Quality Magazine

Quality Management: Ask the Right Questions

March 31, 2011
Forrest Breyfogle III is the CEO of best practices consulting company Smarter Solutions Inc., author of multiple books that empower businesses to lead effectively and the innovator of the Integrated Enterprise Excellence System-a process that lies at the heart of these achievements.

If Breyfogle can share one general set of guidelines he’s gleaned from his experiences, it would be that one cannot underestimate the importance of asking the right questions. Source: Smarter Solutions Inc.


Much has been made within the quality assurance community of the tremendous advantages-and limitations-of Six Sigma and lean management techniques in business. Companies across the globe have lauded the methodologies for their efficiency and cost-cutting potential, while others decry them for leaving little room for long-term, innovative thinking and the nuances of employee and customer relationships.

Fortunately, certain individuals have pioneered ways to solve this dichotomy. One such leader is Forrest W. Breyfogle III, creator of the Integrated Enterprise Excellence (IEE) methodology-a system that blends the analysis of Six Sigma thinking with a foresight for innovation.

Breyfogle is the author of 13 books and more than 90 articles on the topic of quality improvement. He is the president, founder and CEO of best practices consulting firm Smarter Solutions Inc. (Austin, TX) and the recipient of the 2005 American Society for Quality Crosby Medal for Implementing Six Sigma, 2nd edition. The award is presented to a person who has authored a distinguished book contributing significantly to the extension of the philosophy and application of the principles, methods or techniques of quality management.

Yet perhaps most importantly, Breyfogle has shared his knowledge with countless companies and empowered them to transcend the limitations of their current management techniques, resulting in long-term, company-wide improvements.

The secret, Breyfogle says, is learning how to ask the right questions within your business. Instead of singularly focusing on process management, businesses must take long-range views of their operations and decide how to implement improvements in continuous, flexible ways.

“Too often we ask about the specifics we understand, rather than asking about the enterprise view of success,” Breyfogle explains. “Businesses end up putting very tight controls on the processes they understand and assume all will work out. They are asking the wrong questions.”





Breyfogle spent 24 years as an engineer at IBM before becoming an internal statistical consultant. Source: Smarter Solutions Inc.

From Engineer to Author

Breyfogle was born in St. Louis in 1946, and entered the University of Missouri-Rolla’s mechanical engineering program in 1964. Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 1968, he received a job offer for an engineering position at IBM.

“Times were different when I graduated from college,” Breyfogle acknowledges. “IBM actually called me for an interview. Previous to the IBM call, I had been interviewing at chemical companies, but after a trip to IBM, I became convinced to become an IBM-er. Isn’t it amazing how something simple as a phone call can redirect one’s life?”

Indeed it is. That phone call resulted in Breyfogle spending 24 years with IBM. Breyfogle began his career in the development side of the company as an engineer-returned to school and earned a Master of Science in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1975-and later transferred to the product test segment of the company. From 1980 to 1992, he helped IBM apply Six Sigma methodology to testing, development, manufacturing and service organizations.

“While working in product development at IBM, I took a Design of Experiments (DOE) course that redirected my career,” Breyfogle explains. “I started applying DOE techniques in product development and later product test[ing]. In 1980, I requested that IBM create a job for me as an internal statistical consultant. They bought into this, and for the last 12 years with the company I found my own work-helping people solve problems using quality principles.”

At this point, Breyfogle was ready for a new chapter in his career. He had sharpened his analysis skills with the aid of a statistician mentor, and sought to share his knowledge with the quality industry.

“During this time, I thought that there was a need for a book that provided practitioners a how-to roadmap,” Breyfogle says. In 1992, his first book, Statistical Methods for Testing Development and Manufacturing, was published. Breyfogle’s research coincided with his retirement, which, incidentally, also was the approximate time IBM began to implement Six Sigma practices in its operations. Breyfogle could see that IBM needed a better approach in its implementation.

“I was convinced that the way that [IBM was] approaching the task would not lead to success,” he notes. “Because of this, I included a roadmap for implementing the tools of Six Sigma in the appendix of my book.”

Breyfogle was correct in his assumption that IBM needed a better method, he says-the company “did not have success” in its Six Sigma deployment. There was no one better poised than Breyfogle to take this lesson to heart, and he did just that as he embarked on engineering the IEE structure.





The IEE System Evolves

Breyfogle formed his IEE method based on a recurring problem he initially saw at IBM, and subsequently, throughout companies across the globe. The system teaches managers how to establish goals, prioritize work efforts and continuously develop organizational progress. The system helps companies improve their bottom lines by blending analytics with new ideas.

Breyfogle says that if more companies focused on the cause of problems within their organizations instead of their symptoms, they would have a better idea of how to improve. “I felt that organizations were answering the wrong question, or at least not the best question, to the third decimal place,” he says.

“I use this term-to the third decimal place-to represent a behavior where organizations attempt to make decisions with seemingly very exact conclusions that ignore the assumptions that were used in the effort,” Breyfogle explains. “It is like estimating the cost of the organization’s cost of poor quality to the dollar, using the direct cost of the scrap materials.

“When you see a number with six or seven digits, it is assumed to be very accurate, but is it?” he continues. “If the cost of poor quality did not include the rework labor, the management time chasing problems, lost business impact, extra shipping costs.... they may have answered the wrong question.”

In other words, the IEE system teaches companies to take a few steps back before they start asking questions. Which begs the inquiry: What types of questions should companies ask?

“Why are we not profitable?” Breyfogle suggests. “Why are our margins lower than our competitors? These are the questions that lead to the cost of poor quality.”

