Murphy’s Laws of Process Excellence

John Murphy

Oh, if I only knew a decade ago, what I know today

PEX Network advisor John Murphy shares his lessons learned from more than a decade in continuous improvement and even lays down the "laws" of the game.

Recently, as part of a benchmarking discussion, I was asked by the president of a large non-US firm what my lessons learned were after thirteen years as a continuous improvement (CI) leader in a Fortune 250 company. I field this question often at the conferences, customer boards, and other information exchange events where I present.

Before offering my standard reply on this occasion, I pondered the question and assessed whether my answer needed to be revised. I decided it did.

Here is what I told him:

Lesson #1: CI initiatives must be linked to overall strategy and have clear financial impact

Strategic alignment means that continuous improvement (or key initiatives) is part of the Executive-level and/or Board goals. Financial alignment means that the strategic program or initiative has clear accountability to the bottom line in a significant and meaningful level (e.g. add $XXM annually to a company’s business plan). More mature programs may wish to also include a focus on alignment to a customer, service, growth, or revenue goal; however, productivity-based alignment is of greater interest to the leadership team in the infancy of a CI program/initiative.

Without strategic and financial alignment the chance of success in continuous improvement is reduced as CI work becomes driven by "firefighting" or day to day process variation. Projects either die a suddenly or project sourcing becomes so spread across the organization, that no meaningful results are seen in key measurements/drivers of that organization. Both of these scenarios retard CI programs, whereas alignment offers the fertile ground needed for any successful effort.

Lesson #2: A tool doesn’t make a craftsman

Nearly all CI programs teach too many tools. In the embryonic stage of any CI program, this is unavoidable. Minimize this challenge by having clear expectations in the near term and keep track of the tools being used (successfully) by the organization. After 6 month to one year, enough data should be available to right-size the training and target tools to get the job done.

More controversially, I think that while the CI tools energize a project by driving fact-based analysis and bringing a surgical focus to bear on the problem, they pale in comparison to the organizational impact of what good change and project management within a CI program or project can accomplish. At the end of the day, we’re changing people’s behaviour and, regrettably, most CI organizations give a passing glance at change and project management, focusing instead on teaching DOE’s, regressions, 2 sample T Test and all the other fun stats stuff. I’ve found that those who "walk the talk" of change and project management are usually more successful leaders, have more successful CI programs/initiatives that last longer.

Within my own toolset I’ve come to strongly embrace John Kotter’s change series notably "Leading Change", "a Force for Change", "Our Iceberg is Melting" and "A Sense of Urgency". All great reads that I recommend to all fledging CI leaders. His eight-stage process of creating major change has been often applied to ensure success and to diagnose strategic initiative and programs failures. From a project perspective the CAP tools (change acceleration process – I was trained in them from GE, but the origin is much debated) work well at the project level.

Lesson #3: Leaders must focus relentlessly on achieving the right results in the right way (and quickly!)

The CI leader must be relentless, thick skinned, highly ethical, have strong financial skills, be collaborative, recognized as a thought leader, provide solutions, and most importantly (as we westerners say) the CI leader role is to GET RESULTS, THE RIGHT WAY, RIGHT QUICK!

Lesson #4: Continuous improvement needs to link together process and data to make more intelligent and efficient businesses

To all of the above, I’ve added one new lesson learned – the need for the CI leader to drive the notion of "Big data". "Big data" is IBM’s concept that organizations spend too much time capturing, cataloging, and analyzing data. Managerial time is spent on gathering data vs. filtering, analyzing and acting on the information. I’ve bought into their concept that data needs to become instrumented, interconnected and intelligent. This is the long vision for the CI community to truly become THE change agent within their organizations.

Incorporating Murphy's Laws

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I thought my standard answer needed to be revised. I believe that my four lessons above hold true (and I hope you’ve found them useful) but I also wanted to share with you perhaps a simpler list. One of my leadership candidates provided a helpful chart from one of the endless sources of Murphy’s Law products to help me stay grounded and remember the basic principles. This chart is titled Murphy’s 25 Laws of Combat and a couple of my favorites are:

  • If it’s stupid and works, it’s not stupid - out of box thinking works
  • If your attack - project in corporate parlance - is going really well, it’s an ambush (usually by those who must change)
  • No plan survives the first contact intact - speaks to the need to FMEA work plans in a team environment
  • The easy way is always mined - in combat or business means same
  • The simple things are always hard - e.g. cross-functional meetings
  • When both sides are confident they will lose, they usually do - attitude, preparation, relentless selling are key to success in the CI experience
  • And finally, you are not a Superman - it’s all about teamwork not lone wolves

Whether you agree with my lessons learned or have others you would have liked to have seen, the end game for all of us is that we grow what we do as CI leaders and that we aid our organizations in achieving best possible performance and results. It’s through exchanges of opinion and ideas where this is accomplished – please join the discussion on LinkedIn and let us know what you think! What are your key lessons learned?