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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

Goodbye, America

This Scot uproots to Caledonia

Published: Thursday, October 16, 2014 - 13:27

I have four clocks hanging on my office wall, each one individually set for a strange and different time zone somewhere on this planet. I need to know these various times, as I am sure to engage with someone somewhere else at some point during the day.

From clock to clock, each second ticks loudly out of sequence, and although I have been able to block out this sound, I have not been able to obscure the knowledge that, after three years, I will soon be leaving the United States to start a new timeline in my life, and a new starting point in my professional career.

Strangely enough, I have become a little retrospective of late; I’m typically very forward-looking, thinking about what comes next. Today I’m mentally checking off all the things that I’ve done, including some of my proudest achievements. There are others I wish I had achieved.

I could list them here for you in their little circular bullet-point glory, butthat perhaps would not make for the most compelling of articles. I do, however, feel that one of my more eccentric moments may be worth playing out, simply to explain the benefits of doing something different in the pursuit of improving a business.

Like many great tales, it starts a long time ago....

Coming to America

It is mid-September 2011. With a great deal of excitement, my wife and I have finally arrived in the United States. She has selflessly put her ambitions as a professional certified psychiatric nurse in the UK on hold to support my career progression. As Mrs. N began to enjoy the cool autumnal weather of Southern Louisiana and the pleasure of finding new ways to fill her day, I busily submerged myself in the challenge of a new role.

With great enthusiasm and passion, I worked hard on building relationships with my new colleagues, and even harder at looking for problems. Like any business, there are many to choose from, and I typically cannot wait to fix them. In this mix of excitable and uncontrollable enthusiasm, my new manager gave me the freedom and support to make it better.

It became my goal to foster new quality principles and ideas within the organization. For the longest time, I wanted to understand how best to accelerate quality improvements. The realization came quickly that improvements were not as continuous in the business as I hoped. In fact, I really couldn’t see the team members contributing their ideas, and any that were presented were not fairly heard, nor was there any follow-up from many different areas. This all had to change.

So, dressing in my brightest polo shirts (please note, I only match my outfit with the socks that I put on in the morning), I set out to make change. I am a big fan of Toyota, and I really admired the company’s “A3” improvement projects. Jeffrey K. Liker, in the book The Toyota Way (McGraw-Hill, 2004), goes into great detail on the process of creating one, but simply described, an A3 captures an improvement story: the problem, the causes, the solution, and the benefits.

I used this principle to capture the many little improvements that I facilitated, where I sought out someone’s great idea, took the before-and-after pictures, helped to get the help or the “whatever” that was needed, and worked with the team member to see if it worked. If it did work, the A3 (or, as I called it, the “Four Boxer”) was created, which was a little poster celebrating the team’s ideas and successes. During regular manager meetings the following week, I would share details of these successes with our company’s management team. In the large-scale department meetings, I would highlight and promote the brilliance of the A3’s initiator. Once the celebration was over, the A3 would be placed onto a notice board in the department, and another added to a very plain office wall. In time this same wall would have many other A3s join it from floor to ceiling, eventually becoming known as the “Wall of Fame” for clients, customers, and top managers to see before entering the workshop area.

One such VIP visit still sticks out for me. One employee wanted to ensure a great first impression for our new CEO, who was making his very first trip to the base. This employee decided to spruce up the main visitor’s entrance, which was a wonderful idea. New shrubs were planted in enormous pots, and branding galore was placed on the once very generic industrial entranceway. This project was captured on an A3, titled the “Base Beautification Project,” and was hung on the Wall of Fame.

The CEO arrived straight off the plane, and I was fortunately part of the management team hosting his visit. After multiple PowerPoints, it was time for a walk around the workshop. On the way, we stopped by the Wall of Fame to proudly share our many improvement projects with the new big boss. While looking over the A3 posters, he did a double take and stepped closer to one in particular to inspect it a little further. He then glanced around to me, and laughingly said, “You don’t often see ‘beautification’ in our industry!” I’m sure he got the intent and understood what we were trying to do in honoring this achievement as part of the overall process.

Potting our way to process reinvention

Years passed following the CEO’s visit, and the shrubs, which were shielded from sunlight, wilted and then died. The pots became holders for cigarette ends and empty bottles. Because I park on the other side of the building and use the employees’ entrance, I was never aware of this until the day it was my turn to do the on-site security inspection. I was saddened by what I saw and also realized a new opportunity for these pots to address a new problem.

After the initial success of the A3 projects, I found it difficult to mentor my team to support and sustain necessary new ideas for improving the workshop. I needed to start addressing the bigger system or cultural challenges. It is sometimes a little more difficult to uncover these types of issues, but I knew that the people who are inside the problem can better explain it from their own viewpoint.

The smoking area of the base was a great place to share ideas, but being a non-smoker, I did not get the benefit of understanding the concerns of the group by participating in this ritual. So, rather than take up smoking, I needed an excuse to justify my presence in the smoking area. Using the pots as a reason to be there, I planted tomatoes (as I’m Scottish they are pronounced “tomaaaaaaaahtoes,” not the American “tomaytoes”), peppers, and herbs. As I’ve never grown these things before (Scottish climate is not a great supporter of peppers or tomatoes), I wouldn’t have predicted the results captured in pictures below.

 


Figure 1: April 12th

 


Figure 2: April 17th

 


Figure 3: April 25th

 


Figure 4: May 12th

 


Figure 5: May 27th

 


Figure 6: May 31st

Other than finding out the honesty of co-workers who helped themselves to the delicious fruit, I did make the connections necessary to help me in my quest to improve. I found an interesting and unintended consequence of many fine people wishing to give me advice on my garden. They saw me in a different, more approachable light. I learned that these connections created a bond between that person and me. I’m sure many thought that I was being eccentric and would only see that my attempt to grow plants in an industrial setting was a crazy idea. However, all I was really doing was finding a new way to walk the gemba.

Here ends my last American improvement project, as I watch the time race to the point of departure. Thank you for hosting me, America. I hope that you have seen me as being a good guest. I’ve made a few changes, and I’ll let you decide if they are for the better. Thanks to you as well, dear reader. If you have been riding with me on my writing journey since 2011, I’m impressed you stuck it out this far. I’m going to be taking a break from the writing for a little bit. My new role and return to Scotland will no doubt consume my hours, as I find the next new problem to solve and discover where improvements are needed most.

Although fascinating as my story of communication is, I realized something in myself, or perhaps I recognized a trait that was inside me, which has risen from the deep: a personality disorder the size of a Kraken. The story of the garden is me: I like to take the small shoots of inspiration and help them flourish. Sometimes things may wilt and die, for example, a great idea for improvement; however, I’m too determined to allow that to stop growth.

I stopped tending to my American garden when I realized it was time to move onto a new UK garden. I know that the earth there will be just as fertile, and although the growing conditions may be a little more of a challenge, the results will no doubt be stronger and much more bountiful.

Discuss

About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.

Comments

All the Best

May your move be trouble free, your new environment salubrious, and your break from writing extremely short.

Until later, all the best!

Goodbye Paul!

I have enjoyed and learned from your articles and will miss them. Wishing you continued success.