I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on operational excellence and how to achieve it within an organization. I’m a firm believer that safety is not an à la carte component of an organization, but rather a standard component of truly exceptional companies.
In my research, I came across the story of W. Edwards Deming. The story caught my attention because like Deming, I’m a graduate of the University of Wyoming (Go Pokes!).
Deming is a relatively unknown figure in world history, but some believe he’s the reason for Japanese dominance in the automotive industry. Deming believed in using statistical data to quantify the manufacturing process. He studied product quality, efficiency and how well companies were managed. His examination led him to the conclusion that many manufacturing processes were flawed and that only upper management’s active engagement could fix them.
Deming’s ideas were simple but considered revolutionary at the time. He did not think that a company’s workers were to blame for product failures, but rather that management was responsible. If a product was made poorly, it was because the people in charge designed a flawed delivery system.
Deming was particularly critical of the way US corporations instituted quality control methods in the manufacturing process. He felt that inspecting products for defects after they have been manufactured, made no sense. Rather, why not design the manufacturing process to ensure quality products are created, even before the process begins?
This story is illustrated in Simon Sinek’s popular book “Start With Why”. Sinek tells the story of American auto executives taking a tour of a Japanese auto plant’s assembly line. After watching the final sequence of a car being put together, the Americans noticed that there was no inspection of the vehicle doors. When someone asked why no one checked to be sure the doors fit perfectly, the tour guide responded, “We make sure the doors fit during design”.
Similarly, with safety management, if you don’t get the desired outcome (zero incidents), it is likely because of a flaw in the design of the process being used. If failures exist within a process, they can lead to accidents and injuries. A worker may be at fault for setting the failure into motion by violating a rule for instance, but ultimately, the process allowed for the failure.
To create real safety in an organization, to be able to predict incidents before they happen, an organization must first understand how their processes can result in failures. Collectively, we need to stop managing outcomes (injury rates) and learn to focus on the process.
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