I have a confession. I despise reactive, firefighting processes and cultures. I do. The costs of this approach are too high. It impacts every part of your business from your internal team, quality, processes, product, and clients. I’m daring you to migrate from a reactive to proactive strategy. Let me tell you a story to show you what it can do for you.
This is the story of one of my favorite projects. It’s the story of a manufacturing facility. As I tell it to you, I want you to think about your business.
What is Firefighting and Reactive?
Before we begin the story, let’s make sure you understand what firefighting and reactive mean. An event has happened. Something is down or not working correctly. Your team jumps into action, reacting to the crisis. It’s too late to prevent it. Instead, you are in a reactive mode to quickly get whatever it is back online and working again.
When I arrived, the facility had yet to realize a return on their major capital equipment investment. They were bleeding money and impacting the corporation’s ability to ship trucks. Corporate was forced to seek engines from other sources. The situation was dire as corporate mandated an ultimatum.
They hired my firm to whip the capital equipment into shape, increase uptime, and decrease the throughput. They wanted more quality products going out the door. They wanted what they paid for when they upgraded their facility the prior year with all this new fancy equipment. It seemed like a reasonable request.
Observe. You will pinpoint the key drivers which influence every aspect of your business.Whenever I walk into a new facility, I observe. I need a sense of not only the production equipment and processes, but also the culture, teams, and leadership. It doesn’t take long to pinpoint the key drivers which influence every aspect of business. Sit in a few meetings, stand on the factory floor, and watch. As an outsider, you can see the effect. When you dig, you’ll find the root cause.
This particular facility had a couple of core issues: overly complex systems and a reactive culture. The leadership team drove both of these issues. Their vision propagated into this reality.
A Reactive Culture
When a production line goes down, it means the facility is no longer shipping product out the door. They are losing money as each minute passes. It’s a bad situation.
For this facility, every time the line went down, everyone stopped and ran to it. It didn’t matter what they were doing. The production lead was empowered to call out over the radio (yes, everyone wore radios). A swat team of maintenance personnel, engineers, and the leadership team dropped everything and ran to the machine. The facility went into crisis mode.
Yes, it’s bad when the production line stops producing. But this reactive approach increased the downtime costs exponentially. Why? Nothing else was getting done. People were not able to focus on their role. Their number one directive was to keep the line running. That’s wrong.
The leadership drove the facility to focus on the wrong directives. The result was costing them their facility.
A transformation in culture and vision takes time. It does not happen quickly. It’s a process and one where you have to deliver incremental results and prove the new way is better. It’s a journey.
The first step was to show the leadership a new way forward. We needed their buy-in first; otherwise, nothing was going to change.
Let me tell you that you can’t walk into a boardroom and declare “Hey, you are doing it wrong.” They will march you right out the door. Instead, you have to show them proof. Then walk them through your transformation plan. Give them metrics, as they want to hold you accountable. They want to see progress and measure it. You have to let them put you on a short leash. Then it’s up to you to deliver.Are you a spectator or part of the solution?
We needed to ask hard questions:
Why do you need to be there when the line is down? What value do you contribute to solving the problem? Are you getting the line back up and running? Are you a spectator or part of the solution?
The leaders felt their presence would apply pressure and send a message. They thought being visible in the time of crisis elevated its importance and would drive the team to move more quickly. Okay, it worked. Everyone saw it as a crisis. But it didn’t get the line up and running any faster. Actually, it had the opposite effect.
Let the Transformation Begin
The transformation began once the leadership team trusted their internal processes to handle the situation. They stopped coming out to the line when it went down.Engineers are too expensive to be first responders and support personnel.
The next step was to determine why the engineering team needed to be there? Traditionally the Production and Maintenance teams are responsible to handle these situations. Why weren’t they able to?
The simple facts were: the systems were too complex and there were no processes in place to empower them. The system was built to be serviced by the engineering team. Hmm, that’s the wrong strategy. Engineers are meant to build new systems and continuously improve the facility. But this facility turned the team into first responders.
Why is this bad? If engineering is focusing on support and not innovation, how will the facility improve or grow? It won’t. Now think about the costs of having engineers doing maintenance work. It’s steep. The result was: it heavily burdened operations’ budgets.Engineers are not support personnel. We build, innovate, and continuously improve your products. Click To Tweet
We needed a new approach to empower those who were responsible for responding and fixing the issues. Then the engineers could focus on their role.Less complex systems are easier to maintain.
We set out to simplify the machines and processes. In doing so, there was an immediate uptick in productivity. Less complex systems are easier to maintain and fix. They break less often.
Reframing the Question
The question asked in every meeting was: “Why does it take so long to fix the machine?” That was the wrong question. The question should be: “How can we prevent the lines from going down?”
The right question is: How can it be prevented?Do you see the difference in the questions? One is reactive. Right? The line is down. It’s past tense. You are responding and reacting to something that has already happened. That’s reactive. The other question seeks to prevent it from happening. It’s a proactive approach.Pro Tip: Don't ask: how do we fix this? Instead ask: how can we prevent it? #BeProactive Click To Tweet
By reframing the question, the teams opened their minds and energies to shift their approach. Maintenance focused on scheduling tune-up times, i.e. scheduled downtimes. Production monitored metrics to understand what thresholds might alert us to an event. We had data. We just needed to understand it.
Then my team got to work. We built them a predictive modeling system. It predicted when an event might occur to give the facility time to properly plan and prevent downtime.
What is a Predictive Modeling System?
If you watch Netflix or Hulu, notice that it makes recommendations based upon your viewing history. It’s learning about you and then using the information against a pool of data. It’s a machine learning process.
A predictive modeling system works in the same way. It uses machine learning algorithms to analyze data, look for patterns, and use heuristics to predict what might happen. It’s constantly learning. Ours was real-time. It used real-time information and then compared it to past data and events.
Using that system, we married it with a problem solving system. Once an event was flagged, the system provided the plan. It looked up parts to make sure they were in stock and ready. If no, it flagged the proper department to order the parts. It added tasks to the maintenance schedule. It provided a step-by-step process to resolve the issue.
Over time, the system got better and better at both predicting and resolving potential events.
Think about how powerful this tool is to a company. Imagine foreseeing pending downtime events. It had a dramatic and immediate impact on the facility. Downtime decreased significantly. Production increased.
We used it to analyze bottlenecks and quality. It morphed into a continuous improvement platform. As a result, more quality products shipped out the door. Profitability increased.
How Does it Help You?
You might be reading this case study and thinking “Well that’s cool, but how does it help me?” Ah, I want you to think about your business, culture, processes, and workflow.
Think about what happens when something goes wrong. What is your culture? Does everyone (or you) go running to the problem? For example, your big client has an issue. What happens? Stop and observe.
One area you can look at is the support group. How do you handle support? A traditional help desk is reactive. How can you transform it into a system that empowers your clients to successfully use your products? How can you turn it into a self-supporting system where clients can find answers before they become a problem?
Fix quality issues and bugs before they ever reach your client.
Look at your maintenance processes. What happens when there’s a bug or wonky behavior? How does your team respond and resolve the issue? What processes do you have in place to find the problems beforehand?
If you are a freelancer or employee, think about your own workflow. How do you prevent problems from occurring in your work? What systems do you have in place to know that something is not doing what it should?
If you are a developer or lead a software team, think about how you test and qualify the code in the build and test phase. Listen to me. You want to prevent bugs and wonky behavior from ever reaching your client. Fixing bugs after your product ships is reactive. Move the testing upstream and directly into your workflow. Be proactive. Build. Test. And then test some more.
A proactive strategy reduces your costs, improves quality, and drives profitability.
And build quality right into your code, products, and processes. Quality will thwart issues. That’s a good thing.
Don’t be like the facility in my case study. A proactive strategy reduces your costs, improves quality, and drives profitability. But what else happens? I didn’t cover it in my story.
Back to the facility in my case study. Morale was low when I arrived. It’s not fun to be in a constant crisis mode. It drains you. No one wants management and leadership standing over them as they do their work. It’s demoralizing.Don’t discount the impact of a happy team.
As the facility stacked up wins, morale increased. The teams became happier and happier. People were smiling and happily pitched in to make everything better. It’s contagious. They felt a sense of empowerment and purpose. They felt connected. They could see how their involvement helped.
The facility turned itself around. They were at the brink of chains on the door and jobs lost. They became the top performers in the corporation. They are profitable and growing. It’s a fun place to work.
Wrap it Up
I want you to stop right now. Observe. Are you reactive or proactive? It’s a simple question. I’m daring you to shift to a proactive approach. When you do, you will fuel and unlock your potential.