Category Archives: Continuous Improvement

Learn From the Work

Deming Cycle
The Deming Cycle

In an earlier post we pointed-out that the most important knowledge of all is knowledge of our own work and value stream — we must know it in detail.

Bill Conway often said, “All of the waste comes from the work…what we work on and how we do that work. To improve it, we need to get closer to the work.”

This means we must know how long it takes, where it piles up, and how well it is synchronized with the needs of the customers.

A simple but proven way to learn more about the work is a Waste Walk or by “going to gemba.”

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; in manufacturing the 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 (CI), problems are most visible in these areas, and the best improvement ideas will come from going to gemba. 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. It fits nicely into the “Deming Cycle” shown above, as it is a method of “checking” our work.

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. Gathering input from the people closest to the work is an important element of making improvements as well. After all, they are the ones that know the most about the work!

Unfortunately, and as noted in the above-referenced past post, 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. Including their input in a waste walk can help remedy this problem.

Our next post will focus on best practices for executing an effective waste walk.

Change: the Way Things Could or Should Be?

We all know the pace of change has significantly accelerated over the past ten years and is continuing to do so. This faster pace is often referenced as being exponential!

People most often agree that change is an important and necessary element of success but, truth be told, we don’t really like it. It is far more common to feel that “change is good and I think YOU should.”

Yet the value of change is clear. Consider that 100 years ago the average life expectancy in the United States was 53.1 compared to 78.8 today. Only 35% of households had electricity in 1920, and only 1% had both electricity and running water.

Business examples of what happens without change include Converse in sneakers, Kodak in photography, and Blockbuster in video. Each of these established and successful entities experienced significant declines in market share (or worse!) and profits as competitors introduced new and improved, lower-cost alternatives.

What Could or Should Be?
We have defined “waste” as the difference between the way things are now and the way they could or should be if everything were right. While this definition still rings oh-so-true today, what has changed is the expectations many have of what could or should be.

Who, ten years ago, would have thought there could be self-driving cars? Who would have envisioned a supermarket without checkout stations? Who could have imagined a printer that could generate 3-D objects? Yet all of these things, and many others of similar proportion, have suddenly become real.

Considering the exponential pace of change and the enhanced expectations of what could or should be, business leaders will need to find more innovative and timely ways to promote and bring about change and improvements to eliminate waste in all work processes if they are to maintain their competitive positions. Their customers will, one way or the other, demand this way of managing a business. Or as we’ve always called it, “The Right Way To Manage©.”

Our next post will focus on specific steps for successfully driving organizational and cultural change.

The Ripple Effect of Disengagement

Our previous post focused on ways of reducing the costs associated with disengaged workers. While the most obvious course of action might simply be to increase the percentage of engaged workers, doing so is no easy feat! It’s also important to recognize the specific ways in which disengaged workers impact an organization’s bottom line or, stated another way, to identify and quantify the waste!

During meetings with our Partners in Improvement, these costs were discussed in detail. The Partners concluded that disengaged employees create a negative and expensive ripple effect throughout an organization, and drive-up costs in numerous ways:

Higher turnover: Disengaged employees leave their employers as soon as they see a better opportunity. The turnover increases the costs of recruiting, on-boarding, and training, (1.5-2x annual salary as explained in a recent post), and significantly more for higher-level executives based on a Center for American Progress study. Every new hire brings a risk of a bad fit, and every employee leaving an organization takes with him or her some organizational knowledge that might have been helpful to that organization in future decisions.

Lower productivity: Disengaged employees don’t go the extra mile; they do not make an extra effort when faced with a challenge, and don’t put forth the same discretionary effort that an engaged person will make. A 2013 article from the Harvard Business Review concluded that organizations that cultivate high employee engagement yield a 22% increase in productivity over the norm.

Lower profitability: Similarly, McBassi & Company has compiled data which shows that the Engaged Company Stock Index (comprised of 43 companies with high engagement scores), outperformed the S&P 500 by 21.4 percentage points since it’s inception in 2012.

Little or no process improvement: Improvement requires engagement — a willingness to design and conduct experiments, a willingness to take risks to try something new and potentially better. Often times, disengaged employees focus on their personal agendas and see little upside in trying something new to forward the organization’s goals. The associated cost of lost opportunities is difficult to calculate; but it is significant and probably far greater than the direct replacement costs outlined above.

Higher pay: When we say about someone, “They are only in it for the money,” we are observing disengagement. While money is important to nearly everyone, if that is the only motivation, there is no genuine engagement. As the behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, said, “Money is the most expensive way to motivate someone.” Organizations that are unable to create an environment that intrinsically engages their employees must pay them more to keep and motivate them.

