From Compliance to Continuous Improvement

I live in a state that requires emissions inspections on all automobiles every 2 years.  Every time I get the reminder letter in the mail, my gut reaction is exasperation because I know that I’m going to have to take time out of my schedule to drive to the emissions station (which is never open at convenient hours), wait in a line of cars for 20-40 minutes, and pay my hard earned money to the state for them to perform the inspection and certify that my car meets the state’s emissions standards.  My reaction has nothing to do with my personal feelings on pollution or environmental care, mind you, and everything to do with my sense of frustration at the disruption that complying with the state’s emissions standards poses on my life.

My experience working in manufacturing is quite similar in many ways.  Certainly all manufacturers have to comply with a set of standards, whether imposed by a governmental organization such as OSHA, an international body of experts, such as ISO or the BRC, or internally developed by your company’s own subject-matter experts.  And I think it’s fair to say that many employees perceive compliance with these standards to be a hassle.  Take OSHA compliance for example.  I’ve never spoken to a single employee at a plant site who did not believe in the importance of workplace safety, but I’ve spoken to many who roll their eyes at the idea that they need to repeat the same safety training courses year after year.

The purpose of this article is certainly not to criticize any organization or governing body that issues these sorts of standards or suggest that companies should not take compliance seriously.  What I’m trying to point out is that something needs to be done to change employee mindsets such that they don’t see compliance to standards as a bad thing but as one mechanism for improving the overall performance of the operation.  Here are two recommendations.

Think In Terms of an Improvement Model

I once came across the following quote by an author named Brian Tracy:  "Goals allow you to control the direction of change in your favor."  I think that’s a profound statement and applies to this topic in a very particular way.  Namely, if compliance to standards is the only goal (or, at least, it’s perceived that way), then once that goal has been achieved once, you’re no longer able to tap in to employees’ desires to get better in a meaningful way.  Simply maintaining adherence to a previously achieved standard will not serve as particular motivation.  Think about a person who sets a goal of completing a marathon.  Once that goal is achieved, he/she is unlikely to be equally as motivated to train the next year based on the same goal.  Instead, he/she will need to raise the goal, perhaps by bettering his/her race time or committing to complete two marathons instead of just one.  And to address this perceived lack of motivation, we remind employees of the negative consequences of non-compliance, which is a notoriously bad motivator over a sustained period of time…it might get the workforce to comply, but it won’t drive discretionary effort (i.e., they’ll do only what they need to do to comply and nothing more).

In our experience one tactic to move past this lack of motivation is to frame the compliance requirements in terms of an overall operational improvement model.  What I mean is that the standards for compliance are woven into a framework that employees can use to take a sustained journey to operational maturity.  Compliance to standards is merely the initial step in that journey.  To continue the marathon analogy, year 1 may be about training to finish a marathon, but the performance goals and training plan for years 2 and beyond are also mapped out.  In other words, it’s not about safety compliance but about driving an interdependent safety culture so that nobody gets injured on the job.  Or it’s not about ISO 9001 compliance, but managing quality so well that we meet or exceed customer’s expectations with the optimal total cost of quality.  A compliance focus won’t develop that sort of mindset in the employee-base.  To make that happen, you’ll need to get them thinking in a more aspirational way, which we believe is only truly possible with a detailed improvement model.


Engage Employees in a Cyclic Gap Identification Process

See if this sounds familiar…Plant A has an annual compliance audit around the same time each year.  This annual audit has taken place at this plant for several years, so employees know what to expect.  About 4 weeks before the audit is scheduled to occur the plant starts preparing in earnest.  They assign a department manager part- or full-time to oversee the preparation efforts, which means that his/her normal job responsibilities will go largely ignored for the better part of a month.  That manager puts together and drives a detailed project plan for all of the work that needs to be done in order to pass the audit.  The plant’s leadership team gets pulled in to a series of meetings focused solely on audit preparation, which dilutes their focus as well.  The production schedule is even adjusted to build additional inventory so that operations can shut down for a few days so employees can be redirected toward audit preparation.  The audit takes place as scheduled and Plant A passes with only a few relatively minor follow up items.  Everyone declares victory and the plant resumes operating as it had 4 weeks prior.

All too often the scenario described above represents reality for the plants.  They “cram for the test” so to speak and, once passed, forget what they learned and return to normal.  Of course, this defeats the entire purpose behind having standards.  Some organizations have tried to overcome this challenge by running informal audits periodically or being less transparent about when an audit might take place.  What we’ve found works quite well though is to work with the sites to develop a managing process whereby the workforce is self-assessing their adherence to standards much more frequently and using those self-assessments as the basis for a constantly updated action plan.  In fact, our clients have found this approach, when combined with an improvement model like was described above, can dramatically improve the operational maturity profile of the entire organization because it allows all plant sites to move forward in parallel without a heavy reliance on corporate specialists to “hand hold” them through the process.

Critical to making this cyclic gap identification process work is (a) architecting the improvement model and assessment criteria properly and (b) getting the right improvement team(s) established and motivated to take the process forward.  Regarding the improvement model and assessment criteria, I recommend you check out our ebook titled “How to Write Successful CI Content,” which provides detailed guidance on the topic.  With regards to the improvement teams, here is what we recommend:

  • Keep the team small and agile – 5-7 team members is often ideal
  • Align to existing accountabilities – the team leader should be the natural owner for the improvements the team is chartered to manage
  • Make it cross functional and multi-level – even though the team should be small, it should also be somewhat representative
  • Charter properly – The improvement teams exist to help prioritize and plan improvements, not to singlehandedly execute every single improvement.  All employees, whether formally part of an improvement team or not, should expect to be engaged in driving the improvement effort

A great way to kick off these teams is through a 2 day workshop to explain their role more formally, facilitate their first self-assessment, develop their initial action plan, and formalize their managing process moving forward (e.g., how frequently they will formally re-assess, how often they will meet, how they will report progress, when to escalate issues, etc.).


About EON

EON partners with companies of varying sizes and across industries to implement continuous improvement models that are impactful and sustainable.  Unlike traditional consultants we take a product-centric with our clients.  Our competitive differentiator is EON, the world’s first comprehensive continuous improvement management platform.  EON helps companies to manage their operational excellence journey across multiple locations.  It enables strategy setting, improvement project management, best practices implementation, and performance analytics.  EON’s Leading Indicators Scorecard provides concurrent visibility into the status of CI at any level of the organization.


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EON Team

The EON Platform team works tirelessly to write content that provides valuable, actionable insights.