ACG - Agency Consulting Group

The PIPELINE

A national monthly newsletter for agency principals dedicated to agency management topic

Total Quality Management - Part 03: Continuous Improvement

Standing Still is Going Backwards !

Whether in business or in our personal lives, this statement is an accurate one. How well would you be living if you made exactly as much money ten years from now as you do today? Natural inflation, alone, will eat away at your assets. Our businesses are feeling the same pressures.

One of the basic elements of Total Quality Management is the continuous improvement of our organizations and of all of their components as a method of assuring increased quality service. Today's insurance environment has made this element even more critical. Without rapid, continuous improvement the very survival of your agency is in question. We need only look at the impact of commission changes on insurance agency bottom lines to realize that the business' who didn't react quickly with growth or cost reductions suffered severe decreases in profit in the last few years.

As pictured above, management can either pull the organization with it, push it along, or -- it can provide the right fuel and become the driver and director of the organization, instead. The alternative is to remain in the driver seat -- but face the rear to steer as you watch your business go backward.

The fuel with which to drive your business forward is comprised of a few, important elements:

1. Visibility - Management must be a visible part of changes and improvements. You can not afford to issue an edict for change and disappear into your office. Your managers and employees will not see you as a part of the team and may even view you as an adversary to their plans.

2. Commitment - Changes will evolve and develop through the ideas of many people. Once a conclusion has been reached, show your total commitment to it. Commitment is not equivalent to blind faith. Any changes will be measured and tested. The results of these gauges determine if the change is successful, needs fine tuning or must be discarded in favor of another approach. Your commitment is to try the new process until it has had time to prove itself.

3. Continuous Improvement is everyone's job, not just the owners'- Employees from every level of your organization should be approached for their ideas and help in the development of change. Why? Because regardless of the jobs that they perform, the success of your business is as critical to your employees as it is to you! Yes, this is your asset. But it's their careers as well. The job market being what it is, no one is interested in finding other employment if they feel that their current employer will be successful through the rest of their career.

A second reason to include all employees in the process of change is to realize that between 5:00 P.M. and 9:00 A.M. these people are decision making adults, capable of owning property, making short and long-term investment decisions, carrying debt and planning their futures. What changes them between 9:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M. to make us think that they are only capable of answering phones, maintaining files and speaking to clients? Use the creativity located in the seven inches between their ears as well as the skills of your employees' hands.

It's easy to desire change when your business is doing poorly. Financial crisis is a great motivator. But what happens if you are already profitable? How often have you heard:

"If it's not broken, don't fix it!"

"Leave well enough alone!"

"We've worked hard - now let the good times roll!"

But the most successful people learn early that, in business as in life, the trip, itself, is the purpose of the journey, not some perceived pot of gold at the end of an elusive rainbow. The rest of us work our entire lives toward a goal that when (and if) achieved is far less than satisfying. I know many people who have achieved wealth but not happiness. I know some who have achieved happiness without wealth. And I have been priveledged to meet a select few who have achieved both. Those are the businessmen after whose lives we must pattern ours. They generally spend a lifetime evading the Plague of Contentment.

The Plague of Contentment drives us to "leave well enough alone" even though we know that the car only rolls backwards if we don't fuel the tank and continue to accelerate. This plague also causes us to fail to sustain well-intentioned changes over time. If problems occur, we simply stop the changes and revert to our old, more comfortable, ways. The plague robs us of our commitment.

The cure for this plague is to publicize the Continuous Improvement strategy that you adopt. Once publicized to employees, suppliers and customers, you are less likely to catch the plague. The more enthusiastically you share the creation of change with your employees, the less likely you will be to catch the disease. Employees will catch your enthusiasm as well. And if your commitment endures the Test of Failure, you will beat the plague for good. The Test of Failure occurs when a change that you empower your staff to implement falls flat on its face. If you can accept that failure like Edison accepted the thousands of failures before inventing the incandescent light bulb, you will probably succeed in your efforts. You see, your staff will judge your commitment by how you react to the first few failures before a successful change is found. If you blame and condemn, they will stop trying. If you accept the failures as necessary steps toward success, they will have much more trust to take chances and try new things --- for you.

Implement a Continuous Improvement Strategy as a part of your Quality Initiative. It will help you survive and thrive as a business and as an individual.