Continuous Improvement Drivers

Our previous post identified common impediments to Continuous Improvement (CI), noting that most “programs” tend to peter out after making a few initial gains.

Fortunately, there are specific steps organizational and CI leaders can take to prevent the downward spiral that can so easily plague improvement efforts, such as:

  • Success! The first principle is that nothing succeeds like success. So start out with carefully selected projects staffed with highly qualified people to ensure they are successful.
  • Communication! 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. The goal is to communicate success and make sure that everyone learns from it and is ready to try for some more.
  • Rely on 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.
  • Train at all levels! People readily believe that CI teams need some basic training. But team leaders need to be very well trained as well, 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. Organizational leaders should also be trained to understand their sponsorship, their role, and the soft side, making sure they meets with the teams and individuals regularly.

Continuous Improvement Impediments

People most often agree that the “hard” part of Continuous Improvement (CI) isn’t making improvements, but rather making it “continuous!”

In a past newsletter we entitled this reality as “Discontinuous Improvement,” noting that two things common to a high percentage of CI efforts are:

  1. They produce some improvements
  2. Then they peter out

For an organization to go through a cultural change so that “continuous” improvement becomes the new way of working and not just a one-time program, we need to pay close attention to the softer part of the improvement model. This will enable us to smooth the path, remove the obstacles, and continue to lead, communicate, and motivate both emotionally and intellectually.

Following are six common causes of discontinuous improvement, which hopefully your organization can avoid:

  • Neglecting aligning individual or team goals with those of the organization
  • Insufficient communication between management, the workforce, project teams and CI leaders
  • Delegating leadership, which is a responsibility that should stay with senior management
  • Manager’s or Sponsor’s failure to remove obstacles
  • Lack of quick success
  • Letting-up on the “gas” when initial results are made

Driving Team Engagement & Productivity During the Crisis & Beyond

As noted in recent posts, many of us are struggling with the sudden shift to working remotely. Among the challenges involved is lack of clarity with respect to expectations and, in some cases, organizational mission.

In fact, reestablishing expectations or mission, and providing the tools necessary to get the job done are two of today’s most important leadership tasks according to a recent Gallup article.

Silver Lining?
Certainly, these realities pose a challenge for leaders at all levels. But might there also be a silver lining?

Consider that over the past decade the majority of workforce engagement efforts have failed to yield tangible results and have failed the sustainability test. Current research shows that because these efforts tended to be ad-hoc, lacking defined, measurable objectives, they were prone to failure.

However, a more focused approach of improving both the work and the workplace in a measurable way can result in high-levels of productivity, profitability and engagement; and now might be the ideal time to launch such an effort, as remote team members struggle to maintain both productivity and engagement levels.

Even better, this more focused approach to productivity/improvement and engagement can (and should!) continue when we all “return to work,” thus transforming yesterday’s workplace into a more highly engaged and productive one.

To accomplish this, organizational leaders should focus on two key objectives:

  • Providing productivity and continuous improvement tools and programs as catalysts to engagement
  • A strong focus on measurement and recognition

If this approach resonates, you might like to download a free white paper entitled, “Engagement Around the Work” from our website.

3 Managerial Best Practices for Engaging Today’s Teams

In our previous post we shared reasons why leaders at all levels (as opposed to “just CEO’s or Senior Management”) must step-up to engage their team members during this time of need.

While that post identified important areas of focus based on employee surveys and polls, this post identifies three key managerial best practices that will help leaders improve the effectiveness of their efforts to help and support team members:

  1. Communication is critically important. A recent Harvard Business Review article states, “Communication is often the basis of any healthy relationship, including the one between an employee and his or her manager… consistent communication – whether it occurs in person, over the phone, or electronically – is connected to higher engagement.”

    However, Gallup research also indicated that “mere transactions between managers and employees are not enough to maximize engagement. Employees value communication from their manager not just about their roles and responsibilities but also about what happens in their lives outside of work.”

    This perspective aligns well with the data shared in our previous post
  2. Effective performance management is also important, but it must go beyond the “annual review.” Given the significant and rapid changes we are all experiencing in day-to-day protocols, many people do not clearly understand their goals or what is expected of them. They may feel conflicted about their duties and disconnected from the bigger picture.

    Consequently, managers must more frequently discuss and possibly redefine mission, priorities, achievement and expectations.
  3. Focus on people’s strengths. Given the above-referenced changes in protocols, this might involve some reassigning of responsibilities – especially for those who are struggling to maintain productivity while working remotely.

    Gallup researchers have discovered that building employees’ strengths is a far more effective approach than a fixation on weaknesses. In the current study, a vast majority (67%) of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged, compared with just 31% of the employees who indicate strongly that their manager focuses on their weaknesses.

4 Best Practices for the Best Remote Meetings

Our previous post shared reasons why amnesty and the freedom to share opinions, observations or ideas are critically important requirements to running the most effective project team meetings.

Given the fact that a substantial percentage of all team meetings take place in a remote or virtual forum, and that the COVID-19 situation is driving that percentage up in a hurry, we thought people might find the following best practices helpful in their efforts to run the best remote meetings.

The Value of Remote Forums
Lack of visual contact, technical difficulties, equipment malfunctions, and declining attention spans are only some of the challenges associated with the typical “remote” meeting. Given these issues, it’s tempting to determine that virtual forums are not productive.

But in reality, the many cost, logistic and convenience related advantages far outweigh the negatives. Even better, by making a few key adjustments to meeting protocols and communication style, team leaders and facilitators can quickly transform remote meetings into highly productive and positive experiences.

4 Steps to the Best Remote Meetings
While all “standard meeting management” rules apply, there are a few additional requirements for virtual sessions, which can apply to any type of remote staff or project team meeting:

  1. Strategic preparation is the first step toward running the best remote meetings, as a strong leader who creates and uses an agenda and who communicates proactively is a must.

    The meeting leader must plan these virtual sessions to be more interactive than in-person meetings. Depending upon the purpose of the remote gathering, a meeting leader’s ideal “talk/listen” ratio will range between 30/70 and 60/40. Therefore, the advance plan must include both “speaking points” and “questions.” Both open-ended and closed-ended questions should be included in the plan so the leader will be able to more easily promote interaction or curb the discussion to keep it on track.

    A roll call form with space for making notes during the meeting should also be created, which will also be a useful tool for engaging participants during the session.
  2. The next step involves effectively running the remote session. The leader should call-in or log-in a few minutes early and greet participants as they arrive, thus beginning the engagement process. During these early minutes it’s best to ask questions about subjects that are NOT on the meeting’s agenda. The goal is to connect with the individuals, make them feel comfortable and promote their active participation in the remote meeting.

    It’s important to start on time, even if everyone has failed to call in or join. If people join late, it’s appropriate to offer a brief welcome but continue with the meeting’s discussion. Stopping to bring late-comers up to speed will diminish the experience for other participants and indirectly encourages the wrong behavior.

    Open with a brief roll call (a good way to test audio) and then identify ground-rules with respect to cell phone use, a disconnect plan, how questions will be handled, general etiquette, and how people should use tools such as chat, mute, and the hold button. Then make a clear statement of the meeting’s objectives.

    From this point forward, the leader should promote an appropriate level of interaction by incorporating questions into the discussion — as a rule of thumb, two-to-four times as many questions than might be posed in a face-to-face meeting. It’s best to direct these questions to individuals by name and avoid questions that are directed to the entire group, such as, “Does anybody have a question?” While it is common and acceptable to pose questions to the entire group in a live meeting, it is far less effective in a virtual meeting. The reason for this is simple: the visual contact in a live meeting allows everyone to easily see who has a question or who wishes to be heard. But in a remote forum, the most common result of “group-directed” questions is confusion — either no one says anything because no one is sure whose turn it is to speak, or several people pose questions or offer input at the same time.

    A notation should be made next to each participant’s name on the roll-call sheet each a question is directed their way, and some of the things they say in response should be noted as well. The leader can then use those notes to occasionally refer back to a comment or answer given by a participant — this will further engage those individuals and also promote more active participation from the group.

    If the leader detects waning attention spans or a drop in the group’s enthusiasm, the best course of action is to vary the information flow. Assigning a short (2 to 3 minutes) written exercise is a often a good way of accomplishing this. At the end, each person can be asked to share a portion of what they’ve written.
  3. Ending the session properly is very important. At the end of many remote meetings participants simply hang-up or disconnect without drawing conclusions or setting next steps. The meeting leader can avoid this “flat” ending and also improve the session’s productivity by conducting a formal wrap-up a few minutes prior to the meeting’s scheduled conclusion. A few best practices for an effective summary include:
    • End with the beginning by restating the meeting’s purpose
    • Draw conclusions
    • Assign or gather agreement on next steps
    • Debrief the session by gathering feedback from some or all of the participants
    • Acknowledge good participation and thank the group.
  4. Follow-up is the last, but certainly not the least important, step. As the meeting leader, there are several ways to promote productive outcomes and to hold people accountable for completing agreed-upon or assigned tasks. These include distributing a summary or meeting minutes (if someone had been assigned to record them), reaching out to participants for an update on or to offer support for agreed-upon next steps, and, of course, beginning to plan the next meeting!

Amnesty: A Foundation Block for Better Project Meetings & Improvement

We have often referenced the importance of “amnesty” in the realm of Continuous Improvement. If people are not comfortable talking about problems and process complexities, either out of fear of retribution or criticism, then it will be impossible to achieve a high performing culture of improvement.

One place where the freedom to share opinions, observations or ideas is critically important is in project team meetings. In support of the above-stated position regarding amnesty, a recent Harvard Business Review article shares some excellent perspective on “making your meetings safe.”

In the piece, author Paul Axtell shares an excellent example based on input from a young engineer and his supervisor Josh. This engineer worked on several project teams within a manufacturing facility. His story is as follows:

“Josh, my manager, would take everyone out for pizza when he came to the factory, and we’d have a ‘no secrets’ meeting. Josh asked us about whatever he wanted to know and we did the same in return. It was a meeting where everyone had permission to say or ask anything. It was amazing.”

The article goes on to explain how the manager, Josh, used these meetings to discover how his team was doing, how their projects were progressing, and what they needed in terms of support and resources. He asked broad questions to initiate open conversation, such as:

  • What do you think I need to know?
  • Where are you struggling?
  • What are you proud of?

This approach is well-aligned with ours. When the people closest to the work are confident that their ideas or suggestions for improvements will be honestly considered without recourse they are ideally suited for engaging in true Continuous Improvement. But without the “amnesty” to speak their mind or share their observations, the organization is doomed to live in the “status-quo.”

As Axtell put it, “The quest for better meetings ultimately lies in leading with mutual respectful, inclusivity, and establishing a space that is safe enough for people to speak their minds.”

Poll Says More Workers are Engaged & Why

A Formula for Engaging People

One of our white papers shares the concept of CPI2, which refers to the combination of Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) and Continuous People Improvement (CPI) as an effective way of boosting both employee engagement and productivity. It is based on the premise that productivity is the key driver of employee engagement (or the employee experience), as people like to feel successful… they like to be part of a winning and productive team… and they like to feel their work is important.

More recently, the concept of CPI2 has been indirectly referenced in an article published by Gallup, which reveals that employee engagement levels reached an all-time high in 2019.

According to their research, the percentage of “engaged” workers in the U.S. reached 35% this past year. While 35% might strike you as a low number, it is actually a new high since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000.

This increase in engagement levels is good news for all of us…

As you may know, engaged workers are highly involved in their work. They go about their work enthusiastically, they treat customers better, they make a stronger discretionary effort compared to their dis-engaged co-workers, and they are committed to both their work and workplace.

So clearly, the increase in engaged workers is good for employers.

But this increase is also good news for employees and other stakeholders! It’s good news because it shows that the more formalized plans for engaging people are working; it’s good news because it means more people are finding greater levels of fulfillment in their work. As Dr. Deming said, “Management’s overall aim should be to create a system in which everybody may take joy in his work.”

So, it’s also fair to say that this increase in engagement levels is good news because it bears witness to the fact that the process of workforce engagement can yield win-win outcomes for both employers and employees.

Why the Increase?
If you’re wondering why the number of engaged workers has risen, Gallup has a straightforward answer.

“There are several possible explanations for the changes in engagement over the past decade,” the article states. “…and Gallup has reviewed many of these previously, from changes in the economy to slight improvements in some employee benefits. But these factors are not the primary drivers of improved engagement.

“Gallup research indicates that changes in employee engagement are best attributed to changes in how organizations develop employees.“

The article also shares four themes that Gallup’s research identified in organizations with high-development cultures:

  • High-development cultures are CEO- and board-initiated.
  • High-development cultures educate managers on new ways of managing — moving from a culture of “boss” to “coach.”
  • High-development cultures practice company-wide communication.
  • High-development cultures hold managers accountable.

Room for Improvement & CPI2
However, the article also goes on to acknowledge that a 35% engagement percentage is still low.

“The percentage of engaged employees in the U.S. is still far too low,” the article states. “There is plenty of room for improvement… What would the world of work look like if organizations could double the percentage of engaged workers? This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky question — all evidence suggests it is possible. Organizations have been successful, over recent decades, in maximizing process efficiency through Six Sigma and advances in technology and automation — doubling engagement would mean U.S. organizations have matched process efficiency with people efficiency.”

In other words, CPI2.

Read the full article…