8 Ways to Increase the Success Rate of Improvement Projects

Continuous Improvement

Our previous post shared a number of reasons why so many improvement projects fail or fall short of expectations.

Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to prevent the
downward spiral that can so easily plague improvement efforts, which we discussed during a meeting with our improvement Partners. These principles include the following:

Success! The first principle for making a project successful is simple: nothing succeeds like success. So start out with carefully selected projects staffed with highly qualified people to ensure they are successful. Give the earlier projects careful guidance and support. One of our Partners described an initiation process which started with 10 carefully selected and well trained individuals. They put five on one project and five on the other. Once those projects were complete, they launched five more improvement projects with two of their 10 trained leaders per project. This plan was designed to ensure early successes.

Communication About Success. The second principle is “advertising.” If a team applies the CI methodology to great success but no one hears about it, the methodology as “the way we do things around here” will be slow to catch on. Newsletters, presentations, story boards and discussions at staff meeting and water coolers are all ways to communicate success and make sure that everyone learns from it and is ready to try for some more.

Speed to Results. But an organization will not have many successes to advertise, if it does not make speed to results a priority. Once you start an improvement project, make sure that the project manager and the team run like heck to finish it. The more demanding the environment and more rapidly new challenges arise, the more critical it is that every effort be on the fast track to completion — before something arises to change priorities.
To the extent possible, compress the cycle time to results. Use Kaizen events and focused teams to tackle manageable chunks in short time frames.

Data. Use data to really understand the current reality and to test theories about underlying causes. The data will help you minimize the red herrings and wrong turns. People will want to substitute opinions for data because that is the way they have always worked. But the facts and data will help the team zero in on the real cause and the best solution more quickly than trial and error based on opinion. One of our partners observed that people will often create a flow chart, but then fail to get the facts about the process. A flow chart is just one step and is not really complete until it has been validated and populated with real data.

Keep It Simple. Keep the data analysis as simple as possible. Complicated is not necessarily better and it is almost always slower! A great deal can be learned from Pareto charts looking at the data from different angles — to rule out or confirm theories about the underlying dynamics and relationships.

Management Support. Pay attention to the soft side, making sure that management meets with the teams and individuals regularly. One CEO meets one-on-one with his leaders once a month and the sole topic is how the improvement project is going and what can he do to speed progress. Lots of visibility and encouragement for people working on systematic improvement helps to maintain interest, enthusiasm, and momentum.

Team Enthusiasm. One CEO lets his team leaders pick the project — focusing on what really ‘frosts’ them. This gains the enthusiasm for the work and results in quick wins.

Team Training. Most Partners believe that nearly everyone in the company needs some basic training. But team leaders need to be very well trained, so that they can ensure that the team follows the methodology, asks the right questions, gathers the right data, stays on track, and keeps the interest and engagement of the rest of the team. Choose team leaders very carefully.

In addition to the above-listed solutions for running an effective improvement initiative, there are several things that an organization can do before launching a project that can increase the likelihood of success. These best practices will be the subject of our next post…

Why Improvement Initiatives Often Fail

brick wall

During a discussion with several of our improvement partners, it was noted that approximately 80% of the time Continuous Improvement efforts fail or are abandoned prior to achieving their potential.

We also discussed a set of barriers that could lead to failure, which included:

  • Low aim, poor advance planning or scoping
  • Lack of data during the planning stage
  • Lack of buy-in from management
  • Lack of buy-in from participants
  • Lack of management support, which is required to free up the resources to work on improvement
  • Lack of progress due to ineffective or inconsistent execution. The slower the effort moves, the more likely it becomes that priorities will change, new opportunities or problems arise that decrease available resources further.
  • Poor meeting management, causing slower progress.
  • Participants need for skill development

A number of solutions to the above-listed challenges were also discussed, which will be the subject of our next post.

Are Questions the Answer to Making Breakthrough Solutions?

questions

An article published in 2020 as part of the Drucker Forum’s “shape the debate” series raised some interesting perspectives about leadership and making breakthrough improvements.

The simple premise shared by consultant and author John Hagel is that “questions” are the answer.

“The most effective leaders of the future will be those who have the most powerful and inspiring questions,” Hagel said. “…and who are willing to acknowledge they don’t have the answers, and that they need and want help in finding the answers. It’s in sharp contrast to the conventional view of leaders as the ones who have the answers to all the questions.”

