Principles That Stand the Test of Time

Principles That Stand the Test of Time

07.17.13Robert Schaffer

5 basic key principles for accelerating performance improvement

Imagine coming face to face today with a problem you “solved” in the distant past.

A weird phenomenon that occurs in Montreal every year was the subject of a recent New York Times story. Everyone who is moving his household tries to do it on (or very near) July 1 because that is when all the leases expire. This custom stems from the old Napoleonic Code – aimed at avoiding family evictions during the winter.

Of course, this common deadline produces chaos, with too few moving vans needed by too many families. One family, unable to rent a van, was getting the job done with the aid of “five family cars, each stuffed with belongings, a pickup truck, and a small trailer.” Thousands of families engage in similar antics.

The article brought to mind another chaotic time, more than a generation ago, when this peak moving event occurred in Montreal during May. In those days, moving one’s phone required major Ma Bell attention.  Bell Canada was plagued by the costs of the annual “May Move”. With thousands of customers waiting for their phones to be installed, Bell installers ran from place to place doing temporary hook-ups of basic service. Then they’d have to go back later to each house, to do the proper job. The double visits cost Bell Canada millions – and some unlucky customers lacked full service until September.

Finally one January, the area Vice President, Maurice d’Amours, called this insanity for what it was. He declared that that year, every customer had to have full telephone service by May 24. And he offered his people our firm’s assistance to help them innovate in getting the job done.

Of course, three weeks seemed an impossible expectation for such a daunting task. But amazing things started to happen. Senior operations managers began to plan in January instead of waiting to be “surprised” by the inevitable crush. For example, they determined to eliminate all maintenance backlogs by April, freeing up employees to handle installations in May. Other recurring issues were also fixed ahead of time so they wouldn't be a problem during crunch time.

The result? On May 19 – a full five days before d’Amours’ “impossible” deadline – Keith Boyce, the general plant manager for Montreal called his boss to announce that every customer had complete service.

An article at the time summarized the key principles at work in Bell’s success:

  1. An urgent challenge
  2. Clear-cut demands for results
  3. Disciplined benchmarks with explicit work plans for reaching them.
  4. Developing the individual plans into an overall scheme.
  5. And, finally, using the successful experience to ensure success in meeting even tougher challenges.

Simple, but profound.

Since that dramatic May Move achievement, management experts around the world have invented thousands of strategies for accelerating performance improvement.  But this list of basics are as essential today as they were then.  

Have you experienced similar breakthrough events? Were these principles at work? And which others?

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