As Breyfogle continued to help businesses focus on these types of questions, he noticed many of the companies made similar mistakes in their process improvement attempts. Breyfogle saw that Six Sigma, and later lean Six Sigma deployments, often would lead to what he calls “opinion-based silo projects” that would not, ultimately, benefit a business as a whole.

“At one company’s lean Six Sigma event, where I spoke, the site’s general manager described how they were gaining much from lean,” Breyfogle explains. “During my tour of his manufacturing facility, I commented to the lean practitioner guide that it seemed to me that they were doing a good job applying lean; however, since there was so much idle equipment, it was apparent that the organization [needed] more business. I then asked about the improvement projects that they were being conducted in marketing and sales. I got a blank stare from the company’s tour guide.

“The business was focusing on improving their manufacturing operations as a silo activity,” Breyfogle continues. “However, enterprise gains could have been much larger if significant process improvement efforts were made to their marketing and sales efforts; [or were] determined from a big-picture assessment.”

Thus, the IEE business management system was formed to integrate predictive scorecards, analytically thought-out strategies and improvement efforts so that the business as a whole benefits.





Going Solo

After his departure from IBM in 1992, Breyfogle began consulting full-time, which led him to form the management consulting firm Smarter Solutions. In 1997, Breyfogle was called upon to give Six Sigma black belt training at Colchester, VT-based aircraft manufacturer Bombardier’s facilities in Ireland and Toronto, Canada. There, he became familiar with the Six Sigma process improvement tool DMAIC, which stands for define, measure, analyze, improve and control.

“At this time, I was under contract for the creation of a second edition to my Statistical Methods book,” Breyfogle says. “Upon completion of my delivery of the black belt training, I thought that there was a need for a Six Sigma book that could guide practitioner through the DMAIC roadmap. I convinced my publisher that instead of creating a second edition, a new book should be created. Hence, Implementing Six Sigma was published in 1999.

Breyfogle’s list of published books has grown at pace with his expertise. In the first quarter of 2008, he authored a four-volume set of books: The Integrated Enterprise Excellence (IEE) suite, which documents the IEE system for enterprise management in the 21st century. As Breyfogle-an ASQ certified quality and reliability engineer and ASQ Fellow-developed his know-how, he continued to conduct lean Six Sigma workshop coaching sessions, as well as executive training sessions throughout the world. Breyfogle went on to publish more than 90 technical articles for separate publications, and appeared on television and radio to speak about enterprise improvement methodologies. He also became a member of the board of advisors for the University of Texas’ Center for Performing Excellence.

Breyfogle’s peers have no shortage of accolades for his work. Perhaps James Bossert, Bank of America’s senior vice president, sales performance and analytics, says it best, calling Breyfogle’s books “some of the most profound thinking in the areas of Six Sigma and integrated management.”



Universal Application

If Breyfogle can share one general set of guidelines he’s gleaned from his experiences, it would be that one cannot underestimate the importance of asking the right questions-or identifying what those questions are.

“If you are to be answering what you think is the wrong, or the not-best question for the business as a whole, see what you can do to work with management to help them gain collective insight to what can be done differently to better orchestrate the best activities within the company,” Breyfogle advises.

Breyfogle feels that this lesson can be shared universally, and is particularly relevant in light of recent high-profile business and government failures.

“With the many crises that we have recently experienced, such as our banking system problems, the BP oil spill, Dell’s accounting issues that led to fines and Toyota’s quality issues, it seems to me that it is obvious that our current management system is not working,” he says. Breyfogle says the issue, as usual, lies in managers addressing symptoms of the problem instead of its root cause-and getting muddled in the process.

“What often is used within existing business practices is stoplight-goal-based scorecards that lead to firefighting and playing games with the numbers, which can result in very destructive behaviors,” Breyfogle notes. “Often, the current management system also leads from strategies using techniques such as the balanced scorecard and Hoshin planning. It seems to me that what I have described are very large business management issues, where virtually no effort is being expended to truly examine and address these unhealthy practices.”

Breyfogle says that organizations could have done a better job of handling-and preventing-such catastrophes by seeing them coming in the first place, and the IEE system could have helped them achieve that. “What organizations needed, in my opinion, is a business system reinvention that leads organizations toward achievement of the three ‘Rs’ of business; for example, everyone doing the right things, and doing them right, at the right time,” Breyfogle explains. “The Integrated Enterprise Excellence system helps organizations achieve this through a no-nonsense roadmap that integrates predictive scorecards with analytically/innovatively determined strategies, and improvement efforts that benefits the big picture.”

In other words, businesses could do a better job of staying on track by sticking to thought-out strategies and learning how to predict-and handle-potential outcomes.

Breyfogle says that an integrated business system allows a company to learn the cause and effects within its operations so that even in a tentative business environment, a company is prepared to take action.

“With the IEE system, the analyze phase should have flagged the unsatisfactorily high risks that were being taken through the creation of policies that loaned money to people who could not reliably afford the loan’s repayment,” Breyfogle explains. “With the IEE system, Toyota should not have lost sight of product quality in order to meet their 2003 strategy of becoming the largest automobile company in the world by 2010.”

Issues such as these are precisely what keep Breyfogle motivated to keep teaching.

“I am concerned about the way things are going within the United States and other parts of the world,” he says. “I am concerned about the lifestyle my grandchildren will have unless we start doing something different now relative to how policies are created and how both businesses and governments are run. The Integrated Enterprise Excellence system is my attempt to help organizations address these real issues.” Q



To hear Forrest speak about his experiences firsthand, listen to the first of three Quality podcasts with the 2011 Professional of the Year.