Bigger CI Gains Can Come With “Bigger” Challenges

We all strive to achieve breakthrough or “bigger” gains when involved in Continuous Improvement, and a basic fact of accomplishing this is to pursue cross-organizational improvements.

However, these efforts typically involve more people, and this size factor alone can make projects more difficult to execute.

Consider that the larger the group, the more effort is required to ensure that good working relationships develop among the team members. Scheduling meetings becomes more difficult, and individuals may take less responsibility because with a large group it is easier to assume someone else will pick up the slack. There is often a limited window in which people are available, and the more people who must participate, the more constraints the project leader must schedule within.

Here are a few recommendations on how team leaders can minimize these “size-related” difficulties :

  • Make sure each participant has a clearly defined role and that everyone is clear about why each participant is needed.
  • Develop (and continue to refer back to) a clear charter and mandate from senior management
  • Develop ground rules about how to handle absences in a way that ensures the project continues forward. Will substitutes be used? Who can substitute and how will the team make sure that a substitute will know what is expected of them?
  • Set up firm meeting times and locations at the start of the project.
  • Publish minutes so that everyone is clear about what was decided and who has what action item.
  • Publish agendas so that everyone knows what is expected to happen at each meeting. Send reminders to make sure that action items are ready when planned.
  • Involve a facilitator to make sure that everyone provides input and that discussions stay on topic. Projects without a good facilitator will lose focus.
  • Develop concrete time lines and scope, and “chunk the work.” Breaking the work into specific deliverables helps to manage the size and complexity of cross-organizational improvements.

Reorganizations Can Work, But…!

In their book Reorg, published by the Harvard Business School Press, authors Stephen Heidari Robinson and Suzanne Heywood write, “A successful reorg can be one of the best ways for companies to unlock latent value, especially in a changing business environment – which is why companies are doing reorgs more often.”

However, they go on to acknowledge that most workplace reorganizations “just don’t work.”

Their findings are consistent with our observations and experience, which indicate barely 20% of reorganization efforts deliver the expected benefits.

But it’s important to recognize that the concept itself may not be at fault, but rather the execution. In fact, too many implementations begin prematurely, thus sealing the fate of those involved.

Here are a few key steps that can help ensure your reorganization effort will be successful:

  1. Start with a comprehensive design that includes the strategic engagement of leaders at all levels, and that takes into consideration the critical processes that create value for customers.
  2. Use flow charts or value-stream mapping to identify critical processes as well as those that are error-prone or that fail to add value so your plan can encompass the redesign of both the processes and the organization.
  3.  Select an Implementation Team with overall responsibility for every step, and begin with an “impact assessment.”
  4. Communication must be open and widespread throughout the process so that people at all levels are aware, on-board, and prepared for the upcoming changes. Be sure to include reasons for the reorganization and appropriate information about the implementation plan in this ongoing communication.
  5. Provide training for people in new or redesigned jobs.
  6. Provide coaching to help people at all levels make the transition.
  7. Follow-up, to ensure that any gaps in the implementation plan are closed.

Communication & CI Part 2: Hidden Costs?

As noted in our previous post, communication is an important, yet often over-looked tool for bringing about a culture of continuous improvement and engagement within a workforce.

But the effect of communication depends on its quality, and poor communication can be costly.   Even worse, these costs frequently go unnoticed!

For example, as reported in a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article, a survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication to and between employees. The article also referenced another study showing that miscommunication in smaller companies of 100 employees cost an average of $420,000 per year.

To determine or impact the quality of internal business communication, it is important to recognize that some communication forums are better than others.

For example, many organizations use suggestion boxes as forums. But the results are often disappointing. While a suggestion box requires little time or effort to initiate, its success relies on the ideas being completely and clearly expressed in writing.  Unfortunately, many people with good ideas simply cannot express them well.

