March 3, 2017 JV

Snatch the pebble from my hand

BJJWhen I was little, I used to call them “kung-fu pyjamas.”  The gi is iconic, representing most martial arts; seen everwhere from the Olympics to Chuck Norris classics.  More than that, the gi is a symbol of strenth, a fearsome premonition of what lies within.  Exponents of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu know full well the power of the gi, skllled in at least six ways to legally choke an opponent with it during a contest.  I guess if you’re going to take a nap, you might as well be wearing your PJ’s.

Wearing an impressive new gi, held in place by a clean white belt,  my son-in-law Tai recently competed in his first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament.  Like a sledge hammer poised precariously above a slippery walnut or David Pocock over a rugby ruck, he seemed to toy with his hapless opponent.  For almost the entire five minute bout, Tai appeared in control but somehow managed to lose on a technicality.  How did that happen?  Before raising his opponent’s arm, the referee sheepishly instructed Tai on why he had lost.  He learned an important lesson that day about his favourite sport.  It’s not about being big and strong and owning your opponent – you’ve got to know the ways of winning.  You must be able to snatch the pebble from the blind master’s hand.  Anyway, I’m sure glad I wasn’t the guy who won – he looked like a wreck.Pebble in my hand

Watching this took me back to my BHP Billiton days; they looked strong and dominant, but not quite appreciating the ways of the wise, blind master – the pebble of continuous improvement.  Around 2001, Six Sigma was being introduced as the standard improvement methodology across the entire enterprise.  I remember seeing the photos of GE’s program being announced with the Chuck Norris doppelgangers wearing their gi’s.  The reference to Yellow, Green and Black belts was quite rational, but like the 2003 Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson movie, it all seemed to be “Lost in Translation.”  What was it supposed to be all about?

I was managing the Australasian contingent of the Global Maintenance Network support team while the Operating Excellence Six Sigma group began rolling out their “top-down” program.  They insisted that all other improvement methodologies be shelved so that we didn’t confuse the folk at site.  Although it sounded good in principle, it did not make good business sense (in my opinion) and the GMN team did not roll over easily.  We were already in the midst of implementing a basic, “bottom-up” problem-solving methodology using PDCA, some Root Cause Analysis and a dose of common sense.  This clash resulted in many heated debates within our corporate team.  After an executive order from the OE boss, we went back to our corner, fumed for a while and stopped offering the basic problem solving methodology.

So what was wrong with exclusively rolling out the Six Sigma DMAIC roadmap?  After all, wasn’t it a world class methodology used by many successful businesses including Motorola and GE?  Well, frankly, all of our collective experience screamed that most reliability improvement projects fit a simpler, more agile tool-set.  Six Sigma seemed over the top for all but the most complex of problems.  What we (the GMN full time team) were advocating for was a methodology that every person could use; one that fit better with the culture of excellence that we were attempting to shape.

It appeared that Six Sigma (the original version, at least) was simply not a good match with the majority of issues being faced by sites.  They suffered from a diversity of problems, a paucity of good quality data and business leaders with little patience for improvement methodologies.  Sites were dying the death of a thousand cuts.  Some quick wins, even if not that big, would have gone a long way to bridging coal-face frustrations with some senior management support.  It was not to be; the slower, process-heavy approach rolled in like a juggernaut, despite its lack of fit with the majority of equipment and process problems being experienced.  Eventually, simplified Green and Yellow-Belt courses appeared, but it was too little, too late.  I guess when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?

Let me take a process time-out here and be absolutlely clear.  I know I’m painting a pretty bleak picture, but the Six Sigma program was very successful, numerically-speaking.  Many good projects were completed and much value was delivered.  What concerned me was the way we went about it and what remained when all was said and done.  It felt like Six Sigm was “done to” sites more than them doing it for themselves.  There could have been less “Hi, I’m from Corporate and I’m here to help” and more tailoring and engagement.  We could have seen a larger segment of the organisation invested in improvement; leading and shaping the desired work culture.  We should have seen more of it stick after all of the supports were removed.

When Chip Goodyear left BHP Billiton in 2007, Marius Kloppers didn’t want a corporate Excellence group.  That was patently obvious..  He had grand plans for an organisational design underpinned by SAP.  However, just like the post-war, US automakers, BHP Billiton got caught in a Production craze, fuelled by the China boom and its attendent record commodity prices.  It just took a very, very long time to design and implement a new organisation and to implement OneSAP.  During this time and because of the growth focus, the concept of improvement was treated like a red-headed step-child.  Within a year of the changing of the guard, there was very little to indicate that a decade of Operating Excellence had just transpired.

Now, I ask myself, why am I revisiting this?  Is it sour grapes for being made redundant?  Do I think that I may actually know better than others and truly understand what happened within BHP Billiton after I left?  Even though I’m commenting from the sidelines, and perhaps I didn’t really understand what happened on-field, I believe some important lessons were there to be learnt.  Note: If I have exaggerated some details or put steps out of order, it is not intentional.

When Marius became CEO, the Black Belt coaches and BI departments were removed and the sites’ ability to improve was significantly curtailed.  BI was responsible for improvement.  They owned the coaches, the methodology and the KPIs.  Improvement was “bolted on” to the organisation, rather than being ingrained.  Years later, new organisational designs were put into place to address this, but I can’t tell for sure if a culture of excellence is emerging.  I hope so; I have a few shares.

What’s the big take-way from this story?  BHP Billiton eventually worked out what and how to do improvement, but spent a long time getting to where it needed to be.  Like many other businesses, they put all of their efforts into one improvement methodology and hoped it would be a one size fits all solution to any problem.  They bought a sledgehammer, because it could crack the shell of any nut.  The problem was that we wanted whole nuts, but often got paste.Sledgehammer

A better approach to improvement, in my opinion, is to have an small array of simple tools in the tool box and to apply the right one appropriately.  Additionally, everyone needs to be responsible for improving within their own sphere of influence.  If we have a BI department, their role should be like that of the Safety Advisor.  Improvement, like Safety, should be everyone’s responsibility and the advisor’s role is to advise.  This takes more education and an understanding of how to match the tool to the problem, but with improvement being an essential part of work, there can be no other way.  As I stated in a previous blog: , “How come we never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it again?”

Comments (2)

  1. Wayne Strudwick

    John, another thought provoking article. I tend to agree, use the KISS principle where possible and ensure engagement at all levels of the business for successful safety and business improvement models. You can impose it, but all you get is a shallow representation of what is possible. Another area I think is undervalued is business and plant knowledge. Trades and some operators who work day to day in the field, and can think out of the box are better equipped for improvement ideas and execution than a team of consultants. With the high tech plant in use now, the site electrician can have valuable input into process improvement if they are allowed to ( that means giving them the encouragement and time to do this)

    • JV

      Wayne, I totally agree. I have first-hand experience of operators knowing what needs to happen to improve. Leaders need to learn how to listen. They need to go the gemba.

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