Creative Problem Solving Via Challenging Your Processes

Challenging Process Steps

Continuing with our theme of creative problem solving and the value of creativity in Continuous Improvement, sometimes you can achieve innovative solutions by systematically challenging a few key aspects of your process.

In 2004, Michael Hammer wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review titled Deep Change: How Operational Innovation Can Transform Your Company. In this article he described several approaches to “Re-imagining Processes” by challenging basic underlying assumptions that prevent your organization from achieving a big breakthrough. Following are a few of the ways he suggested challenging the work:

  1. Challenge The Sequence — what steps happen in what order. A bank recently changed the fundamental sequence of work in a loan department to shorten approval times by 80%. Not only did this innovation achieve unprecedented customer service, it reduced some rework and, by closing faster, reduced risk from floating interest rates. What would happen to your process if you rearranged the steps? What other changes would be required to enable this to work?
  2. Challenge The Roles — who must do what. Empowering individuals doing the work to also complete routine maintenance can greatly increases efficiencies and reduce wait time. An organization that empowered people close to the work to install routine software patches rather than calling for IT could greatly reduce the number of PCs with un-patched software and increase capacity of the IT department. A call center provided training and tools to the customer service reps so they could handle the whole job instead of transferring the call. What work could be transferred to the people closest to the work when the need arises? How would this accelerate the service?
  3. Challenge The Steps — With its breakthrough cross-docking approach, Walmart challenged the assumption that products must be stored in the distribution center before they are shipped. They overcame the near universally held assumption that it was impossible to plan and execute a process where a supplier’s shipment could be loaded directly onto the distribution trucks. What steps in your process are held there by assumptions that we could never be good enough, precise enough, fast enough or accurate enough to eliminate the step?
  4. Challenge The Location — A gerontologist decided that instead of maintaining a full office, his business could and should primarily be house calls. What if a key component of your work were executed in a completely different place? How could you increase value for your customers or increase your own efficiencies?
  5. Challenge The Source of The Information The Process Acts On — Hammer described a manufacturer reducing inventory by basing production on actual orders than forecasts. Where are you using approximations or forecasts when you could use information closer to the source?

Creative Problem Solving With “TRIZ”

How to Apply Creativity to CI

Our previous post focused on the value of creative thinking in Continuous Improvement. One interesting example of how we might apply creativity when solving problem is called the Theory of Inventive Problem-Solving (TRIZ).

The concept dates back to the 1950’s and Russian innovator G.S. Altshuller’s belief that innovation processes could be improved by studying patterns in
problems and solutions. Altlshuller and his team analyzed millions of patents to identify patterns, and they deduced from this data a small number of principles that can be applied to make the creative process more predictably effective. The result, TRIZ, is an acronym for Russian words that translate as “the theory of inventive problem solving.”

The fundamental premise is that there is nothing new so, whatever your challenge, if you understand it both in its specific and general form and you do the research, you will find that someone somewhere has already solved it. Then if you focus your creativity on adapting the general solution to your particular challenge, you will achieve your breakthrough faster and more predictably.

TRIZ accelerates breakthroughs by guiding the human intellect along paths most likely to be fruitful. And speed of innovation is essential because most people and groups abandon a “stretch” goal fairly quickly and settle for a compromise; and “slow innovation = no innovation.”

The developers and practitioners of TRIZ observe that problems often emerge from contradictions, and that most solutions aim at compromising with the contradictions instead of overcoming them. Here are some of the
contradictions that may appear in the workplace:

  • It takes time to do something the right way, but the thing must be done quickly
  • A task requires precision, but it must be done without precise tools
  • A product must have dozens of features, but it must be simple to use.

Each problem is a specific example of a general contradiction. TRIZ research has paired every general contradiction with a small number of general solutions. So a practitioner of TRIZ can focus their effort and intellect on translating the specific problem into one of several dozen general problems. The next step is to look up in the TRIZ resources the general solutions that have been applied to that general problem in the past. Then one focuses one’s creativity on identifying and testing specific solutions that could apply the general solution to the problem at hand.

TRIZ research and practice has been expanded into a rich tool kit for
innovation, but probably the simplest approach is to use the ‘40 Principles.’ A list of these can be found at triz-journal.com/40-inventive-principles-examples.

Can You Become Creative? And Why Should You Try?

Creativity & CI

Over the years we have recognized that creativity can be a desirable trait for a good Continuous Improvement (CI) Leader as well as for project team members.

Consider that a creative mind can be a great asset when trying to identify the difference between the status-quo and the way “things could or should be if everything were right,” which is a clear definition of waste.