Furthermore, if a suggestion requires more  explanation  or  development before it can be turned into a really great idea, the suggestion box does not offer an opportunity for clarification, debate, or refinement. Even worse, when the initial ideas are not fully formed or expressed, and management doesn’t have an opportunity for clarification, the ideas are harder to act upon, and often management loses interest.  When people notice nothing comes of the suggestion box, they stop offering ideas.

Here are some additional examples of costly miscommunication in business environments identified by Helen Wilkie, a consultant and author specializing in profitable, applied communication:

  • Long, boring, poorly-planned unproductive meetings that reach no conclusion and serve no purpose
  • Sales presentations that show no concern for, or understanding of, the client’s needs
  • Wasted time due to miscommunication about time or scheduling
  • Badly written e-mail messages that cause misunderstandings, ill will and wasted time
  • Employee alienation caused by managers who don’t listen
  • Lack of understanding between people of different age groups
  • Lack of understanding between male and female employees

Ultimately, the best forums are regularly-scheduled gatherings in which people can surface and discuss problems, waste, and opportunities for improvement.

When well-crafted, these forums allow for discussion to make sure each idea or observation is fully understood; any problems with an idea should be raised freely and discussed with the goal of improving the idea. In the end, the most effective improvements and innovations are often quite different from both the initial ideas and even the counter proposals. They emerge from listening to and incorporating different perspectives about barriers and unintended consequences to raise concepts to new levels.

An Often Overlooked Tool for Driving Continuous Improvement

A vitally-important tool for bringing about a culture of continuous improvement and engagement within a workforce is communication, which many people agree is the most frequently-used skill in today’s workplace.

Aside from standard team or project meetings, there are a number of ways leaders might go about accomplishing this. For example, employee forums are an ideal way to engage people around their work and contribute to the building of a high performance culture of continuous improvement.

Consider that one of the most obvious yet often overlooked requirements for high performance is a setting for employees to share and discuss problems and ideas for improvement.

But too often, managers and leaders tend to believe that if someone has a really great idea for improvement, they will raise it.  Yet when we talk to people close to the work, we more often hear ideas they have carried around for months or even years but never found the right time or place to share; or felt their idea would not be welcomed.

Even worse, when no forum for sharing improvement ideas is provided, people adapt to the way things are and stop noticing the waste—the elephant in the room—and stop trying to think of better ways.

A number of other examples of effective discussion forums that were shared during one of our Partners in Improvement sessions included:

  • Monthly safety talks at the end of which the company president discusses pertinent issues with team members and provides input as well as support
  • Weekly one-on-one session between management and team members during which leaders not only offer ideas and support, but also gather feedback on successes and challenges
  • Regular “town hall” meetings where he shares information about what is going on and what to expect, and also provides an opportunity for people to raise questions or concerns

It is also important to recognize that some “forums” are better than others, which will be the subject of our next post.

Engagement, Motivation & Work

Enterprise engagement has been a frequently-addressed topic in this blog, and a recent post shared some of our Partners in Improvement group’s thoughts on an important element of an engagement strategy — rewards and recognition.

In that post, several points were made about being careful with the use of extrinsic, or monetary rewards as motivators.

To add some additional perspective,  the Enterprise Engagement Alliance shared information from a past New York Times column “The Secret of Effective Motivation,” in which authors Amy Wrzesniewski, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management, and Barry Schwartz, Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, suggest that the most effective type of motivation in terms of actual long-term results is action based on an internal motive — that is, “the pleasure derived from the activity and results themselves rather than from an instrumental motive such as the desire for fame or money.”

“Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also… their financial success,” the article states.

This viewpoint is well-aligned with our “Engagement Around the Work” approach, which involves specific steps for achieving a
culture of engagement that is linked with team productivity, performance, and job satisfaction.

This approach incorporates a clear objective of engaging people around the one thing they all have in common—and the one thing that can bring about increased profitability and a sustainable competitive edge—the work.

As Bill Conway often said, “It’s all about the work!”

Read “Engagement Around the Work” white paper.

Study Your Work & The Work of Others to Promote Internal Change

Continuing to analyze the concept that “knowledge” is one of the most powerful change agents, today’s focus is on what is arguably the most important source of that knowledge — your own value stream, which includes your organization’s work as well as the work of others.

