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Look Elsewhere for Best Practices

Tue, 09/27/2011 - 12:05pm
ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutionsWe seek to improve our businesses and our teams by hiring or otherwise introducing expertise. We seek skills and experience to bolster our already existing know-how, and improve our technique and performance.

The problem is that we inevitably hire or engage expertise that gained its knowledge within our specific industries. After all, if we need a database developer, it doesn’t make much sense to hire a mechanical engineer or a chemical scientist. As a result, specific industries grow and share and develop some rather specific skill sets, as best fits those industries.

The opportunity we miss by looking only at our own industries for skills and methods is that other industries might be better at something we need to improve, but we don’t get exposure to it. We don’t naturally get exposure to the best practitioners of certain skills. That means that we must get out of our comfort zones and our usual networks if we want to seek that expertise.

Here is a plain example of where we might share better. The software development industry has been exercising global solution development in multiple regions for a very long time. It is typical to find program and project managers, and their chief developers, dealing directly with customers from North America or Europe, and sharing the development work with teams in India or Eastern Europe.

In more recent years, product development teams of mechanical and electrical engineers have been trying to pull off the same shared-development with design teams in other regions, but with less success. These manufacturing-related businesses could greatly improve collaboration skill sets by learning how the software developers do it and potentially by leveraging the same data-sharing tools.

Here is an example of where vastly different industries have successfully leveraged a skill set. The Lean methodology, developed and deployed widely throughout manufacturing industries, is now making great improvements in the health care industry. I, for one, am very glad to see it, too.

I believe that the introduction of Lean to health care, however, did not come as a result of that industry seeking advice from manufacturing. Enterprising Lean consultants who saw an excellent opportunity to leverage their skills to make vast improvements introduced it. No doubt they did so after their own frustrating experiences with health care.

Good for them, but if we are going to capitalize on expertise in other industries, we should not wait for a consultant to walk in our door with a proposal. We need to get proactive.

If you think that you don’t have anything left to learn, let me provide something that I suspect any business in manufacturing or construction could think more deeply about. I’ll stick to health care as a different industry to which we can look. I also want us to consider what other industries can probably teach health care in return.

Safety and error-proofing are something the health care industry takes more seriously than any other I have ever engaged. If you aren’t sure about that statement, consider my own recent experience with shoulder surgery.

First, my family doctor called me before my surgery to remind me to write a great big “NO” in permanent marker on the opposite shoulder. Once I arrived at the surgery center, everyone asked which shoulder was receiving the operation, from the receptionist to the anesthesiologist, to the nurse and the surgeon. My surgeon wrote on both of my shoulders in permanent marker and had me verify that he had marked them correctly.

Finally, when everything was prepped and the surgical team was ready to begin the operation, they stopped everything and each person in the room was asked to verify what procedure was to be executed on what shoulder with an expectation that if anyone remembered differently from anyone else, he or she should say so. This “time-out” was also an opportunity for everyone to double-check the preparation and identify anything incorrect.

In addition to the time-out practice, every tool and consumable is counted and recorded before the surgery and again afterward to make sure that something isn’t left where it shouldn’t be, particularly inside of the patient. These practices are all part of the health care industry’s “Never Again” mission. It’s an objective to ensure that mistakes are never repeated.

Does the team in your manufacturing and operations portion of your business incorporate safety practices with the same rigor described? Does your business have something comparable to the “Never Again” mission? I’ve worked in, or otherwise engaged numerous manufacturing and assembly processes, most with metrics around man-hours without a lost-time or reportable incident, but I’ve never seen the same focus on safety as health care’s common surgical practices.

However, as I said, I also perceive that the health care industry could learn a thing or two from product development and manufacturing. Specifically, I observe that in product development, we generally practice a much more structured and disciplined approach to risk management and mitigation.

Basic business and project-related risks are tracked using formal tools built into our project management systems. For design risks, we use tools such as failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA), design scorecards or quality function deployment (QFD), or any similar tool or combination. Those of us following phase gate-style processes or disciplines, such as Design for Six Sigma, are very accustomed to being quizzed by our managers about our risk identification and mitigation efforts.

I don’t see the same discipline in the medical or healthcare industry. In fact, as a practitioner and teacher of risk mitigation methods, I often break out my expertise when visiting health care providers. Several times, in fact, perhaps more than half of my experiences, we will adjust our plans based on my questions and logic around risks and what we can do if something goes wrong.

Specifically, I once took my son to the emergency room, and when the nurse began trying to stick his arm for the third time for an intravenous feed, I began asking questions about what the feed was for. I won’t bore you with the whole story, but in the end, we decided that it wasn’t necessary and I saved my son from a life-long irrational fear of needles.

Naturally, just as some product development centers are more disciplined or skilled with risk management than others, some hospitals or doctors are likewise better at it than others. I lost someone very close to me because a doctor performed an intravenous scope procedure without a plan to deal with the risks of the procedure.

The scope knocked free some plaque, which blocked an artery and triggered a stroke. The hospital was not prepared to deal with the stroke, and he had to take a helicopter ride to another hospital in a larger city. He perished some time later in that second hospital. You might imagine the words I had for the doctor in the first hospital. He won’t forget our conversation, I’m sure.

Compare that with the experience of another family member. His doctor waited to do the same scope procedure until a surgeon was standing by in case something went wrong, and a bypass or similar procedure was necessary.

I’ve asked my own doctors this year and discovered that they do not receive formal training in a structured risk management methodology, at least not like we do in engineering to ensure that our employer’s don’t waste money on unmitigated or preventable problems. We could probably share a thing or two on the subject.

I won’t go on. My point is that different industries do some things generally better than others, things that we could all stand to improve.

OK, so say that we do want to learn from another industry. How do we begin? If we’re lucky someone in our on-line professional or social network works in the industry in question, and has enough contacts to be able to connect us to the right person. It’s not often we are that lucky.

To make contact where we don’t have network connections, we must get a little clever. Pretend you are unemployed and are trying to get the attention of the person for whom you want to work. Begin by identifying a strong business in that industry, one that probably has something to teach you.

Hit the Internet and search for news releases from that company. Many times, those news releases include a name and sometimes a contact avenue for an executive. It may be the CEO, a marketing VP or a program director. In either case, those individuals probably have the clout to make something happen.

If you can get a snail-mail address, it can sometimes be the most effective way to introduce yourself and propose an exchange. Write a hand-written note to the executive identified congratulating them on the subject of a recent press announcement and make your proposal.

You may or may not get a reply, but you would probably be surprised how often you do. I worked as part of a benchmark team that generated several benchmark visits to industry leaders that did not compete in any way in my employer’s market, and were happy to let a team of ours visit their facility and learn some of their best practices.

Of course we didn’t get any details concerning practices that were considered to be competitive advantages, but we learned a great deal. When you are going outside of your industry, there is little or no threat to a strong-performing business by sharing their best practices. If we can offer something in exchange, earnestly and without sounding too arrogant or patronizing, that’s all for the better.

Another way to reach the expertise we wish to seek is to identify regulatory committees or industry best-practice committees. These committees, just like ours, are comprised of a variety of members from numerous businesses. They are often the most experienced and brightest players. Who better with whom to talk?

Take a similar approach and send a personal letter to the committee chair asking for a phone conversation or some recommended contacts. It’s pretty easy and the results may surprise you. Be plain about your needs and they may be eager to help someone so humble.

I realize that this post is more proposal than advice, but I encourage you to consider the possibilities. Is there something that would improve your performance, but for which you don’t get much advice from your own industry that you don’t already have? I’ve already suggested that other industries are better at global collaboration and safety than most manufacturing practitioners.

Take some time this week and consider whether there might be a mentor out there in another industry that can help you become even better. Think about the potential competitive advantage of better-than-industry skills or the benefits to your business for better safety (for example). Engaging such expertise is often less embarrassing than we think and can be very economical.

Stay wise, friends.

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