Although not often associated with leadership, establishing a creative culture of continuous improvement can help managers in their efforts to achieve higher levels of team performance. Specific steps for doing so include encouraging new ideas, orchestrating “no bad ideas” brainstorming sessions, tolerating failure and using it as a learning experience, and recognizing the achievement of those involved in applying creativity to improvement initiatives.

In addition, creative thinking can be a tool for helping people accept and adapt to change.

But it is important to realize that many people fear that they are not creative or believe that they lack the ability to think in a creative fashion, which tends to prevent them from putting forth an earnest effort.

Can You Become Creative?
Fortunately, according to data shared by Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, and others indicates that only “10% of creativity is genetic,” and that there are a range of activities that can help people develop a creative way of thinking. These include:

  • Consume content that’s outside your comfort zone
  • Maintain a positive outlook (often “fuels” creativity)
  • Participate in brainstorming activities
  • Test new ideas
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Recognize that very little in this world is original, and that creative solutions more often come from improving what’s current
  • Apply strategic constraints to your ideas– this is a component of “Imagineering,” which involves first setting the “sky as the limit” when we imagine what “could or should be if everything were right,” and then engineer it back to earth for practical application

CI & Sales “Leads”

How does your leadership style impact sales?

As noted in a previous posts, it’s important to recognize that the culture of any given enterprise is a reflection of its leadership, and that people at all levels tend to mirror that culture when interacting with one another as well as with customers and prospects.

The impact of this “mirroring” can be significant, especially as it applies to the sales force as it influences the way in which sales people interact with customers and the marketplace each day.

Consider that both the direct and implied messages your sales team conveys to others are, to a great degree, based upon the impressions they have of your business philosophy and your day-to-day behavior — ranging from how you manage and treat the team to how you talk about and treat customers.

As organizational leaders, here are seven things you can do to positively support, improve, and “lead” the selling process:

  1. Know your customers and maintain an understanding of their true interests, needs and priorities, taking each into account when setting policies and procedures. This alignment will send a strong message to the sales people that you are, in fact, a customer-centric organization.
  2. Maintain consistent two-way communication with the sales force, keeping them well-informed with respect to the organization’s mission and vision. Encourage them to deliver or reaffirm that message in the marketplace. As summarized by a recent American Management Association article, “Leaders must develop and communicate a compelling vision that inspires people.”
  3. Provide regular development and feedback — considering that the marketplace is in a constant state of “change,” the sales team must also continually improve and evolve. It is vital, the AMA states, “to share both motivational and developmental feedback.” People need to know when they’ve done a good job and when there is room to improve.
  4. Sell to the sales force — make sure they understand that the job can be done and that you and the organization have faith in their ability to do it; make sure they understand that the grass is, in fact, not greener “across the street,” and that there is a secure future for them if they work hard to earn it.
  5. Create and implement a formalized sales management / performance management system that consistently and fairly inspects what it expects, and holds the sales force accountable for activity as well as results.
  6. Recognize and reward desired behaviors and success as part of a formalized plan plan to engage and motivate the team, and to retain good performers. If the team is exceeding expectations, be sure to share in their celebration as opposed to intimating that the quotas might be too low.
  7. Similarly, if the sales force is not enjoying high-levels of success or is struggling to meet expectations, provide solutions and support — build upon strengths versus focus on weaknesses. A constructive approach to improvement can significantly impact their success, while a more critical or negative approach tends to promote continued failure.

Manage the “Whirlwind” with Accountability

The Key to Execution

In past posts we’ve noted that many organizations develop improvement strategies but fail to execute and sustain those strategies. While there can be a number of reasons for this, the most common is that the “whirlwind of running day-to-day business” takes over… in other words, we ignore what might be “important” at the expense of what’s “urgent.”

In order to achieve maximum results from improvement efforts, people must implement and sustain a plan. Even when people excel at identifying major opportunities for improvement, if they don’t execute, they don’t make gains. In our work with hundreds of organizations, we have observed that the most successful are outstanding at execution.

In several past posts we have referenced the 4 Disciplines of Execution, a book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling, as an effective guide to execution.

The disciplines, as defined by the authors, are:

  1. Identify and focus on a Wildly Important Goal (a WIG)
  2. Monitor and act on LEAD measures
  3. Keep a compelling SCOREBOARD updated by the people doing the work
  4. Develop a rhythm of ACCOUNTABILITY

While each of the ‘disciplines’ is obviously important, we have found that it’s the fourth one ― accountability ― that ultimately enables success. Without a cadence of accountability, the team will have a much more difficult time. By ‘cadence’ the authors mean an inviolable regular schedule, commitments, and expectations. The commitments can be modest, such as ‘what is the one thing I can do by next week to move forward,’ but they must be met. The threat, of course, is the whirlwind of running the day-to-day business that will consume all the available time.

