March 5, 2013

One Rule Strategy For Continuous Improvement

Good businesses have good people. They go to great lengths to hier people who are educated, highly qualified and usually highly intelligent. Yet, one of the most consistent problems identified by business today is the lack of employee engagement. One of the most frequent statements I hear from managers is, ‘we have e-learning systems, intranet, discussion forums, training programs that are available to all employees but how do we engage them better to grow business, to constantly improve and make it more competitive?’

A great educator, Rick Ackerly, blogs about a great first grade teacher named Kathy who would tell the class at the beginning of the year, “Here, we have one rule: Be Kind.” Her classroom was magical. Having only “one rule”, didn’t keep her from doing other things like homework or cleaning up. The kids got it, and no one argued. Of course, they all wanted to work and play in an environment where everyone is kind. Saying there is “one rule” gave her leadership a name and her classroom culture a focal concept around which everyone could build something beautiful.

In the business world the One-Rule Strategy can be referred to as a Non-Negotiable Principles. ‘Non-Negotiable Principles’ (NNP) translate the company’s Competitive Advantage (or Core Competency or “Winning Idea”) into a few actionable statements all employees can understand, relate to, and apply when making daily decisions. Remember, if it doesn’t help employees make decisions, it isn’t a winning idea!

Consider this example of Southwest Airlines who defines itself as “THE low-fare airline.” It is an anecdote of a marketing executive who approached the CEO with some customer survey data, suggesting that Southwest should add a chicken Caesar salad to their longer flights. The CEO asked her, “Will adding a chicken Caesar salad help us be THE low-fare airline in those markets; because, if it won’t, we aren’t serving any damn chicken salad.” This is how having, and more importantly, communicating a ‘winning idea’ (NNP) helps employees make trade-offs between two competing values.

Giving your employees a clear focus on what is to be achieved and how to know it is being achieved, is the open highway to achieving strategic goals, sharpening your competitive advantage and continuous improvement. When people become comfortable, through coaching in applying your Non-Negotiable Principles, they become more productive, more confident in the accuracy of their decisions that they find more time, more capacity and experience to think BIG.

Consider this case of an automotive OEM manufacturer who supplies equipment to several global automotive clients. They operate several production lines which mirror their engineering expertise. But, spot the difference! One production line, for motor company ‘A’, dictates minor changes to product design every six months, requiring regular changes to tooling, components, servicing and, of course, staff training. The second line, for motor company ‘B’, has a standard process of a normal product life-cycle, or roughly 3-5 years. One might expect that line A would be thrown into a disarray and stop-start mode of interruptions every six months, making line B a more efficient, soothly running operation that gains economies of scale over time.

But the opposite has been observed. It turns out that line A is able to handle not only the required changes more efficiently, but also seems to cope with unplanned disruptions better. At the same time, causal disruptions tend to throw line B into much longer periods to find solutions and restart. Why is it so?

The answer is: experience in handling change. When change is constant, it is in the human nature to adapt to the pace. Employees handling line A are conditioned for change, expect it and have an opportunity to practice change more often.

A good analogy is the performances of Riverdance. Riverdance is an artistry of well practiced repetition, with progressively added new small steps. It is like a rhythm of a production line or any other Process an organisation may have mastered, where continuity is enhanced by regular, well planned small changes that create new value for the audiences and producers.

Strategic Power of One-Rule Principle:

Gordon Bethune, taking over Continental Airlines, made his team focus on ‘on-time arrivals’. This simple rule allows everyone test their every action daily, by asking: ‘Will this choice/decision help us deliver our promise of being an ‘on-time arrivals’ airline? Because, if we can’t deliver this; we have no competitive advantage.

Paul O’Neill, taking charge of Alcoa’s aluminium giant, made ‘No worker accidents’ the top priority. He knew that to prevent accidents, all employees would have to understand their operations so well that operational efficiencies would be implemented naturally, preventing accidents.

In the 1980s, a new director of New York City’s troubled subway system declared: ‘No graffiti’. He knew that eliminating graffiti would provide an important victory and would, in turn, lead to other improvements.

Applying One-Rule

this is a scenario: Let’s say you define your organisation as the “leader in fast turnaround of short-production-run, high quality manufacturing services, globally“. This is your Competitive Advantage. To become a One-Rule Strategy, it must be applied to all things your organisation does, in every operation. How is it done?

So, you Coach your workforce to know WHAT your One-Rule is, to understand WHY your business depends on fast-turnaround, and OW to appliy the One-Rule to all actions to support this outcome – sustainably. Because, business must first and most be sustainable, i.e. all outcomes ideally must be viable in the long run and must be repeatable. It is never a good practice to pour extra resources into a situation when it cannot be sustained every time. At the very least such solution should become a case study for others to learn from. A case study, not vilification!

There can be any number of underlying principles for your One-Rule Strategy to help guide people in making effective decisions: each explained and practiced through Coaching (preferably automated but still accountable and engaging).

The self-test for your employees will always be the same: Will this action support the One-Rule? Have we met the underlying Principles?

Instead of training your workforce in generic concepts you need to coach them in always asking themselves:

– Will it help us achieve ‘fast turnaround’ – profitably/sustainably?
– What will help us maintain our standard of quality – profitably/sustainably?
– What could be changed about this process, about my activities, to improve ‘fast turnaround’ sustainably?

You can even provide job-function specific questions or extend these questions to the entire workforce to gain broader input of ideas: “In what other markets/for what other type customers is this value ‘relevant’ and ‘important’ where we can offer our premium service?”

One-rule, clearly identified, communicated, coached consistently, is your beautiful strategy for achieving continuous improvement and repeat business success.

Margaret Manson |
Chief Inspirator | InnoFuture


InnoFuture helps organisations identify and leverage Competitive Advantage and “translate” it into a system that enables continuous improvement by guiding and inspiring people in their daily jobs. The outcome is a self-directed organisational culture. In the ever changing world of business models InnoFuture remains unbiased because there is no one-fits-all-business-model or silver bullet tool you can give to your people out of context. Instead, we continually explore and curate emerging concepts, tools and expertise; and help businesses find their unique way to connect their strategy, people and market.

Contact: Margaret Manson or 0407 661 130.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *