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Wonder Women of Quality: Tanja Fessell -

They’re delivering a one-two punch to defects. They’re ridding the earth of process waste. They’re on the front lines delivering customer service perfection. They’re in leadership striving to make a difference in the world. They’re kicking process improvement butt! The Wonder Women of Quality are here!

This month in the Wonder Women of Quality pantheon we are honored to highlight Tanja Fessell!

Tanja’s career started in the semiconductor industry, followed by a decade in the aerospace industry and for the last five years she’s applied herself to healthcare. She has a Master’s Degree in Industrial and Operations Engineering from the University of Michigan. She’s a certified Six Sigma Black Belt and she’s worked closely with Shingijutsu guru consultants. Tanja is very inspired by the opportunities to transfer best practices from high reliability organizations (HROs) to healthcare.

Here are Tanja’s answers to a few of our questions:

What is your Quality Mission?

I see quality as the foundation of any performance culture. I “grew up” professionally in a global Fortune 50 aerospace company that had a great focus on quality at all levels of the organization. The operating system was strong and was both quality and lean based. The company had its own internal quality university. Learning came from internal case studies focused on business results rather than abstract theories or stories. Lecturers at this “university” could be from senior management or from the front line. The idea behind this was that the company’s advancement was based on group development.

Early on in my career, I was taught that improvement has two parts. The first part is to make potential quality problems tangible and clear for everyone’s eyes. The goal of the second part was a drastic reduction of quality problems in a short period. Problems were treated as golden nuggets for their learning potential. The interesting part was that mechanical or electrical parts were treated as “patients” that needed to be diagnosed and treated. “Preventive medicine” activities were also undertaken in the initial stages of product development to further reduce quality issues.

When I joined the healthcare industry, I brought a personal quality mission of improving the lives of real patients by introducing and applying best practices from these high reliability organizations.

What is your Quality Superpowers?

I was lucky to learn through the master-apprentice model. This approach involved observation, practice, reflection, and correction. Internal “superpowers” that drive me are:

  • A great passion for transformation for the greater good
  • Systems thinking and building company “immune systems”
    • Just like our bodies need white blood cells to be able to respond infections and promote long term health, every organization needs a solid team of people who respond to problems quickly, contain them, and promote the long term health of the organization. I am inspired by the most advanced, complex, and efficient detection and corrective action system – our immune system.
    • To strengthen the immune system and increase white blood cells, I like to focus on developing knowledge and capabilities of people to recognize and address process problems. I personally have a great commitment to excellence, and continual and relentless improvement.
  • Leveraging multi-industry experience and using it to help improve healthcare systems that impact countless lives
  • Solving complex challenges, sharing knowledge, and developing talent
  • A strong commitment to action-based learning

What is your Quality Kryptonite?

  • In my view, prioritizing quality is not achieved merely through the power of the written word or theory. A doctor must practice “genba genbutsu-ism” in examining and treating a patient to make the patient well again. We need to do the same with processes; quality is best manifested through focused action.
  • Passive and non-visible leader engagement; executives and managers shouldn’t not manage from an office only to receive quality reports from subordinates. Do “genba” and go see for yourself; observe and discuss findings first hand.
  • If genba priorities are not safety, quality, and productivity, then lasting success is unlikely.

What are some of your Quality Victories?

The systems and projects I’ve introduced over time have had a very positive impact on outcomes, operations, and employee engagement. In the clinical setting, manufacturing arena, and business settings, I have designed and implemented daily management systems. This is a proactive improvement methodology that actively advances safety and quality outcomes, enables a culture of continuous improvement, real-time problem solving, and enhances cross-functional partnerships. I firmly believe that relentless daily practice is the basis of kaizen.

It was a great honor to be a hands-on Toyota Kata Coach for Industrial and Operations Engineering graduate class taught by Prof. Jeffrey K. Liker at the University of Michigan. Students engaged with variety of local businesses and introduced a structured PDCA method to improve business performance and build a problem-learning culture.

Additional projects I have worked on in multiple industries have resulted in cost savings in the millions. These projects have been satisfying from both a financial and cultural transformation perspective. There is always more to do and I love finding creative ways to solve quality problems.

Do you have any Words of Wisdom?

  • Learn and lead with passion. Take responsibility to continually develop yourself and develop others. Know you can make a difference and by empowering others through Lean tools and skills, scale your impact for the benefit of many.
  • Top down systems don’t last long or do good work. If front line staff does not have interest, then quality improvement won’t be achieved or realized. It is necessary to find the tools suited for front line staff who are doing the actual hands on work. They are the ones that can recognize what is happening and take action to improve.
  • Live and breath data. “Our goal is to prove we know what we are talking about.” “…in God we trust, all else, bring your data.” – Dr. Edward Deming
  • Set rigorous goals. The tougher the goals, the greater the satisfaction when the problem is solved.

Thanks again to Tanja Fessell for her quality thoughts!