If you’d like to improve your organization’s ability to hold all stakeholders accountable for implementing strategic plans, here are five key areas of focus that can help:

  • Get senior leaders to become actively involved
  • Identify clear project plans for delivering results, including measures and milestones
  • Engage team members and stakeholders
  • Set expectations and consequences — both positive and negative
  • Develop an organized structure and activity / accomplishment reporting / recognition plans – communication matters!

Another Pitfall Akin to Confirmation Bias

Thinking outside-of-the box?

Our previous post shared some thoughts on the pitfall of “confirmation bias,” which is the tendency to pursue and embrace information that matches our existing beliefs.

A somewhat related concept that can, surprisingly, be equally as dangerous is “conventional wisdom,” which has been defined as “the body of ideas or explanations generally accepted as true by the public or by experts in a field.” It is frequently referenced as “inside-the-box” thinking, as opposed to taking an approach that challenges convention (i.e., “outside-the-box” thinking).

But contrary to popular belief (or, to ‘conventional wisdom’ – ha ha!), this seemingly safe practice can be both an asset and a liability!

On the plus-side, conventional wisdom speeds up consensus and increases our confidence in our decision making, leaving us to focus our attention on challenges for which there is no conventional wisdom to guide us. And conventional wisdom has much truth within it — having been developed over decades of observations.

For example, conventional wisdom holds that specialization is good. A person can get very fast and reliable doing the same thing the same way again and again, a-la Henry Ford’s production line.

However, while specialization can increase both efficiency and quality when demand is consistent at optimum levels, it can quickly become counterproductive, costly, and even wasteful if the demand for work is uncertain.

For example, a commercial bakery could purchase one large capacity mixer that could produce 100,000 loaves for far less cost per loaf than two smaller mixers. The large mixer produces large batch sizes; that’s how it gets its great efficiencies. But if the market is looking for variety, none of which is ordered in bulk, the large mixer results in the worst of both worlds: you either produce large batch sizes and have a lot of scrap if the demand does not materialize in time, or you waste the purchased capacity by preparing batch sizes more closely tied to current demand for the product variety. Either way, you can never really produce enough variety for the market, because the equipment produces only one variety at a time.

So like many things in life, when we find ourselves needing to research the marketplace, assess root causes, or study work processes, we must beware of both confirmation bias and its kin conventional wisdom, lest we make sub-optimum (or worse!) choices that feel good at the start but come back to bite us in the end.

Researching with Happy Ears

Confirmation Bias

It has often been said that people tend to “hear what they want to hear.”

In other words, it can be a little bit too easy to accept information or research that we already believe, and to filter-out information or research that we don’t already believe.

This tendency can also increase over time, as with experience comes wisdom… and confirmation bias, which is the tendency to pursue and embrace information that matches our existing beliefs. A simple pre-existing opinion can easily distort the way our minds absorb confirming and contradictory information.

We are making this point today as a follow-up to our previous post, which focused on devoting more resources to value-added work. Four suggestions were made:

  1. Work On Bottlenecks
  2. Increase Understanding of And Alignment With What Customers Truly Value
  3. Get At The Root Causes
  4. Eliminate The Non Value Adding Administrative Work

You might consider that each of these four approaches will require us to conduct research and to compile facts and data. However, each also involves studying areas of our organization with which we are already familiar. Thus the likelihood of “confirmation bias” creeping into our research is high.

So, as the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed! Beware of “happy ears.”

How to Devote More Resources to Value-Added Work

Our previous post defined the concept of “value-added work” as being work our customers would be willing to pay for if they knew what we were doing. That post also noted it is common for 50% – 80% of all work within an organization to be “non” value-added!

Here are four ways to devote more resources to increasing the amount of work that is value-added within an organization:

1 — Work On The Bottlenecks
When we work on many things that have a small effect, we will have a small impact. The way to increase value most substantially is to work on the bottleneck, or constraint. All improvement effort that is off the critical path will have a lower impact on increasing the value add. If the bottleneck can be widened even just a little, it provides a pure increase in value.

