Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ideas Across Industries

Executive Summary:
Some industries or industry segments are better at certain things.  If your business needs to become better as certain skills or practices, look to other industries for examples or help.

The Rest of the Story:
With the availability of the Intranet and all of the free information it provides, we still experience boundaries around our particular industries and those industry practices.  These moats seem to be particularly prevalent when it comes to skills and skill-related practices.  Herein, I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own experience.

I want to encourage all of us not only to look at those practices which we know we need to shore up, but to take a look at those practices for which other industries are well known and ask ourselves if we could benefit from the same expertise.

Let’s look at two vastly different industries: consumer product development, and health care.  One practice that has already migrated from consumer product development into health care is the practice of Lean methodologies.

No doubt, some of our enterprising Lean entrepreneurs, after an experience in health care of their own, immediately saw an opportunity and began making demonstrations and proposals.  It’s a good thing too, in my opinion.

Based on that, we already know that what is good practice in one industry can be a good practice in others, even when the industries are vastly different.  Therefore, I would like to ignore or bypass any discussion of that here.

Let’s look at something that the health care industry does very well, that many product development and manufacturing businesses might emulate to significant benefit.  The health care industry is very safety-minded and has a “Never Again” program to ensure that embarrassing and damaging mistakes don’t repeat.

The Never Again mentality of health care drives practices that in product development industries would be laughed at for overprotection, but no patient seems to complain about.  I’ll give you an example from my own recent experience concerning arthroscopic surgery.

After episodes where the incorrect joint was operated upon, surgeons and surgery teams now practice an extraordinary error prevention process when performing arthroscopic surgery.  Actually, I believe these practices are used for virtually every form of surgery.

When I had my own procedure performed, every nurse, anesthesiologist, and my surgeon asked me which shoulder I was having reconstructed.  My own family doctor made a point of instructing me to write “NO” in big letters on my opposite shoulder before going to the surgery center that morning.

The surgeon wrote his own code words, including “NO” on my shoulders to prevent any last-minute memory lapses.  Lastly, once I was prepped and ready for surgery, the entire surgical team took a “time-out” to make sure that everything was in order before beginning.

The surgeon pointed to everyone in the room, one at a time and asked what procedure they were performing on what shoulder.  If anyone thought differently than the answer another gave, they were to speak up.  It’s better to double check than to make an assumption.

In addition, each instrument and consumable was carefully counted and logged before and after the procedure to ensure that every component could be accounted.  This is done to ensure that something isn’t left where it shouldn’t be, such as inside of a client.

Take a quick look at your own business or team.  Do you exercise the same rigor around machine start-up, or testing, or pulling the metaphorical trigger on launching a product?  Would it save expensive or injurious mistakes if you did?

In manufacturing, we are greatly interested and incentivized to ensure the safety of our coworkers or employees.  Yet, I have never witnessed a production floor with the same safety consciousness that my surgical team used.  I believe that the manufacturing and product development industry could learn from the healthcare industry on the subject of safety and accident prevention.

I also believe that we in the manufacturing, and particularly the product development, industries have more to share with health care.  In fact, I have talked with a few of my doctors in the last year and learned that they do not receive the same style of training that some engineers and project managers do regarding a very important subject for health care.  That is risk management.

In product development, we try very hard to manage and mitigate risks.  Risks that turn into problems cost money, sometimes a great deal of money.  Many of us receive formal training in risk management and make a habit of using tools such as design scorecards or Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) to identify and mitigate risks.

When I asked my care providers about their training in risk management, it became clear that there are fewer formal methods used or training provided in healthcare.  Of course the reason I asked is because I have often used my own risk management training when consulting with my care providers and frequently we have changed the plan from what they recommended based on my risk management questions and my concerns about mitigation or contingency.

Of course, just as some product development centers are better at conducting risk management than others, some doctors and hospitals are better than others.  When a family member of mine had an intravenous scope procedure performed the doctor refused to initiate the procedure until a cardiac surgeon was standing by in case of emergency.  This was good risk planning.

Another family member of mine, a few years before, was not so lucky.  A hospital doctor performed the same type of scope procedure and knocked free a piece of plaque in the process.  The free plaque induced a stroke, which the hospital was not prepared to handle, and my family member took a helicopter ride to another hospital in a larger city, which was better equipped to handle his induced emergency.  He didn’t make it out of the second hospital.

As you might imagine, the doctor at the first hospital will probably never forget the conversation he and I had afterward.  Obviously, the healthcare industry could benefit significantly from some of the risk management tools, methods, and practices we in engineering use everyday.  If they had a likewise mindset focused on preventative maintenance like many of us in manufacturing, our healthcare and insurance costs would be less as well.

I have dozens of examples I could share, but my point is this.  Just because we think we do something well, or that it is not intuitive that another industry should be better at something than we, it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn better methods or practices from someone else.

If we want to break into knowledge and methods from other industries, we need to get outside of our normal networks and methods of introducing new skills.  Consider that our usual methods for introducing new knowledge or skills into our businesses are to either hire someone who has them, or to contract a consultant to teach them to us.  Inevitably, those people that we hire or contract are people with experience in our own industry, and therefore they do not have insight into the better skills of other industries.

Believe it or not, it’s easier to make contact with experts in other industries than we might at first assume.  The first way to make contact is to identify some of the regulatory or standards committees in those other industries.  These committees are made up of experts from businesses throughout industry so they are made up of the people with whom we probably need to talk, and they also generally have Web sites with contact information.

Simply contact the liaison for the committee and explain your need and ask for some advice concerning with whom you could or should discuss your problems.  Sometimes a member of the committee turns out to be the one we talk to, and sometimes we just get some suggestions for consulting firms with the expertise we seek.  Either way, we score.

Another tactic we can use is to do an Internet search for press releases concerning companies in those other industries.  If we can identify a company in another industry that we believe institutes the skills we seek, we can easily find recent press releases or Internet articles.

From those articles, we can often find someone at the executive level identified along with a way to contact that individual.  A hand written letter from one of our executives to the one identified can often open doors and initiate a dialog.  Simply offer some congratulations concerning the subject of the press release and plainly state your desire to learn how they exercise the skill of interest.

I’ve worked on a team that set up a number of benchmark studies with other companies and the above tactics were often used when our professional networks couldn’t make the connections for us.  What’s surprising is how often other companies, particularly if they do not compete with us in any way, are very open to letting us pay a visit and see their operations and best practices.

It may be a leap, but I suspect the same hospitality and willingness to share would be extended to teaching someone in a completely different industry the skills that we seek.  Just don’t expect anyone to share something that they consider a competitive advantage.

I urge us all to take a good look at our own practices and then look outside and see if another industry, maybe even one we wouldn’t intuitively expect, might not be better at an important skill.  Go ahead, get out of your comfort zone and your usual industrial network, send some letters, or contact some committees.  Imagine the business benefits, even the competitive edge you might gain by learning how someone else does better than we.

Stay wise, friends.

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