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Measure, then Act: General Electric CSO Frank Taylor on the Importance of Process Improvements

Mar 20, 20074 mins
Identity Management SolutionsIT Leadership

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — What gets measured gets done. When you analyze what you’re doing in a quantitative way, you identify opportunities you didn’t know you have.

If that sounds like a simplistic way of defining Six Sigma and other methodologies designed to improve business processes, it is. But as Frank Taylor, the CSO of General Electric, emphasized to an audience of security executives at the CSO Perspectives conference today, you don’t need to be a “Six Sigma black belt” to use its principles — and to benefit from the results.

“What makes a great security leader is the ability to develop insightful strategies that support the company’s goals,” Taylor said. “Most of you have professional skills, market knowledge, you are results oriented. [You need to] combine that with process thinking” and use data to drive decisions from an outside-in perspective, he added.

A methodology like Six Sigma “requires a change in how you think about your organization and how it works,” Taylor said. It requires shifting loyalties from your organization and how it operates to how those operations affect customers, who determine and verify the value and benefits of what your produce. Performing well in this task adds value to your organization, can help security executives anticipate risks and identify resources to mitigate them; and it enables your leadership to pursue new opportunities for growth, he added.

To show what he meant, Taylor shared anecdotes from his 35 years of government service, which included stints as Assistant Secretary of State for diplomatic security and U.S. Ambassador at Large for counterterrorism for the State Department under Colin Powell, as well as rising to the rank of Brigadier General who headed the U.S. Air Force office of special investigations. Snapshots of what Taylor learned:

* When Taylor worked at the State Department, Congress was so concerned with reports of security violations by employees that it imposed reporting requirements on the agency. The State Department initially included those reports in employees’ HR files, as a way to comment on the performance of policy violators.

Taylor said he said that was wrong, that instead the department needed to decrease the number of security violations, not punish employees. Taylor said he ordered an analysis of the collected data, to see what was going on when violations occurred, to ask why they were happening. It turned out that 80 percent of the violations involved inattention to detail or employees not being aware of department security policies. Making employees aware drove violations down by 55 percent in one quarter, he said.

* The State Department’s process for background checks took on average more than one year for each check. This was a problem at a time that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell wanted to increase the foreign service corps. Taylor said he asked the agency’s staff to examine how the process worked, and found that too many files that could be handled quickly were languishing as employees focused on tougher cases. He shifted that emphasis over time, and also granted interim security clearances to interns the State Department was hiring. These and other process improvements drove the average clearance down to 79 days.

* At General Electric, Taylor said when he joined the company in March 2005, his inquiries into security processes led to streamlining how the company’s facility managers respond to security alarms by eliminating alarms that didn’t require action. This and other process improvements free up resources to make the organization more effective, he said. At GE, Taylor said he views CEO Jeffrey Immelt as the company’s security leader. “My job is to bring value to how he does his job,” an effort that enables growth, he added.

In response to a question about finding resistance among employees who feel threatened by changes to processes they own, Taylor said that he has absolutely experienced such resistance. But he added that it’s important to make people who own the process part of the effort to re-examine how it works and to identify ways to improve it. The beauty of a method like Six Sigma, he said, is to empower employees to do better.

By way of illustration, he recounted the efforts of employees at a locomotive engine plant in Erie, Pa., who looked at their manufacturing processes, and moved from what he called working in an iterative fashion, to a more combined process, where some pre-work was done with parts earlier than in past processes. The result has been cutting the time to make an engine to 29 days from 58 days.

Taylor added that this work takes a commitment to invest in the time during work hours. “This isn’t homework,” he said.

— Michael Goldberg

see also:

Ideas You Can Steal from Six Sigma