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Technology, Process Change, and Leadership (repost)

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This post originally appeared on Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Center for Aviation & Aerospace Leadership blog:

Organizations constantly seek to increase quality, productivity and efficiency. When deployed effectively, technology helps us eliminate wasted time and materials, increases efficiency, and improves service.

While incorporating technology into our operations is one of our biggest opportunities as leaders, it also presents one of our biggest challenges. Having the latest technological programs and gadgets at our disposal doesn’t do much for our operations if we’re not adequately prepared to make use of them. If our processes are outdated and full of inefficiency, redundancy and sometimes even counterproductive activity, technology may illuminate the situation but it certainly cannot resolve it.

As leaders, it’s our obligation to prepare our organizations to take advantage of the benefits that technology offers. It’s our responsibility to motivate our teams to identify and implement better ways to do things. If we want substantial, sustainable improvement, we must entwine continual improvement with technology. I believe you can’t sustain continual improvement without embracing technology and you can’t use technology wisely unless you’ve adopted continual improvement. To do otherwise is to invite unnecessary frustration and ultimately build in the same type of waste you originally sought to eliminate.

You probably can think of a dozen ways this might apply in your organization. A good example for me is when, in our FedEx Express Technical Operations, we decided to make it easier for our aircraft maintenance technicians to access the data they needed to do their jobs effectively. We began the monumental task of modernizing our vast library of technical aircraft documentation.

We had over two million documents collected over four decades. Some of this data was stored electronically, some was bound in paper manuals, and the rest was housed in folders in file cabinets. Simply converting all documents to a centralized, electronic library would make it easier to search and retrieve data. But what about the quality of that information? In the technical world, old information often equals inaccurate information. Over the years, FedEx retired some of its fleet and acquired new aircraft types. Accordingly, new data was added to the library, residing alongside data that had become partially obsolete or irrelevant. Parts suppliers and aircraft manufacturers modified parts and equipment and old information, some of it valid and some that had become invalid, mingled with the new information. Over time, maintenance methods and procedures changed and both the old and new methods were meticulously documented. Our overzealousness in observing retention requirements contributed to the ocean of documentation that we found ourselves needing to wade through.

It became clear that there was no point in modernizing our access to data if we didn’t first clean up that data. Employing new, sleek IT programs without also upgrading fundamental processes is like buying a Lamborghini installed with a 1985 Yugo engine. Looks terrific but performance is not optimal.

Improving the accuracy of our data and our data collection, storage and retrieval processes could not be maintained over the long term without significant technological upgrades. File cabinets and stacks of manuals, no matter how painstakingly maintained, aren’t going to cut it. And the most sophisticated information programs we develop will quickly become useless if we don’t continually evaluate and revise them and feed them the most accurate, current data.

Technology upgrades and process changes had to occur simultaneously. Not only did we need to expunge outdated information, we also needed to examine and re-engineer the way we collect, evaluate, communicate, retrieve and retain data. We had to think of our entire information technology system as a blank slate and design new processes.

This is a very gradual process that we are still engaged in. We make progress in a planned, measured manner with occasional breakthroughs as we achieve milestones in key areas. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worthwhile to save our technicians time in getting the information they need to maintain and repair aircraft, getting those aircraft back serving our customers faster.

The almost limitless opportunities for the power duo of technology and continual improvement to enhance your products or services can be overwhelming. I say, start small. There is a natural fear of change. Overcome it with small improvements, small wins. People begin to see that change is not something fearful, it’s to be welcomed. Continual improvement combined with technology frees people to shed low value work and focus on the things they are trained for and want to do. They can use their skills and experience more fully to solve problems and create new solutions for your customers, both inside and outside your organization.

Our job as leaders is to inspire people to make the changes that need to be made. Good leaders ensure those changes are sustainable far into the future, even after we’ve left the organization. Technology and continual improvement can be very powerful instruments to help you do that.

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