Company Doctor: The post mortem

On a weekly basis, we are exposed to television programs like “CSI Miami” that demonstrate how, through the use of forensic science, complicated crimes are solved.

This science also is utilized in the accounting profession to track and identify potential embezzlers.

We can also apply this science to the management of our businesses. As we approach the end of each fiscal year, it is an appropriate time to review the performance of the company and its employees. This review can be accomplished through the use of a proven forensic technique, the “post mortem.”

I was first exposed to this technique over 20 years ago when I was employed at Gimbels Midwest. During the construction of The Grand Avenue Mall, the contractors drove a wooden pile through a major underground communications line, knocking out telephone service in a portion of downtown Milwaukee, interrupting all incoming and outgoing phone service at the store. After service was restored by a team composed of Wisconsin Bell, AT&T and Western Electric, we all sat down with three service providers and conducted a post mortem. The purpose of the meeting was to determine what could have been done to prevent this service interruption.

This approach to problem solving was a part of Wisconsin Bell’s and AT&T’s corporate cultures.

This approach will only work in a culture in which management is open to constructive feedback and not defensive and closed to new ideas and approaches. A successful post mortem session would include the following elements:

  • An open and blame free environment.
  • A culture free of silos and other communication obstacles.
  • A high level of preparation on the part of all parties.
  •  A commitment from management to make the changes necessary to  correct the identified problem.

Remember, the purpose of this forensic tool is not to establish blame but to be able to reproduce success and to reduce the potential of future business interruptions.

So how do we apply this post mortem technique to our business successes and failures? We need to understand that you don’t have to wait until the end of the fiscal year to perform this process. It can be applied to situations as they occur during the year. In a United Airlines commercial aired a number of years ago, the CEO hands out tickets to all his sales team and informs them that he is going to visit a client to determine why they fired his firm. He asks his team to do the same. The gathering of this type of information is the first step in the post mortem process. We need to understand why we lose business as well as why we gain business. It should be our desire to repeat our successes and minimize the failures.

This same technique was used by NASA to determine the cause of the Challenger and Discovery disasters. It has been used in the medical profession for years to determine why patients died after successful operations. It is obvious to say we learn from our mistakes. But unless we conduct this process, we will tend to repeat our mistakes and not be able to reproduce our successes. This process permits you to isolate trends from fads, identify one-time events and prevent you from expending resources chasing business that is not there.

As a business person, a post mortem can be used as a proactive information gathering tool after you introduce a new product or service to evaluate its performance and identify strategies that would increase success of future introductions. This evaluative process can also be used to review customer complaints, quality control and delivery problems.

By reviewing the entire chain of events, you identify both the weak and strong links in the chain.

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