Six Sigma
Last Word


Quality Management
A. Blanton Godfrey

Sharing Experiences

Find solutions by broadening your horizons.

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. The same problems seem to appear in every industry--just at different times. Almost 20 years ago, while at Bell Laboratories, I helped organize several benchmarking trips where, for the first time, we looked outside our industry. Inspired by Ed Fuchs, then director of Bell Labs' Quality Assurance Center, we decided to review operating practices in leading automotive companies, consumer electronics companies and computer manufacturers.

 Later in the 1980s, I became involved in the National Demonstration Project for Quality Improvement in Health Care, where I discovered that the major problems facing health care are very similar to the problems the automotive, electronics, computer and telecommunications companies were also trying to solve. More important, we soon discovered that the same methods that were becoming so useful in these industries worked surprisingly well for health care.

 During the 13 years I was with Juran Institute, I had the opportunity to work with companies in many different industries, both manufacturing and service. These included oil and chemical, financial and insurance, electronics, aerospace, energy, heavy industry, telecommunications, health care, food, pharmaceutical, transportation and military.

 For the past seven months, I've been immersed in an industry that's mostly new to me--textiles. During this time I've been trying to visit several companies a month, meeting with the senior executive team, young engineers, chemists and managers, and touring many of the facilities. What strikes me is not the companies' differences, but their similarities. Even more striking are the similarities between companies in differing industries. The problems, both current and past, are remarkably similar, but the approaches to the problems are often quite different.

 The most worrisome aspect is how unaware most people--even extremely bright senior managers--are of what is happening in other companies even in the same industry. Even more disturbing is how rarely people look outside their own industries for ideas, solutions to major problems or new ways to manage complex processes. Even after all these years of "benchmarking" by some of the best companies in the world, sharing experiences is still rare.

 Part of the reluctance to study other companies must stem from the long-held beliefs that each company is unique and that it's just too hard to translate from one set of experiences to another. Another explanation for many companies is how busy everyone is just trying to survive in competitive situations. Many organizations don't allow their people time to think, much less study other companies. Many companies don't even have the resources to implement many ideas that their people already have, let alone all of the new ideas they would gain from studying companies outside their industry.

 Many of the fastest-moving companies are those with several new senior managers from outside their industry. The disadvantage of not knowing their new industry seems to be overcome quickly by the new ideas they bring from their former companies and industry experiences. The difficulty for many of these executives is translating their experience into the language of their new companies and convincing people that methods borrowed from one industry will work well in another.

 In many industries, the senior executives only attend conferences and trade shows focused on their own industry. They use the time to strengthen networks and important business relationships, but they hear mostly what they already know. It's unusual to get breakthrough ideas in these meetings. At the lower levels of the company, people often attend professional society meetings that include people from many other companies and industries. But these meetings are usually focused on technical details in specific professions and, although they're quite useful, they don't provide the breakthrough ideas their company needs. And even when people are exposed to ideas that may have great value for their companies, they often don't have the support or clout to implement the ideas.

 There are many ways we can dramatically improve our ability to learn from other organizations and industries. First, we can widen the scope of the meetings we attend and force ourselves to attend sessions featuring speakers from other industries. This will usually involve serious work in translating what we hear into our own situations and language, but it can also provide many opportunities to radically change our thinking about how to approach our own work. Second, we can subscribe to journals and trade magazines in other fields and industries. Again, reading these journals will be difficult for most of us, but it will stimulate our thinking in many directions. Third, we can organize both formal and informal benchmarking visits to companies working in quite different areas.

 Years ago, when we were first trying to radically change design cycle times at Bell Labs, my colleague Bob Kerwin suggested we visit the New York Times. He reasoned that the Times produces a new product every day, so there must be many things we could learn from workers there about accelerating design cycle times. And he was right.


About the author

A. Blanton Godfrey is dean and Joseph D. Moore Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles. Prior to his current assignment, he was chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc. During the past 15 years Godfrey has worked with companies in more than 60 countries. E-mail him at agodfrey@qualitydigest.com .

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