What is going on in technology? What methods are others trying out? How is it working for them? How could it work for you?

In most organizations, there is a knowledge barrier that holds the waste in place: the people who know the work best are seldom in a position to know the big picture so when they see waste, they
often assume there must be a reason for it. And if they know of better ways of doing something, they often lack the influence to make any significant changes. Similarly,  those with the broader perspective and the influence do not really understand how the work as it is done today well enough to arrive at the ‘Eureka!’ moment.

One of the fundamentals of the Lean approach is that you must “go to the work.” Don’t just talk about the results or listen to people talk about the work — go to the work (a.k.a. Gemba).

Look at the work, and learn from the people who do it every day. Without this knowledge, little can be substantially improved, and effective “change” will be difficult or impossible to implement.

Learning from the Marketplace to Promote Internal Change

As noted in our previous post, “knowledge” is one of the most powerful change agents, and all sorts of learning can become a catalyst for change.

One very effective source of knowledge is our marketplace, which includes our customers and competitors.

By learning from the market we can often see possibilities for innovation that have been overlooked. Of course learning is only the first step, as the gained knowledge must then be applied.

For example, in the early 1980’s, Toyota believed that to grow their sales in the United States they would need to have manufacturing facilities here, but they concluded they did not have enough knowledge to do so successfully. So they entered into a joint venture with General Motors, opening the NUMMI plant in California to produce both the Chevy Nova and the Toyota Corolla in the United States.

After they achieved their learning goals, Toyota went on to successfully open plants in a number of U.S. locations, applying their knowledge each time.  While General Motors had the opportunity to learn the production systems that enabled Toyota to produce very high quality products at low cost, and while many individuals at GM learned a great deal through this venture, GM gained little more from the venture than the cars that came off the assembly line.

Learning from the customer can also open our eyes to new possibilities. But it’s important to recognize that customers may tell you what they want, but not necessarily why.

So making the extra effort to go beyond just “what they need” to gain knowledge is critically-important. Contextual inquiry is a method of learning more about the customer needs than the customer could tell you by watching the customer use the product in context.

What do they really value? How do they use or struggle to use what you give them? What are the things that you could do differently that the customers would not know to ask? And consider that they don’t ask because they don’t know enough about your process
to suggest it, and you don’t know enough about their process to offer it!

Similarly, knowledge of the competition can produce a greater sense of urgency or a heightened “willingness” to change, and in many cases can give us better insights as to the best ways to satisfy our customers and achieve a competitive edge.

Learn to Change!

Much has been written about the importance of “change” within a business, and how developing an acceptance of it is a requirement to maintaining a culture of Continuous Improvement as well as a competitive position.

However, it is also true that people tend to resist change, even when they acknowledge the need for it.

While there are numerous methods for leading and managing change within an organization, “knowledge” is the most powerful of change agents. 

If leaders can make the practice of gathering and sharing knowledge more systematic, and initiate a systematic approach to pursuing knowledge not only about the outside world and marketplace, but also about the work itself, then they can more easily achieve breakthrough results as well as a more engaged and competitive culture.

Of course this contrasts with the more common business culture of focusing on individual learning.

But consider that a great deal of the learning goes to waste when in this model because much of what is learned stays in one place. An individual may accumulate a great deal of knowledge and skill in his or her work, but little is shared. One may master one’s own job, but know little about the work in supplier or customer organizations, which could help streamline the whole process.

To implement a systematic approach to making “learning” the organization’s catalyst for change, leaders can encourage people to learn from four key sources:

  1. Learn about the marketplace
  2. Learn about the competition
  3. Learn about the world-at-large
  4. Learn about the work

We’ll take a closer look at each of these sources of knowledge over the next few posts, and point-out how each can serve as a catalyst to change and Continuous Improvement.

Leadership Pitfalls

Several past posts have referenced the fact that strong, effective leadership is a “must” if we hope to build and sustain a culture of continuous improvement… a culture rife with innovation and high-levels of engagement.

