The Reason Your Employees Are Always Putting Out

images-53Company leaders, consider the following questions: How many surprises have you dealt with this week? How many customer relationships have had to be rescued or late orders escalated? How many apologies delivered, numbers explained, or presentations redone?

Every leader I know wrestles with these and other crises as a matter of routine. Yet leaders also recognize that running a business through constant firefighting puts them at risk of stressed-out employees, customer defections, a damaged brand, and safety or ethics catastrophes.

On closer inspection, the vast majority of fires are preventable. They are essentially “rework” — the added effort and cost required because something was not done right the first time. Unfortunately, firms can get stuck in a vicious cycle of rework, shortcuts, and more rework. I once worked with a workers compensation firm that discovered they could cut costly disputes and attorney involvement by contacting injured workers within 24 hours. Still, new claims would languish for a full five to seven days, because employees were dealing with all the prior claims that had gone to court. Unfortunately, this meant 80 percent of those new claims would also involve attorneys and disputes. In aggregate, rework costs can be huge. The Juran Institute estimated in 2010 that 15 to 20 percent of revenues for manufacturing companies went to rework; for service businesses, it estimated 30 to 35 percent.

How did we get to this point, where firefighting is standard operating procedure? And how do we get out? Thirty years ago, the godfather of quality, W. Edwards Deming, addressed a similar situation with his book, Out of the Crisis (MIT, 1982). Japan had begun making products with high conformance quality at lower cost than poorer quality products made elsewhere. Many U.S. executives assumed Japanese exporters must be dumping products at a loss, and responded with price wars, cost cutting, and blame for American workers. In his book, Deming focused on how leaders could shift their organizations from a short-term focus on manipulating numbers to more ongoing, sustained success. Although his work is generally applied to manufacturing or routine services, many of Deming’s “14 points for management” can be adapted to help managers in knowledge-driven, professional businesses to dig their teams out of constant crisis. Here are just a few:

“Create constancy of purpose.” Without a sense of the bigger picture — what you are trying to accomplish and why it matters — people naturally default to fixing problems. Unfortunately, this approach never creates the level of delight or innovation that wins you customers for life. Deming encouraged managers to focus explicitly on a mission and longer-term goals to counter-balance the pull of immediate issues. This means defining clearly what you are promising to your customers, so employees know what they should strive to deliver. Even in highly dynamic environments, such a meaningful mission can provide constancy while tactics and strategies shift.