The End of Winter…Perhaps? A Lesson in Extremes

Image courtesy of dan/

Image courtesy of dan/

I live in the Chicago area, which means that along with corrupt politicians I am plagued with cold winters, hot summers, and not much time in between.  For those of you that have been keeping up with the national weather this winter you have noticed that the entire United States has been through quite a bit of a cold snap.  Chicago had to deal with actual temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit (I didn’t make a mistake, that is a negative sign).  It the summer we will undoubtedly have a week of highs that will reach, if not breach, triple digits.  That is a 120 degree swing!

We can cope with these changes because they are gradual.  Yesterday was 50 degrees and it felt like a wonderful summer day to me.  Everything is relative.  If you peppered 100-degree days in with -20-degree days it would be miserable (not that they aren’t by themselves).  However, the gradual changes makes for a more tolerable extreme.

The caution I am giving here is the analogy of the frog in the pot of boiling water: put a frog in boiling water and he will jump out, but put him in warm water and slowly boil it and he will stay in and not notice the difference.

If you are in a working environment where the pot has slowly started to boil, how can you tell?  Have you ever worked with the people that say “we have always done it like that”?  Those are the folks that started in cool water and have reached a boil and don’t know it.  Extremes can sneak up on us if the change is slow.   And these extremes aren’t limited to processes or equipment, they can be related to culture and working relationships as well.

So how can you make sure you are not in hot water?

  1. Benchmarking.  If you can, benchmark your industry and see where you sit.  Don’t give yourself excuses either, if you are at the bottom, so be it.  Get better.
  2. Long-term trending.  See if you can get trends from the last decade.  Don’t look at the last few years as they may be too small of a sample size (Have you seen the stock market daily chart versus the 3-year?  One is not necessarily and indicator of the other.)
  3. New-hire assessments.  Use your new people as thermometers to gauge your water temperature.  Have them write honest one-month, three-month and six-month essays about your organization.  Make them anonymous so that they can be completely truthful.  They are the frogs that just entered the pot.  They can tell you if the water is too hot.
  4. The Right KPIs.  Make sure they are the right KPIs (read here).  It is not always easy to tell if you have the right one, but looking at these trends versus your standard can help.  You should always evaluate your standard, too.

Those 50-degree days seem great in the winter, but they seem downright cold in the summer.  Make sure you are using the right thermometer when you gauge the temperature.  A point-of-reference is necessary to understand your true situation.


Running by the Numbers

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/


We are all measured on what we do and how well we do it.  After all, if you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it.  But what happens when we measure the wrong things?

The answer is simple, we get the wrong (or suboptimal) results.  Having KPIs is a good thing.  But the wrong KPI or the wrong target can spell disaster.  It is important to find the right measurements before you implement a tracking system.

Step 1 – What do you want to accomplish?  Define a goal.  It doesn’t have to be quantifiable at this point.  It can be something as simple as “reduce operating costs” or “improve customer satisfaction”.

Step 2 – Is your goal one that will not contradict others?  For example, if instead of “reduce operating costs” we used, “reduce labor costs” that could cause a reduction in throughput and then a net increase in operating costs if we are not careful.  Don’t improve in one area simply to worsen in another.

Step 3 – Determine not what will get you there, but what will hold you back.  Understanding the constraints to your goal will help you to find the areas where your KPIs will assist one another rather than conflict with each other.  If you want to decrease operating costs know that you still will have to conduct changeovers and shutdown for cleaning, etc.  Quantifying these impacts will help you understand the real room for improvement that you have.

Step 4 – Create your baseline.  If you don’t have one, you need one.  If you have one, confirm it.

Step 5 – Set a realistic, time-based goal.  Don’t shoot for the moon on your first try.  Set something modest and make sure you have enough time to accomplish it.

Step 6 – Celebrate your wins.  Learn from your losses.  Too often we are focused on the bad.  Take some time to recognize when you and the team have done well.  Don’t punish failure, rather learn from it and publish the results or talk about them in a team meeting.  Don’t hide from failure either.  People should know if they didn’t hit the mark and how to do better next time.

Step 7 – Repeat.  This is a process.  Don’t rest, but don’t change things up so much that you don’t have time to make significant strides.  Try to have fun and make sure you are winning more than you are losing.