2 — Increase Understanding of And Alignment With What Customers Truly Value
One of the biggest wastes is when the products or services we offer do not align perfectly with the customers’ needs and values. Errors are possible in two directions:

  • Bundling a feature into the product or service that the customers do not really need or want
  • Overlooking ways we could leverage our capabilities to solve a problem that the customers may not even have articulated to themselves

3 — Get At The Root Causes
Replace the constant working on problems and symptoms with lasting solutions by drilling down to root causes. For example, the sales force of one company needed to better understand the value of additional services they could provide to customers. Rather than addressing the issue / opportunity in each proposal, they developed a calculator to make it quick and easy to help the customers (and themselves!) see the value provided by the additional services.

Another example is data accuracy issues in software that helps a company develop routes for drivers. Any error in the data input will create errors in the routes — inefficient or even impossible routes. The underlying cause is errors in the data input, but the root cause is somewhere in the process through which the correct data should be identified and entered. Studying the input process to identify where and how errors are made will help lead to and address the root causes and greatly reduce the amount of resources NOT creating value for the customers.

4 — Eliminate The Non Value Adding Administrative Work
A great deal of time in most organizations is spent on emails, meetings, and reports that do not produce additional value for the customers or the organization. Finding ways to reduce email clutter, improve meeting management, and streamline reports are just a few examples of how this non-value-added work can be reduced or eliminated.

Is Your Work Value-Added?

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.”

It’s important for us all to continually self-evaluate in this area. What should we work on? What value will it add for our customers?

Once people know what to work on, they can then determine which tools and methods to use – i.e., How should we go about it? But deciding “what” to work on and “why” must be the first considerations.

Most of us would likely agree that we want our workforce to spend most if not all of their time on “value-added” work, which is often defined as the work our external customer would be willing to pay for, if they knew what we were doing.

Sometimes this is a product, sometimes a service, and sometimes a combination of product and value-adding service. For example, a value-adding distributor delivers the product to a work-site but can also prepare or pre-stage the material, so it is ready to be put into use, saving the construction company time and money. The value goes beyond the product they sell to the service of presenting it in the form that is ready for use.

Common Categories of Work

People are often surprised at the amount of “non-value-added” work that is part of the day-to-day reality in most organizations. Even in the best performing organizations, it is well under 50% of the work being done. In many organizations, over 80% of time and resources are not adding value.

Consider these common examples of non-value-added work:

  • Inspections to find errors
  • Rework to fix errors
  • Errors or defects that are never found and make their way into defective final product
  • Work that sits waiting in front of a bottleneck, or resources that are idled behind a bottleneck
  • Unnecessary work
  • Necessary work such as filling-out expense reports
  • Excess inventory
  • Work product that does not match customer needs or customer needs that go unmet because they have not been surfaced

So, the question is, what can, or should, we do to increase the amount of value-added work within our organization? Our next post will focus on some answers…

Improve Sales By Focusing On the Customer/Supplier Relationship

Satisfied and delighted customers are the lifeblood of any organization. Our professional lives are more rewarding when customers love what we do or provide for them.

Providing customers with the highest quality products and services at the best possible price starts with clearly understanding the customers’ needs and requirements and then designing and implementing processes that consistently deliver value. But there are two types of customers:
• external customers
• internal customers

It’s important to recognize that both types of customers are important and have needs that must be met. External customers are the people who pay for our products and services. As Dr. Deming said: “No customers, no orders, no jobs!”

Paying attention to the external customers’ requirements is essential and helps us keep the entire organization focused on doing value added work (i.e., “work the external customer would pay for if they know what we were doing”).

However, to effectively meet the external customers’ needs, we must also work with our internal customers. Understanding and meeting our internal customers’ needs and requirements helps the process of producing our product or service to flow smoothly, be problem-free and deliver the highest quality at the lowest total cost. When we work with our internal customers we are, in fact, “internal suppliers.”

Of course, this customer-supplier relationship extends to our external suppliers as well. From our external customer’s point of view, we are responsible for what they buy from us; and our suppliers are part of the system.

It is increasingly important to build strong customer/supplier partnerships that ensure that we get exactly what we need, in the right quantity, at the right price to be able to meet our external customers’ needs.

Studying Our Work to Improve…
If we’d like to increase sales by improving our “sales” process, we should begin by studying our work. As a first step, identify our top customers’ 3-5 “must-have” requirements. As requirements are identified, it helps to understand their relative importance. What requirements does the customer consider “musts” versus “wants?” The chart below might help with the analysis of identifying measures we must track to determine how well we are meeting customer requirements.

Studying Our Work

Keep in mind that customer requirements are constantly changing as well, and yesterday’s “wants” may become tomorrow’s “musts.” So, we must continually analyze (and improve!) our work – paying attention to both “internal” and “external” customers, as indicated by the “Deming Cycle.”

Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement