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Plan, Do, Check, Act – Keys to Business Success

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I am in the process of training for my personal pilot and instrument rating. Since I fly 150,000 domestic miles a year, I thought it would be a great idea to start flying myself to visit customers and prospects. What I did not realize when I embarked upon this journey, and trust me it is a journey, is how similar running a business (organization) is with flight training.
Beginner pilots, and for that matter pilots that have thousands of hours, are taught to Aviate, Navigate and Communicate in that order.

To put this in business terms, pilots are taught to:

  1. Plan the Flight
  2. Execute the Flight Plan
  3. Monitor Systems during route
  4. Mitigate risk by having a back-up plan (As a single engine pilot, you are constantly looking for “outs” or contingencies if something goes wrong.)

One memorable flight drove this lesson home for me. I was flying home with my CFII (Certified Instrument rated Flight Instructor) from Duluth, MN to San Francisco. Our flight plan had us flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rating) from Duluth to Casper, Wyoming. The first hour and half was uneventful. Engine performance was in check across all measurements: Oil Pressure (PSI) Manifold Pressure (PSI), Oil Temperature (° F), engine performance (RPM), fuel burn (GPH), Exhaust Gas Temperature (° F), Cylinder Head Temperature(° F), Oxygen (O2 Level) and De-icing Level (Gallons) and most important, Fuel Tanks (Gallons). However, 200 miles and about one hour flight time from Casper, Wyoming, we were checking weather (NexRad) and we could see heavy clouds. Flying through clouds with outside air temperature above (32 °F) is not critical, but flying through clouds at or below (32 °F) is dangerous due to icing conditions. Ice build-up on any aircraft wing is serious business. I had turned on de-icing 30-minutes prior to hitting the clouds. However, it was at night and we could not be 100% sure that the de-icing was bleeding over the wings. We were flying at night, the de-icing fluid is clear and we had no flash light!

At that point in time we were looking for contingencies: do we climb and gain altitude for warmer outside air temperature, do we divert to the south where there were fewer clouds, or do we stay on course and hope the de-icing is working? The de-icing gauge was sporadic and we could not determine if it was actually working. We knew that when we left from Duluth we had 1.5 hours of de-icing fluid, however we could not validate that it was working in flight!!!

You could say that the stakes were high as we executed our flight plan. My thought is that running any business (regardless of type) and flight training are identical. However, I am amazed that many organizations lack fundamental planning and the discipline of execution. More importantly, they lack contingency planning. After giving a final presentation to one of our large automotive retailers, the CEO stated that, “This is the first time we have ever developed a three- to five-year supply chain strategy.” Note: this is a $4B dollar company that had never before developed a “flight plan” that looked out beyond a year. I was dumbfounded by his comment and wondered how a $4B company could run without a strategic plan – to know where they were and where they are going.

Call me old school and I know DMIAC is the buzz but I am an advocate of Edward Deming and his model for continuous improvement: 1) Plan, 2) Do 3) Check and 4) Act. The model is often referred to as the “Demining Wheel.” At enVista we consult our clients on the “Deming Wheel” and we believe this basic four-step process is the core to continuous improvement. In addition we use Deming’s principles to run our organization. We start with a one-year plan broken down into quarterly objectives, and augment that with a two- to three-year plan that is focused on market trends and the health of the economy.

If you compare Deming’s Wheel to flight training there are great similarities and lessons that can be learned:

  1. You must Plan and know where you are going. Does your company have a clear plan that has been communicated from the top down? In flying I know that I am leaving from KSQL to KRAL (origin and destination airport, the Where). I know the time of departure and arrival (When and How long). The type of plane that I am flying (Cirrus N414CP SR22. Who). I know my true airspeed and elevation (175 KTS at 11,500 feet). I know how many hours of fuel that is on board, weather patterns and nearest airports along my route (contingency planning).
  2. You must now go execute the flight plan or as Deming states, “Do something.” Take action with your intent. Accountable organizations take action based upon their intent. You measure yourself based upon your intent, but others measure you based upon your actions. I have seen a lot of great plans never get off the ground because no one executed them. It pains me to see a client spend six figures on a Supply Chain Network design and then have it sit on a shelf (credenza-ware). Don’t laugh; it happens all the time.
  3. You must measure and Check how you are doing against your plan. As stated above, an airplane has numerous instruments and systems that you are scanning and measuring to ensure the plane is behaving as planned and that you are on the right flight heading. If your bearing is off, then you correct your course due to wind or obstacles (mountains). If your altitude is off, then you adjust to ensure that you are flying at the correct altitude. If your cylinder head temperature is high, then you lean the engine accordingly. The point is that your organization MUST have measurements and instruments in place to ensure that you are on plan. Many companies that are supply chain centric do not have basic measurements in place to monitor customer service, financials, employee performance and operational performance. It is the old adage you cannot improve what you don’t measure.
  4. You must ACT if you are not on course. Action may be required based upon how you are executing your plan, and how you are performing according to your metrics and monitoring system. Many times this starts with getting the wrong people off the bus. I know this is easier said than done, but truly what makes a company successful is their people (human capital). You may have the best plan, you start to execute, you have monitoring systems in place and you fail because you have the wrong people on the team. I recently watched an organization shake up their Executive Management Team because there was not alignment at the top. This team had a plan, they were executing as designed, there were controls in place, but the team was dysfunctional because certain individuals were playing politics (organizational politics is defined as manipulating others for your own personal gain). There is no room for politics in an organization and I congratulate this organization for making the tough decision to remove non-performing Executives.

You may be asking yourself what my instructor and I decided to do regarding our flight plan. Did we change course, climb to higher altitude or stay on course? We actually stayed on course and made it safely to Casper, WY. One way to tell if you have ice on your wings at night, and assuming that you cannot see it, is by monitoring true airspeed. If a plane’s KTS starts to drop then you know you have ice on the wings and it is time to make a serious change. We were fortunate that the de-icing worked as designed and that we turned it on 30 minutes prior to entering the clouds. Thank goodness we started our contingency planning early enough to make a difference in the outcome of our flight.

In summary, whether flying an airplane, participating in flight training or running an organization, the basic fundamentals of planning, doing, checking and acting are sound. Perhaps if more CEOs flew planes, there would be more well-run organizations. In both situations, it’s easy to status quo for granted, but the stakes are too high.

Always in Motion,
Jim Barnes

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