Innovation, change, continuous improvement, and engagement only take place when leaders empower people at all levels to unleash their creative skills, seek new and better ways of improving their work, and share their passion about what can be accomplished.
Strong leaders provide the initial and ongoing energy for change, and people will only follow leaders if they trust them, if they see the need for change, if they believe change will benefit “all” parties, and if they are involved in creating the change.

While two of last year’s posts identified specific steps managers can take to develop and sustain a creative culture and also a culture of continuous improvement, there are also behaviors that organizational leaders must avoid.

In a recent SmartBrief article, John Stoker, Author and CEO of DialogueWORKS, Inc., shares several pitfalls that can result leaders undermining their credibility and effectiveness.

These “behaviors to avoid” include:

  • “You can tell me anything, but…!” This statement is made (without the “but”) to solicit input or feedback on a particular idea or course of action.  But, sometimes leaders will completely discount the idea or opinion offered, especially if it’s something with which they don’t immediately agree.
  • Coercing support. Sometimes in an attempt to win approval for an idea or decision, leaders will say something like, “I need you to support my position today in the meeting. You have to back me up!” Often there’s an implied, “Or else.” Such behavior destroys candor, honesty and team morale.
  • Solicitation without action. Simply stated, solicitation implies action. When a leader asks for ideas or solutions, it is implied that the leader will do something with the ideas or solutions that are provided. This doesn’t mean that a leader has to implement or take action on every idea that is offered, but it does require that the leader share what they might do and why. This reinforces the importance of contribution and collaboration. To solicit ideas or solutions and then do nothing signals to individuals that their ideas are not important. Do this, and it won’t be long before people quit speaking up or offering ideas.
  • Manipulation. Sometimes a leader will ask people for ideas and then use them as evidence that the leader’s original idea was the best idea. This ends up feeling like manipulation. If leaders ask for ideas, then they should be open to exploring those ideas.
  • Giving feedback at the wrong time and in the wrong place. The proper place to give any kind of negative feedback is in private! Some leaders feel it is appropriate to give negative or critical feedback to a person on the spot and in front of others.  Some of these managers have said that they like giving feedback in this way because it is motivating to others. But in reality, such behavior strikes fear into the heart of any conscious team member who learns to dread interactions with these managers or leaders. Sharing negative or critical feedback in front of others is highly disrespectful and does not inspire candor or openness. In fact, it will likely cause people to keep bad news to themselves and hide their mistakes.

Read the full article… 

Rewards & Recognition Best Practices

Recent posts have focused on “rewards and recognition,” a crucial component of enterprise engagement.

We shared a range of perspectives based on discussions with our Partners in Improvement groups, who agreed that these programs are typically designed to achieve one of three objectives:

  • increased commitment
  • increased desired behavior or motivation
  • increased measurable results

Based on their collective experience the Partners identified the following eight criteria or best practices for an effective rewards and recognition program:

  1. Keep it simple: The most cost effective method of all seemed to be the simple thank you note. The notes, if done well, are widely appreciated and cost nothing more than the time and attention to set up a system of information when an individual or team deserved a thank you.
  2. Be very careful about extrinsic rewards: these can cause more trouble than benefits. Extrinsic rewards require very clear metrics, auditing, and careful, even elaborate design to ensure a focus on the rewarded metrics will not lead to deterioration of other facets of the organization. Obviously, this makes it hard to ‘keep it simple.’
  3. Be specific: it is much more effective to recognize a team or a person for a specific result or accomplishment than for generally doing a good job.
  4. Be timely: the closer in time the reward or recognition is to the accomplishment being recognized, the more impactful it will be.
  5. Be consistent: Be sure that you respond to comparable accomplishments in comparable ways.
  6. Be authentic: Sincerity in words of appreciation and praise are essential to an effective system of reward and recognition.
  7. Communicate widely: Publicity helps extend the celebration and communicates widely what is valued by the organization.
  8. Use team rewards to encourage better organization-wide results.

Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement