Sustaining Improvements

sustaining improvements

Sustaining improvements is a fundamental aspect of Continuous Improvement and, as pointed out in our previous post, we must avoid the costly pitfall of allowing people to “backslide to the old way of doing things” after a project’s completion.

Sustainability, ultimately, is a function of consistency and management attention. For example, when the CEO or plant manager walks out on the shop floor, it is a fantastic opportunity to notice and reinforce the gains, and to ask about what other possibilities people see. This practice in itself is a good first step for avoiding a backslide.

Two additional concepts that can also help avoid backsliding are “stickability” and “spreadability.”

Stickability is what makes improvements last. Some proven ways of achieving it include:

  • Management follows achievement with recognition and communication of the success.
  • Involving the people doing the work in the improvement project. This is particularly helpful when a snag with the new process arises.
  • Faithfully following a formalized implementation plan such as our 8-step process or John Kotter’s process for “leading change” that was mentioned in our previous post. By taking a more formalized approach project leaders and organizational managers will have the data to manage new processes and measure progress, thus becoming aware of any movement toward a backslide more quickly.

Spreadability, which is the second half of Step 7 in our implementation process, occurs when we stabilize and standardize the improvement throughout the organization. This can be challenging because, by definition, standardizing across organizations involves implementation by people who were not part of the development team. Consequently, achieving spreadability requires a steadfast effort by senior leaders and managers at all levels.

A few best practices for making improvements spreadable include:

  • Encourage people to go around and visit other sites or functional areas to learn and adopt implementation ideas.
  • Recognize and give credit to those who implement improvements even if the new process was not their original idea.
  • Keeping the improvement projects small and tightly scoped, which will help to keep them more spreadable.
  • Communicate frequently and widely to promote both recognition and awareness, and to make it clear that Continuous Improvement is the “cultural” way of doing business within the organization.

Two Steps Forward… And Then What?

John Kotter Quote

“Two steps forward and one step back” is a phrase with which you might be familiar. It implies the inevitable fact that when we make improvements things are not likely to simply “go as planned.” Instead, unexpected snags, complexities, or opportunities for making even more improvements are likely to arise.

However there is another risk we must avoid – that being the devastating “backslide” to the way things were before the improvement was made.

Sustaining improvements is a fundamental aspect of Continuous Improvement. When the gain has been celebrated and attention shifted elsewhere, how do we keep the improvement from sliding back to the old way? To maintain the gains we have to stabilize the new process and new behaviors or the process will slip back out of control and people will slip back into old habits. How do we extend the improvement to other areas? How do we adapt the improvement efforts so they survive over the long term — getting better and better?

These “sustainability” questions are at the heart of ‘Step 7’ of Conway’s eight-step improvement process, and also align with the 8th step in John Kotter’s model for leading change.

Several forces can undermine sustainability, and prudent leaders must be prepared to both recognize and address them quickly. Among the most damaging are:

  • The issues and pressures that triggered the change are no longer visible or apparent to people.
  • Attention moves on to something else before the improvement has been effectively stabilized.
  • Sometimes those who initiated the change or participated in the analysis and improvement leave the organization and the on-going success of the improvement may be dependent on their understanding and adherence to the improved process.
  • Sometimes replacements inadvertently introduce variability.
  • Organizations can lose their focus. This can sometimes jeopardize the entire CI effort. Loss of focus is more profound ‘when an organization engages in strategic maneuvers.’ People’s roles are redefined, organizations, equipment, tools, teams are all in flux, creating mounds of waste that needs to be studied and removed — just when the teamwork needed to do it is at an all time low due to job anxieties.

In addition to avoiding the negative outcome of “backsliding” there are two concepts that leaders can (and should!) promote: “Stickability” and “Spreadbiltity,” which will be the subjects of our next post

.

4 Ways to Increase Value-Added Work

value added work

Our previous post noted that approximately half of the work done in well-run organizations is value-added, which is defined as “the work our external customers would be willing to pay for if they know what we were doing.” Regrettably, the percentage plummets to only 20% in many businesses!

