that is examined and not the person who runs it. These people are trying their hardest (in most cases), its just the tools, resources and environment that prevents them from running a successful process. In 90% of the time it’s not people but the environment they are working in that causes the problem. Most of these organisations are working at 100 mph with compulsory overtime needed to just get the basics done. There is no time for future thinking, the fires are burning out of control and there are just not enough firemen to keep the place from burning down to the ground.
What I also find are organisations that are reluctant to change. The last time somebody took a risk and it failed, they were punished. You can bet the next time they don’t risk going out on a limb. When I talk with these folk, I often find processes that are unwieldy, overly complex. It’s not uncommon to see SOPs of 40, 50, 60 pages long. No wonder there is a deviation at every turn. These deviations then flood the investigation system. With a 30 day to complete the investigation and a backlog, what happens next. Well, they wait to day 28 or 29 because they are working on other things and are caught between a rock and a hard place. Got to get it completed or I miss my goal of 30 days. Get it signed off and off my desk and get the CAPA in place. And what is the CAPA? It’s usually retrain operator or rewrite SOP. These are easy to think up and everybody is familiar with these.
And do you really believe that these two CAPAs are going to work and prevent a recurrence? Absolutely not. I was auditing a company recently and over 80% of CAPAs were retrain operator or rewrite SOP and that was for a set of recurring issues that did not go away over a 4 year period. Complacency had set in. Are we really that bad at training and writing that it does not solve the problem? Or is the CAPA not directed at the right thing? I think we all know the answer.
So what is my job? First to look at systems and get them into three categories.
- Ones that are clearly deficient – these need major surgery. Or they may not even be in place.
- Ones that are overkill – look for ways to back off what is being done
- Ones that meet the need – they are adequate although they may not be world class or one that you can proudly say are a 10/10 system. At this stage, if it works at the right level, leave it. It does not have to be perfect.
Category 1 and 2 need the major work. These systems are really tools in a tool box to allow us to operate our business and these tools have lost the vision of what they were intended. Instead of serving us to help us get the work done, they take on a life of their own. These tools now control us and make us jump through hoops.
However, as my father once said, “If you can identify a problem, you are 50% on the way to the solution” And that is when the fun begins with getting these overworked people together to look for opportunity to eliminate non-value added work which will free up resources to put on the other Towering Inferno areas. And its contagious. Solve a problem once and the next problem is much easier to solve.
It’s these moments I really cherish. When I see surgery on an overly complex process that brings a breath of fresh air to the people involved, those are the moments I look forward to. The look in the eyes of the staff is what this job is all about. And its fun.