I recently met with three different companies that were all experiencing recurring mistakes that negatively affected their business. At Company One, I learned that many mistakes were being made by people in the shipping department.
Orders were being placed on the wrong trucks and going to the wrong locations. Others were supposed to be put on trucks, but were staged in inaccessible locations instead. In Company Two, people simply were not doing what they were being told. Company Three experienced a rash of quality problems, some of which were caught in-house, but many of which were discovered by customers. The reoccurring theme in each of these instances is that there is a weak documentation of processes, procedures and accountabilities.
In the company with the ongoing shipping problems, there were no written procedures, visual indicators or job descriptions. In the machine shop, a large population of workers had limited understanding of English, and the very few procedures that were written, were in English. In the company experiencing quality problems, the quality handbook, corrective action forms and employee training records were buried in a file cabinet “somewhere in the company.”
Although I am not one to advocate an abundance of documentation just for the sake of having it, when problems occur repeatedly, documentation can:
• promote consistent results between people and departments in the organization.
• reinforce best practices that have been developed over time.
• supply sufficient detail to those who need it.
• serve as a training tool for new employees.
• provide a guideline for managers to evaluate employee performance.
Documentation does not have to be long, overly detailed or even written. Visual displays, such as signs, lines, color codes, lights and even cartoons, can be effective documentation for a cross-section of people. Of course, there is a place for written documentation, but it must be up-to-date, brief and specific to the task.
Job descriptions are one of the most basic forms of documentation. Not only do they help define employee duties and responsibilities, but they force managers to give serious thought to what their employees should be doing. Job descriptions should be written clearly and concisely.
Performance evaluation forms are another important type of documentation. They provide a framework for managers to deliver feedback to employees regarding job performance. For most, feedback is a great motivator, both to improve performance that falls short and reinforce performance that meets or exceeds expectations.
Work instructions are also needed, but they do not always have to be in text format. The use of photographs in the body of work instructions is very common. Regardless of a person’s first language, photographs are universally understood and can convey what to do, what not to do and how to handle situations that might occur during a process.
Checklists are valuable in documenting things that need to be accomplished and making sure tasks are completed. Checklists can be used to identify what needs to be done during equipment setup, dimensions of critical importance, maintenance tasks that need to be performed regularly and more.
Color coding can provide an immediate understanding of situations and conditions. Many people associate the color red with trouble or some type of problem. Other colors can be used to convey different meanings, such as green for “go” (or everything is operating properly) and yellow for “caution” (or check something as it may lead to a problem). I am seeing an increased use of work orders printed on colored paper, with the color representing some type of scheduling information.
Signs can also be used to document needed actions. A well-designed sign can describe where things belong, how many things can be located in an area, required machine operating conditions, and even what jobs to work on next. Signs can be produced in multiple languages if necessary to ensure company-wide understanding.
Lights are another good visual technique to convey current conditions. Lights on docks where trailers are stationed, on machines that are running low on material, and on fork trucks that are backing up provide instant recognition to all who see them.
Perhaps some of the examples described above would reduce Company One’s shipping mistakes, ensure Company Two’s employees do what they are being told and correct the quality drop-off in Company Three. After all, once it’s clear what should be done, who should be doing it and when it should be done, there is a much greater likelihood companies will achieve their desired end results.