Yet in reality, a great deal of “non-value-added” work is necessary and important!

Consider that many people and functions play a vital role in helping the internal customer provide value for the external customer. These are the folks ‘on the banks’ of the value stream, some of them providing key enablers such as technology, safety, or information to those creating the value for external customers.

The key is to find the right balance. In most cases, the ultimate conclusion is that it’s to our advantage if we can increase the percentage of value-added work by identifying and eliminating the “waste” that is non-value-added.

Here are four ideas to increase the portion of resources that are directed at value adding activities:

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.

  1. Bundling a feature into the product or service that the customers do not really need or want. Does the technology have features that are seldom used? Does the product have any bells and whistles no one really cares about? What features have been introduced with inadequate understanding about how the products or services will actually be used? A systematic and thorough understanding of the customers is the only effective way of ensuring we are not merely adding cost instead of value when we add features to our offering.
  2. We also can err by overlooking ways we could leverage our capabilities to solve a problem that the customers may not even have articulated to themselves. We all, to a certain extent, take the world somewhat as we find it, assuming boundaries of what is possible simply by understanding what has always been. So listening to what customers would like to see is unlikely to surface needs. Innovative value creators will try to understand what the customers need before they even know they need it. Steve Jobs did this with the IPod: surfacing an unarticulated need that the resources at his disposal could brilliantly address.

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.

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. Here are a few approaches to reducing this waste:

  • Reduce clutter in the inboxes
  • Introduce and enforce meeting management protocols and best practices
  • Streamline reports


Which Half of Your Organization’s Work is Value-Added?

categories of work

Bill Conway often said, “Half of Continuous Improvement is working on the right things.”

This means finding ways to increase the amount of “value-added” work that is done each day within our organizations, which is defined as the work our external customers would be willing to pay for if they knew what we were doing. The work must also be done right the first-time and have an impact on the products or services provided by the organization.

While we want our workforce to spend most of their time engaged in value-added work, you might be surprised at the amount of non-value-added work that is part of the day-to-day reality in most organizations.

For example, think about telephone calls you might have made over the past several months to organizations such as your bank, credit card company, cable company, or some type of customer service group. The odds-are you were first greeted by an automated system of some sort, which asked you to provide information, presumably to expedite the process. This information might have included:

  • Your account number
  • Reason for your call (i.e., tech support, billing support, etc.)
  • Personal PIN number
  • Last four digits of your social security number
  • Date of birth, and so on…

Now think back… because in a high percentage of cases, when finally connected to a person, you are asked most if not all of the same questions!

Do we enjoy this experience?

Most people say, “Heck no!”

From the perspective of being value-added, what value did the auto-attendant have for the caller (customer)?
Most people agree, none!

Possibly the auto-attendant is helpful for call-routing purposes, so it might provide value for the organization that is receiving these calls, but it really provides no value for those calling in.

What is typical?
So, you might be wondering, how much of total work is “value-added” in a typical organization?

Even in the best-performing organizations, value-added work represents 50% of the work being done at best, and in many organizations, over 80% of time and resources are not adding value.

A few examples:

  • Inspections to find errors (vs. doing it right the first time…)
  • Rework to fix errors
  • Errors or defects that are never found and make their way into a defective final product
  • Work that sits waiting in front of a bottleneck, or resources that are idled behind a bottleneck
  • Unnecessary work
  • Excess inventory
  • Lost opportunities (perhaps the biggest waste of all) due to work product that does not match customer needs or customer needs that go unmet because they have not been surfaced

But just because a process step is not value-added does not mean it is a bad thing. Processes all include steps that do not add value but are required to make the product or service happen – this is typically referred to as “non-value-added but necessary” work.

In our next post we’ll share some proven ways to increase the amount of value-added work.

5 Key Questions Leading to the Right Root Cause?

root cause
When 5 Whys Aren’t Enough?

Several previous posts focused on identifying waste or opportunities for improvement. Once this step is completed, and a specific problem is identified as the “best” opportunity, the next step often involves finding the root cause of the problem.

This is a critically-important step and, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves working on the “wrong assumptions.” In fact, we’ve consistently found that few things are more dangerous than common knowledge – when it is wrong.

Root causes are tricky and elusive things. Brainstorming and the “Five Whys” can be effective tools, but neither approach guarantees the “right” result or conclusion. In fact, when the “wrong” root cause is selected, the most common culprit is an untested conclusion.

The best course of action is to think quite broadly when brainstorming and to consider carefully every possible way that the people, technology, information, materials, environment, or methods might be contributing to the problem.

In addition, when the brainstorming of possibilities is over, we should put on our skeptical hat and test each one – before going to the next “why” to find the root cause. Otherwise, we risk arriving at the wrong conclusion.

Here are five key questions you might consider to test a possible cause is to see if it is consistent with the data you already have.:

  • Did the proposed cause precede the effect? If not, it is probably not the real cause. If poor call response rate is being blamed on the new answering system, was the call response rate better before the system was installed? If not, the new system cannot be the culprit.
  • Does the data indicate the problem is trending or cyclical? If so, you can probably rule out ideas about causes that would produce steady effects. For example, to test the possibility that shipping errors are on the rise due to poor technology, ask whether the technology has changed. If there have been no changes in the technology, any changes in the results must be caused by something else.
  • What other effects would you see if the proposed cause were true? Are you seeing them? If not, look elsewhere for the cause. For example, to test whether ‘poor morale’ is causing a high number of defects, ask where else would signs of poor morale show up. Are you seeing them there?
  • If the proposed cause were not true, could the effect have happened? Could the product weight be dropping if a blockage had not developed in the dispensing line? If the answer is ‘no’, you know you must find the blockage.
  • If the cause had been X, would it always produce this effect? If the answer is ‘yes’, then in order to test this, you simply need to check whether the supposed cause actually occurred. For example, if my car will not start, a possible cause is that I left the lights on. (I drive one of those old fashioned cars that require operator involvement to turn off the lights.) If I check and find the lights are in the ‘on’ position, I can confirm my theory. Otherwise, I must keep looking for the cause.

Imagine What Could Be!

imagine
Imagine

Recent posts have focused on various aspects of defining problems or identifying waste. When engaged in these activities it can sometimes be difficult to separate the status-quo from problems or waste… in other words, we can become so accustomed to a process or method that we fail to recognize opportunities to improve it.

A popular definition of waste, and one we’ve used frequently over the years, is “the difference between the way things are and the way things could or should be if everything were right.”

Envisioning this ideal can be challenging, and we’ve found that “Imagineering” is an ideal process for making this type of determination, for goal-setting, developing the best project plans, and for putting improvement ideas into practice.

As you may know, Imagineering was popularized in the 1940s by Alcoa to describe its blending of imagination and engineering. It was also adopted by Walt Disney a decade later, and is often referenced as a means of achieving “blue sky speculation,” a process where people generate ideas with no limitations…, where they try to achieve what “could or should be.”

Over the years we have consistently found that well-executed Imagineering workshops help people unleash their organization’s true potential and achieve breakthrough improvements. Much more than traditional or simple brainstorming, the process starts with a strategic approach for imagining perfection, and ends with engineering this ideal state back down to earth.

You might consider the use of Imagineering as a means of generating innovative ideas and applying the principles to set goals and achieve breakthrough improvements.

If this concept resonates with you, then you might also find this short video of interest: “The Way Things Could or Should Be.

4 Guidelines for Defining Problems

definition
Problem Statements

Our previous post shared perspective on the importance of accurately defining problems when seeking to make improvements. A good problem statement requires some solid pre-work, thoughtful consideration and discussion, and the restraint to avoid speculating before the analysis.

If you’d like to optimize your efforts to effectively define problems and to ultimately solve the “right” problems, you might consider these four guidelines:

  1. Write it down. If the problem is not written, shared, and discussed, all participants will feel comfortable that everyone is on the same page about the problem they are trying to solve. Such will not be the case, and the blissful ignorance about their different expectations will eventually give way to a combination of bewilderment, conflict, frustration, disappointment, and a great deal of inefficiency. Organizations can avoid the problem solving frustration and rework by surfacing right up front any different views of the problem they are trying to solve. The best way to surface and discuss any differences is to write it down and discuss it with all participants, to ensure it is well understood and agreed to.
  2. Include a Quantification of the Waste the Problem is Causing. This step will require some pre-work, because no problem statement is as effective as it should be if it does not indicate why we care. Quantifying the waste makes certain that the organization does not invest scarce resources on something that will not have a significant impact. Every organization has more opportunities for improvement than capacity to execute on the improvements. Quantifying the waste also helps elicit the urgency and support that the project merits.
  3. Be specific about the metric you are using to size the problem. Malcom Forbes once observed that “It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.” The rub is that you will have a hard time determining if your solutions are effective. To avoid this pitfall, your problem statement should incorporate the measurement you expect to move the needle on, the current baseline for that metric, and both the time and the place that your baseline measurement was taken.
  4. Omit Judgments and Opinions about Underlying Causes. Maslow observes that “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” We all have biases, and when we make assumptions about the underlying cause, we bias the process to overlook other possible causes. In theory, this could be a time-saver — if you hit upon the correct root cause. However, in our experience this rarely happens. Making assumptions about the causes almost always makes a problem more difficult to solve instead of easier to solve. This is because if one or more important underlying causes are overlooked by the bias introduced in the problem-statement, the problem will not be solved before the project goes through quite a lot of rework.

If you follow these four guidelines, your project will have a much better chance of arriving at, implementing, and validating an effective solution that produces lasting results.

Defining Problems?

defining problems

Our previous few posts have focused on identifying waste.

After an area of waste or an opportunity for improvement is identified, the next step is to define the specific problem. Few decisions have a greater impact on the likelihood of success of an improvement project than the definition of the problem.

For example, Stephen Covey says that the way we see the problem is the problem. Albert Einstein warns that we cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking with which we created them. The way we define and communicate the problem the team is expected to solve will greatly influence the speed and efficiency with which a team will complete its work, the degree of satisfaction between the team and the project sponsor, and the efficacy with which an organization prioritizes and sequences the problems to devote resources to.

Consider these different approaches to defining the same problematic situation:

  • Order fulfillment is too slow and is costing us a lot of business.
  • Our lost sale rate has increased from an average of 125 per month over the previous six quarters to 190 per month this quarter.
  • Our Order-to-Delivery timeline has increased to 60 days due to a bottleneck in packaging.
  • Profits are down.
  • Sales has missed their target for the past three months.
  • Packaging is too slow due to old equipment.
  • Order-to-Delivery time from the Mid-western plant in Q3 increased by 15 days over the same quarter prior year, and was cited as the cause of 42 lost sales in Q3 impacting revenue by $270,000 in the quarter.

Some of these are statements of fact, while others are judgments. Some are very broad and others are very specific.

They may ALL be valid observations about the same situation, yet the problem solving efforts they would guide would differ greatly in urgency, efficiency, and efficacy. Developing a good problem statement at the start will help you define and lead an improvement project that most efficiently arrives at better results.

In our next post we’ll share four best practices for defining problems.

Waste Walk Perspective

As noted in our previous post, gemba or waste walks are effective ways of identifying waste and opportunities for improvement. Generally speaking, efforts-to-date have primarily taken place in manufacturing, warehouse or shop-floor environments; and certainly there is much to be gained by “going to gemba” in these areas.

For example, during one waste walk n a manufacturing area, those involved focused on process constraints, and identified several bottlenecks and, ultimately, solutions that increased overall capacity; in another similar setting the gemba team was able to separate value added work from that which was non-value added, and then created data images to document the changes they believed would maximize the former and eliminate the latter.

Taking a slightly different twist, one manufacturer’s gemba team pre-selects a theme each month, such as safety or process inefficiencies, and during the walk they search for activities or process steps that impact the theme.

However, while waste walks are most often put into practice within the above mentioned areas, many that take place in other organizational areas have proven most worthwhile.

For example, a supply chain management company used waste walks as a way of solving a recurring order-processing problem that had become a hot issue with one of their mid-sized customer locations. They involved a number of their team members, including representatives from management, customer service and their CI group. It worked out so well that they now do waste walks at customer sites on a regular basis. Not only do the teams solve problems and make design changes in ways that benefit both parties, but their relationships with these customers have also grown significantly, which has boosted revenue and customer retention.

Based on the success of gemba or waste walks at customer locations, the company has recently started conducting them with suppliers, and anticipates similar positive results.

Other companies send their employees to observe how their customers use their products and to look for complexities, errors, of troubles that the products cause the customers. Having done that, the employees are able to go back to their own gemba and see more opportunities for Improvement.

In the retail sector, one company conducted a series of waste walks during their inventory season, watching and documenting the process at different stores. While some best-practices were certainly documented during the waste walks at the top performing sites, the greatest gains were made during waste walks at the stores in which performance was traditionally mediocre, where, as a result of the initiative, average cycle time was cut in half!

Even though waste walks are used less frequently in areas where the work is less visible, such as administrative offices, purchasing departments, and R&D labs, some of the greatest opportunities reside in these places. When the work is less visible, the gemba or waste walk team needs to ask many more questions of the people doing the work in order to learn what they are doing and to gain valuable insights.

Identify Waste by Going to Gemba

identifying waste

As you may know, “Genba,” which has been popularized as “Gemba,” is a Japanese word meaning “the real place.”

The word is widely used in Japan, where detectives frequently refer to a crime scene as genba, and Japanese TV reporters often refer to themselves as reporting from genba/gemba.

In the business realm, gemba refers to the place where work is done and value created. For example, in manufacturing gemba is typically the factory floor, but looking further afield it can be any location — a construction site,
administrative office, or sales bullpen — where the actual work is being done.

When it comes to Continuous Improvement, problems are most visible in these areas, and the best improvement ideas will come from going to gemba. If your objective is to identify waste, there is no substitute for ‘going to the work’ and there are things that can only be learned by going there and watching the work with a purpose.

Thus a gemba walk, or waste walk, is an activity that takes management and other stakeholders to the front lines to look for waste and opportunities for improvement; to observe the work where the work is being done, and to identify what goes wrong or could go wrong, how often it does or could go wrong, and the associated consequences. The waste walk is designed to help everyone understand the value stream and its problems; it is not to review results and make superficial comments.

Aside from identifying waste and the specific gains made during waste walks, there are also higher-level benefits associated with the practice:

  • Engagement: Since people at all levels are involved, and since the waste walks have proved to be an effective method of detecting hard-to-identify problems as well as solutions which improve both productivity and day-to-day quality of work life, a noticeable increase in workforce engagement is a common by-product. People like it when problems they have known about for a long time are finally solved!
  • Trust: Company leaders are able to establish greater levels of trust with the people closest to the work, by showing interest and seeking the opinions and input of those doing the work.
  • Learn the Truth: Going to gemba enables leaders to identify reality versus what they think (or hope) is happening. Waste walks help leaders to question their assumptions as well.
  • Better Ideas: When the people who are doing the work or executing the process every day start talking, thinking and feeling empowered, the ideas really flow…
  • Ask the Right Questions: as suggested in an earlier post, questions are often the “answer” to making breakthrough improvements. However, the quality of those questions is the key! Getting the data and seeing it for the first time based on direct observation is powerful; and then if you can get customers, suppliers and company personnel working through the chain, the quality of questions that surface promote more innovative and accurate solutions.
  • Improvement vs. Habit-forming Execution: The combination of fresh eyes, diverse perspective, amnesty, and a collective, sincere interest to eliminate waste and continually improve the work process tends to bring about real, often outside-of-the-box solutions; true Improvement versus dong things the same way.

Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement