What A Concept
On The Baldrige Winners
Through Rain, Sleet And
build a stairway to paradise
It sounds so easy when set to the lyrical lines and lilting music of the Gershwin brothers. But when the goal is less poetic and as practical as quality improvement, the steps do not come so easily. As Nancy L. George, recently retired vice president of Northeast area operations for the United States Postal Service, has pointed out, mere "steps" do not a stairway make.
"The U. S. Postal Service had stressed quality efforts for nearly a decade, but there seemed to be no clear organizational connection between quality concepts and our everyday work. Rather, we had random acts of quality," she declared.
"Working alone, we are one step. If we stack our efforts, we become a staircase," says George. "That realization started a series of actions, agreements and efforts that became the Northeast's Breakthrough Performance Focus." That project proved that not only can leadership drive quality throughout an organization, but also, and more importantly, quality can also drive leadership.
The United States Postal Service is the largest civilian employer in the country with more American workers than General Motors, Chrysler and Ford combined. It is the ninth largest U.S. corporation and handles 40 percent of the entire world's mail volume. The Northeast Area covers all six New England States and northern New York and has approximately 65,000 career employees. Integrating their efforts toward a common goal would not be an easy task.
J. T. Weeker, then the area's manager for customer service in Albany, had taken an initial step when he introduced a successful Quality First program in his district in 1988. That success convinced George and senior management that quality improvement could be achieved area-wide.
Assembling the "staircase" began at the top. George appointed a Breakthrough committee from her senior management. The committee first identified the processes to be studied.
"The choices should be small enough for the teams to attack narrow issues," Weeker stresses. The final number was limited so that each of the area's 28 senior managers could serve as a team sponsor. Among the processes to be analyzed would be aspects of sales, transportation, collection, distribution and processing, and the most important of all, delivery. In real estate, the key factor may be "Location, Location, Location," but with mail, it's "Delivery, Delivery, Delivery."
"The processes identified by the committee were those most impacting corporate goals," George explained. "Since some compensation is attached to the attainment of goals, the senior manager/sponsor would be likely to select the best possible team leader and choose equally qualified team members. The sponsor could authorize time, money and other resources, ensure that the team's work is aligned with organizational goals and quality principles, assist in team training and help the team in selling its process recommendations to the vice president and management's Breakthrough team."
According to Weeker, the Breakthrough team spent long hours making certain that quality principles would be followed through in each study process. He goes on to say that as the study teams went into action, it was found that those sponsors who were most involved at the beginning got the best results.
The Breakthrough team worked to maintain consistency, keeping the process teams focused and encouraging their efforts. A special team headed by the area's financial manager was appointed to analyze process measurement.
"Vision is all-important," says George. "You must believe in your organization and believe in your people. Not everyone may be thrilled by the opportunity, but one perseveres. Strong will is necessary. If the work is to be done, it must be done well."
Toward that end, she stresses, "The 'I' word is equally
important. Occasionally it becomes necessary to say, 'I insist that this
be done.' "
How can management sustain the project momentum? The northeast area vice president kept the Breakthrough program as a standby item on all management meeting agendas. Because process team membership cut across district lines, concerned a number of plants and shifts, crossed management and labor divisions, and ignored line and staff distinctions, the Breakthrough Performance visibility increased. People who had never before met were joining together to make team decisions that could affect the entire operation.
"In essence, the team membership forged new appreciation, new understandings and was able to build base relationships for work beyond the Breakthrough focus," George explains, adding, "This level of teamwork gives the customer-supplier relationship a new and personal definition."
As the teams prepared quality performance recommendations, their work was reviewed by the sponsor, who would make suggestions, discuss validation and offer only constructive criticism.
"Celebrating the success of teams as they move ahead, working together is imperative," George states. "People must work together; some may not like to work together, but it must be done."
It is significant that when the final team reports were
submitted to the Breakthrough Committee, not one made it through the first
Reviewing initial gains from the Breakthrough Performance experience, George cites first the development of an Integrated Operating Plan recognizing the interface between the processing plant and post offices, and focusing them on a common service commitment: to deliver the mail at the same time every day. She mentions the ability to negotiate employee contracts defining the quality, quantity and time standards that must be maintained for same time delivery daily. The plan also established a system of indicators or measurement factors that would monitor integral points of the process and trigger contingency plans ensuring this consistent outcome.
A second major gain, she reports, is that of Delivery Point Sequencing (DPS), a process of using automation to sequence or arrange letters by delivery patterns. It requires the alignment of functions and cooperation by hundreds of employees, many of whom never see each other. The DPS team process now identifies every integral activity and redefines the actions and steps that must be taken to maximize effective sequence. Since the average delivery route has four hundred deliveries and receives fifteen thousand letters a day, increasing the percentage of letters that can be sequenced automatically increases productivity, not only enhancing quality service, but also saving hours and dollars.
George also noted that those taking part in the Breakthrough Performance project also benefited.
"We learned that properly focused leadership can drive quality throughout an organization. Conversely, and more importantly, we learned that quality can drive leadership. In our case, and we suspect this may be true of many organizations, we had the raw materials. It took a plan. The senior managers were the only ones in position to 'build the staircase' toward Breakthrough Performance."