This view aligns nicely with ours, as we’ve found that posing questions of and involving the people closest to the work is the shortest path to the largest gains.

After all, where do new ideas that lead to lasting solutions come from?

They come from people… that is, if those people are asked.

Here are three different approaches to identifying new ideas and solutions along with some of the questions we might ask the right people while studying the related work:

  1. Classic brainstorming. When studying the current situation and causes does not lead directly to identifying lasting solutions, you need to elicit a number of different ideas from your team by asking questions that stimulate creativity. How can we increase our productivity by 10 percent? What are the most common obstacles causing the process to stall? What is the most difficult aspect…”

    Before you launch into your brainstorming, make sure you have convened a diverse group of people with some knowledge or interest in the problem at hand. Keep in mind that it is always easier for people to “think outside the box” when they come from outside the box.

    The classic rules for brainstorming are:
    • No criticism of ideas—no idea is too crazy
    • Go for quantity of ideas and worry about quality later
    • Brainstorm individually first and then read the ideas out round robin style it is okay to pass
    • Build on positive aspects of other ideas to create new ideas
    • Capture the ideas on flip charts or on large Post-Its that everyone can see and read
  2. Tools such as the Six Thinking Hats and Heuristic Discovery, which systematically change one’s perspective to open-up new possibilities for solving problems.
    • First, state the problem in terms of an opportunity or goal. For example, a keyboard refurbishing operation needed to increase throughput, so they would ask: “How to we double our daily throughput of refurbished keyboards?”
    • Second, create a picture or map of the problem as part of the system, labeling each of the significant components.
    • Third, describe the impact of each component as it impacts the goal. Use a question format. For example:
      • What tools might we use to increase throughput?
      • How can we make sure that people’s skills are sufficient to double the throughput?
      • How can we make sure that people’s speed is sufficient to double the throughput?
      • How can we ensure the workspace layout enhances throughput?
    • Fourth, Prioritize these and generate ideas for solutions to the component problems that are most likely to impact
  3. Imagineering perfection, which helps you surface possibilities to leap past incremental improvements…
    • “What would this process look like if everything were right?”
    • What would it mean if the input we need always arrives on time and exactly the way we need and want it—no delays, no expediting, no rework?
    • What if every step of the work process were to go exactly as it should with no waste, no rework?
    • What if our work produced exactly what the customer needs, on time, exactly as they require it all the time? What would this look like?
    • What exactly does the customer need for perfection?

Implementing a New Year Strategic Plan?

implementation

In a 2018 post we noted that an organization can have an excellent strategy but make little-or-no gains if they fail to execute effectively on that strategy.

It was also noted that this happens in a great many instances, as people at all levels frequently struggle to stay-the-course when it comes to achieving goals, keeping resolutions, or executing strategic plans. Instead, they fall prey to “working so hard on the urgent that they forget about what’s really important.”

Since we are about to begin a New Year, and since many organizations have, in fact, created a strategic plan for the upcoming year, it seems an ideal time to re-share and reaffirm the fact that “planning” does little good without execution. Fortunately, there are solutions!

The Four Disciplines of Execution, an insightful book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling, shares one of these solutions.

As you may know, the ‘Four Disciplines’ comprise a management system of making consistent and systematic progress on executing plans and achieving goals. An organization can have an excellent strategy but fail to execute effectively on that strategy. Almost always the reason is that everyone is BUSY, and that they experience a conflict between all of the demands to keep the business running on a day to day basis (the ‘whirlwind’) and the time required to move the organization forward to accomplish existing or new goals!

The book identifies four key elements of execution that can help any organization achieve steady progress on the strategic objectives:

The first discipline is to focus on the “wildly important” (WIG—Wildly Important Goals). It is suggested that we’re better off executing a small number of goals right instead of spreading ourselves too thin. It is also important to not only identify, but also communicate exactly what these wildly-important goals are so that everyone is working on what matters. Equally as important, each of these goals must be associated with a targeted completion date – in other words, they must be time-based.

The 2nd discipline is to set (and act upon) lead measures. While lag measures tell you whether or not you have achieved your wildly-important goals, in most cases, by the time the results are in, it’s too late to do anything about them. Lead measures are predictive; they tell you how the lag measures will move, and they are “influenceable” (you can do something about them).

For example, a person might set an important goal of losing weight. The lag measure will be to take periodic measurements of weight. But to influence the weight goal the person must act on the lead measures: exercise (calories burned) and calories consumed.

The 3rd discipline is to keep a compelling scorecard. The scoreboard shows the lead measures and lag measures defined in the first two disciplines. This scoreboard must be ‘a players’ scoreboard’ not a ‘coach’s scoreboard’. It must support, guide, and motivate the players to act effectively on the lead measures and influence the lag measures.

People play the game differently when they are keeping score, and they play differently if they are keeping the score themselves! In fact, the action of recording their own results has proved to have a strong effect on people ― fostering ownership, engagement, and a deeper appreciation of the impact of their effort.

In addition, there are four important requirements to creating an effective scorecard that will truly promote execution and engagement:

  • The scorecard must be visible. If it is out of sight, on your computer or on the back of the door, it is less effective at aligning the team to focus on moving those measurements.
  • It must be simple, showing only the data required to ‘play the game’ ― to let the players know how they are doing day to day.
  • It must show both lead and lag measures.
  • It must show “at a glance” how the team or players are doing.

The 4th discipline is to develop a “rhythm of accountability.” This is the discipline that enables you to win… without a rhythm or cadence of accountability, teams will have a much more difficult time and will tend to become less engaged. The threat, of course, is that the whirlwind of running the day-to-day business that will consume all the available time.

By setting a rhythm or cadence the authors mean an inviolable regular schedule to which everyone is committed. For example, teams should meet every week or every two weeks as opposed to “whenever something comes up.” It’s also best to schedule the meetings at the same day and time each week or every-other week. These meetings should never be canceled ― they must be viewed as important and productive, thus promoting strong feelings of belonging, commitment, productivity, and accomplishment, which are all drivers of engagement.

As noted in the book, “without accountability, the whirlwind will win!”

Like many things in life, these elements are simple but not necessarily easy… but they do enable an organization to more easily achieve important goals in the face of the whirlwind.

Increasing Throughput Without Adding Resources

Continuing with our theme of Continuous Improvement (CI) tools, people often need to increase the throughput or output of a process, but don’t have access additional resources to do so.

In these situations a Process Flow Chart is an excellent tool to start with.

A Process Flow Chart or Process Evaluation Chart (the latter is populated with measurement data) can be created by bringing together the participants in the process and mapping it out together. Some
organizations believe that mapping the processes with the frontline associates always results in lightbulbs going on and the associates voicing concerns and ideas once their process is on the wall.

There are always surprises, as people find ‘black holes’ or dead ends, and see the ‘wastes’ that are often invisible during the typical business day. Unnecessary waiting and handovers suddenly become visible; details about the things other teams or team members do suddenly become clear as people realize how their work impacts others and vice versa. Action logs based on the concerns/ideas are almost always a result at well, and they serve as the basis for the improvement project to increase output simply due to the heightened awareness stemming from the flow chart.

Here is a sample of a simple flow chart:

flow chart
Sample flowchart

When creating a flowchart, process steps are shown as shapes of various kinds, and their order by connecting the shapes with arrows or lines. Different shapes are used to indicate actions, decision points, recycle loops, work and wait times.

Here is a summary of the most commonly-used shapes:

flowchart symbols

Improvement Project Success Predictor

improvement tools

Our previous post focused on defining and scoping an improvement project prior to launch. Another useful pre-launch tool, which was created by our consulting team, is a “success predictor.”

The “success predictor” distills a century or two of collective experience with what characteristics are most necessary for an improvement project’s success – in other words, it can help to prioritize options and increase the likelihood of working on the right things.

The following eleven factors can predict with a fair degree of accuracy how likely a project is to succeed:

  1. The potential benefit of the project to the organization is clear, substantial and quantifiable. (10 = very clear, quantifiable, substantial)
  2. The problem to be solved is clearly defined and quantifiable, and the project scope is focused and well-defined. (10 = very clear, focused, and well-defined)
  3. The project has top management’s commitment and support (resources, sponsorship and follow-up); no influential person is actively opposed to the project. (10 = very strong support)
  4. The sponsor and team leader are clear about each one’s role and partner effectively to ensure the success of the project. (10 = very clear)
  5. The team leader and key resources are devoting enough of their time to the project to complete it very quickly. (10= full time)
  6. The team is staffed and led by the right people for the job, and they are determined and capable to quickly achieve results. (10 = very determined and capable)
  7. Meaningful and accurate facts and data about the process are available. (10 = very available)
  8. The process to be improved is repeated frequently enough to efficiently study variation in the current process and to and test and measure improvements. Hourly? Monthly? Annually? (10 = very frequently).
  9. The processes to be improved are within the team’s span of control. (10 = under control).
  10. The expected timeframe for completion of the project or for achieving concrete and measurable milestones. (10 = 4-8 weeks to completion or measurable milestone)
  11. The processes are stable, that is not undergoing very recent or imminent major change (10 = very stable).

Defining & Scoping Improvement Projects

SIPOC

An earlier post referenced one of our founder Bill Conway’s favorite quotes, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on.”

This pearl of wisdom applies to all forms of work, and is certainly critically important when it comes to initiating an improvement project. Various tools have been developed to help people better define improvement initiatives, one of which is SIPOC, an acronym formed in the early days of TQM and one that continues to be used today in Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and business process management..

SIPOC enables people to effectively define the process, problem, and project early on to ensure they are, in fact, working on the right things. The acronym stands for:

Suppliers
Inputs
Process
Outputs
Customers

Some organizations always start with the SIPOC to get the team on the same page so they can answer six important questions:

  • What is the process?
  • Its purpose (why are we doing this)?
  • Who owns the process (surprisingly sometimes not obvious/known)?
  • Who are the customers/suppliers?
  • Who is the primary customer?
  • What do they get out of the process or provide for the process?

Once the questions above have been answered people can focus on the high level process flow and the process measures for each step by answering five more questions:

  • What’s the ideal?
  • Is the data available?
  • Are we already measuring it?
  • What is the goal?
  • What is the impact?

Once the team members have a shared high-level understanding of the process using the SIPOC, and have gathered the data that enables them to measure the gap between the current situation and the ideal, they can create a good problem statement, objective, scope, and timetable.

These together are key components of a Project Charter, the ‘North Star’ of a project that helps keep the project moving forward to successful completion.

Nothing Happens Until Somebody Sells Something!

sales growth

You may be familiar with Arthur “Red” Motley’s quote, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something!”

Leaving aside the extent to which Motley’s perspective might or might not be true, effectively managing the sales process and maintaining a path of steady revenue growth are every-day objectives within organizations of all types and sizes. And while many external factors, such as variation in the economy or increased competition, can significantly impact results, the selling process — like all processes — can and must be studied and continually improved.

Interestingly, when we delve into that subject with organizational leaders we frequently find that they have not defined a “sales process” that focuses on the work. Instead, they refer to their CRM categories as the sales process.

We understand and appreciate the value of CRM systems and forecasting, but this type of measurement does not focus on the work. It is, therefore, not surprising that a common challenge facing so many organizations is how to grow revenue.

If sales growth is an issue for your organization, here are a few strategies you might consider from a past newsletter:

  • Looking outward to test or confirm what customers deem most important
  • Looking inward for opportunities to define and improve the sales process
  • Looking forward to maintain an innovative edge, based on 3 key criteria

Read the full article…

It’s All About the Work: 10 Questions

Continuous Improvement is all about the Work

One of Bill Conway’s favorite sayings has always been, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on.”

In fact, we’ve found that half of Continuous Improvement involves working on the right things!

Once people know what to work on, there are ten critical questions to consider, the answers to which will lead the way toward building a high-performance culture of continuous improvement:

  1. What processes should we use to identify the best opportunities for improvement?
  2. How will we prioritize the opportunities?
  3. How can we ensure or increase alignment?
  4. How will we identify what ‘could or should be’ if everything were right?
  5. What specific improvement goals shall we set?
  6. How can we involve the people closest to the work?
  7. What tools will we use to find fundamental solutions?
  8. How will we measure progress?
  9. How will we recognize and communicate progress and achievement?
  10. What is our follow-up system to assure that the processes, once fixed, stay fixed?

Leading Change

You may be familiar with John Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School, and the founder of Kotter International, a management consulting firm based in Seattle and Boston. He is a thought leader in business, leadership, and change.

He is known for speaking passionately about the difference between “managing” change and “leading” change.

“Management makes a system work,” Kotter explains. “It helps you do what you know how to do. Leadership builds systems or transforms old ones.”

Kotter is also well known for his 8-step process for leading change. Here is a graphic depiction:

“In a change process of any kind you must win over the hearts of people and the minds of people,” Kotter is famous for saying. “The most effective change efforts are able to get people to not only think differently, but also feel differently about the initiative.”

Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement