Category Archives: Continuous Improvement

Building your “A” Team

Our previous post referenced the proverbial “A Team,” and identified the “A” as standing for agility.

But along with being agile, the ability to build high performing teams can enable an organization to make significant gains that go beyond those typically achieved by individuals. As the saying goes, “TEAM = Together Everyone Achieves More.”

Consider that it is nearly impossible for a single person to possess the same amount of knowledge and experience that a high performing team possesses, as the exchange of ideas alone leads to new thinking and innovation. In addition, the involvement of multiple people in decision-making typically strengthens commitment levels, and a team environment can provide mutual support and a sense of belonging.

However, virtually every organization we’ve encountered struggles with developing teams.

Many teams are dysfunctional; they take too long to accomplish tasks, the work is filled with errors and waste, the costs are excessive and turf wars abound.

Some key steps for developing high performing teams include:

  • Providing effective sponsorship
  • Developing strong team leaders and facilitators
  • Developing alignment around a common purpose
  • Developing and applying consistent task and project management
  • Open and consistent communication
  • Teaching people how to conduct productive meetings
  • Setting measurable performance targets
  • Identifying the right process/game plan to achieve results
  • Holding people mutually accountable for results

ISO 10018: Quality People Management

Our previous post referenced the fact that a formalized approach to enterprise engagement yields a positive result for all stakeholders, including both employees and employers.

For more perspective about what constitutes a “formalized” approach, you might consult ISO 10018 guidelines on people involvement and competency.

These guidelines were created by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) Technical Committee ISO/TC 176, Quality management and quality assurance, Subcommittee SC 3, Supporting technologies.

They are based on the premise that “the overall performance of a quality management system and its processes ultimately depends on the involvement of competent people and whether they are properly introduced and integrated into the organization,” according to a summary of the standards published by ISO.

“The involvement of people is important in order for an organization’s quality management system to achieve outcomes which are consistent and aligned with their strategies and values. It is critical to identify, develop and evaluate the knowledge, skills, behavior and work environment required for the effective involvement of people with the necessary competence.”

This international standard provides guidelines for human factors which influence people involvement and competence, and creates value that helps to achieve the organization’s objectives. While the standard was created specifically for the application of quality management, its creators suggest that it has application for any management system.

Key Principles of Quality People Management
The underlying distinguishing factor of ISO 10018 is the attempt to bring a process approach to Quality People Management. The standards are based on the following Quality Management Principles created by ISO Technical Committee 176:

  • Customer focus to align activities and priorities in service to the consumers of an organization’s services or products.
  • Leadership that insures people feel inspired, have the information and knowledge needed to do their jobs and feel part of a community so that they have a sustainable passion for success.
  • Involvement of people so that everyone acts as the eyes and ears of the organization.
  • A process approach to provide a systematic, as opposed to an ad hoc, approach to achieving goals.
  • A systematic approach to management that ensures alignment of all key tools of engagement.
  • Continuous improvement: a culture committed to innovation.
  • A factual approach to decision-making rather than influenced by political or factional biases.
  • Mutually beneficial supplier relationships.

Ream more from the Enterprise Engagement Alliance…

Engagement 2020: Win/Win

A Winning Approach for Employees & Employers

The emerging field of employee or workforce engagement has captured the attention of most “C Suites” over the past year or two; and as more and more organizations are taking a more formalized approach to engaging employees, the correlation between engagement and Continuous Improvement (CI) has also emerged.

Consider that engagement is simply a framework for achieving goals through people in a measurable way. These “goals” can involve anything, and might include reducing team turnover, enhancing safety, or improving specific work processes.

But what many of us might not realize is the fact that today’s “engagement” plans are designed to benefit all stakeholders, including employees and employers.

Organizations that have embraced this approach have found it is not only possible to achieve almost any goal that involves people, but also, to the surprise of many, to realize a return-on-investment in the process. In other words, engagement can be a profit center rather than a cost center and the ROI can take on various forms.

For example, according to an Employee Engagement Benchmark Study by Temkin Group, highly engaged employees try harder and tend to drive business results. They are twice as likely to work after their shift ends, twice as likely to do something good for the company that is unexpected of them, and three times as likely to make recommendations for company improvements.

But these same employees can also be participants in an ongoing effort to improve their workplace. They can have a say, and they can have a hand in impacting the quality of day-to-day work life by improving the way their work is done. In these cases, which we call “engagement around the work,” many feel more empowered and experience greater levels of job satisfaction as well.

So, as noted above, engagement yields benefits for all stakeholders, employees and employers. Or, as the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

It is important to recognize, however, that engaging people to achieve results requires top-management support and requires more than a casual or ad-hoc effort. Far too many organizations have learned this lesson the hard way, only to find half-hearted efforts don’t work. This reality is evidenced by the fact that only thirty percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged.

Here is a more comprehensive and structured approach to engaging a workforce based on extensive research completed by the Enterprise Engagement Alliance – you might also note how well it aligns with tried-and-true CI methodology:

  • Develop realistic, achievable, and measurable goals and objectives.
  • Effectively assess the people and the playing field to identify opportunities and obstacles to success.
  • Create a formal Engagement business plan outlining the desired outcomes, behaviors that lead to outcomes, key program components, roles and responsibilities, timeline, and return on investment, etc.
  • Implement the appropriate integrated communication plan, including an Engagement web portal for the program when appropriate.
  • Make sure people have the knowledge or skills needed to succeed.
  • Foster an atmosphere of collaboration, innovation, and fun.
  • Reward and recognize both progress and achievement so that people feel supported in their efforts.
  • Measure outcomes and returns.
  • Reinvest and continue…

Strategic Planning Part 2: The Beginning

Our previous post focused on best practices for executing strategic plans. Taking a step back, this post will focus on the formation of those plans.

To begin, a strategic plan is a high level description of what you intend to do, what you do not intend to do, and how you will move from where you are to where you want to be. A typical time horizon is 3 – 5 years, but may vary depending upon the industry.

These plans should not be confused with long-term budgets or “wish lists.”

Instead, the strategic plan links the mission, vision, goals and objectives. The strategy also needs the buy-in from those expected to deliver. For that reason, they need to be involved from the outset.

Further, to be successful, strategic planning requires a mix of imagination and realism.

  • Imagination to describe an innovative product or service, or a way to market for which there is little or no competition.
  • Realism to make sure that there is a practical way of executing the strategy.

Here are some of the specific steps for formulating your plan:

  • Assess current reality and opportunities, both external and internal
  • Develop and/or communicate mission and vision to ensure alignment
  • Define the gaps between “is” and “needs to be” and set the right goals
  • Develop, assess and select strategic alternatives
  • Compare best practices to ensure the strategy can be executed
  • Convert strategy into action, using strategy maps and a balanced scorecard
  • Launch and build high performance teams and work groups to execute the strategy
  • Create an accountability plan so that people at all levels are held accountable for taking the action steps outlined above and for staying-the-course

Well Done v. Well Said

Since many organizations tend to make strategic plans for the New Year, either at the end of the previous year or at the outset of a new one, it seems an ideal time to reaffirm the fact that “planning” does little good without execution. Or, as Ben Franklin put it, “Well done is better than well said!”

But people at all levels frequently struggle to stay-the-course when it comes to achieving goals, keeping resolutions, or executing strategic plans as they fall prey to “working so hard on the urgent that they forget about what’s really important.”

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

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.

Your Training ROI & How to Optimize It

We are often asked about how organizations can optimize the value of their Learning & Development or training programs, with many leaders looking for ways to increase training-related behavioral change as well as their return on investment.

A recent VitalSmarts webinar addressed this subject quite nicely, and shared several perspectives that are well-aligned with ours.

Here’s a brief summary:

First and foremost, the webinar’s over-arching premise is that Learning & Development must become a strategic partner of the C-suite in order to bring about improvement and real behavioral change. In addition, there must also be a C-level commitment to consistent L&D programming. As the presenters said several times, “Training, or L&D, must be treated as a process rather than an event.”

These concepts align nicely with our perspective about the importance of senior level management’s buy-in, sponsorship, and involvement in all improvement initiatives. And, in case some convincing is in order, the article went on to share some thought-provoking statistics.

For example, only 7% of Learning & Development leaders measure the bottom-line effectiveness of their training programs. Possibly more troubling, only about 10% of all Learning & Development executives have met with the C-suite; and only a few align their training plans with the organization’s strategic plan.

In addition, only 35% of the US workforce receives any training at all! And even then, the average is three days of training per year.

Finally, without effective reinforcement and ongoing development, only 14%-15% of the information shared in training “sessions” is applied in the workplace. Instead, people most often do nothing differently or make a few changes for a while and then revert back to whatever they were doing in the past. Clearly this enormous “gap” represents significant waste, which was referred to as “learning scrap.”

3 Best Practices

For those who are determined to improve the value and effectiveness of their Learning & Development programs, (i.e., increase learning transfer and reduce learning scrap), three best practices were suggested:

Define the role and purpose of Learning & Development within the organization. To begin this process, the first couple of questions might be, “What would translate to a breakout year for L&D?” “This training will be a success when… (complete the sentence)”

Build the Learning & Development platform on defined and agreed-to business outcomes. It was pointed-out that most L&D managers plan their programming on what they “hope people will learn.” But the real focus should instead be on “what people will do differently as a result.”

Recognize that L&D is a process, not an event. The process must include ongoing measurement and support to ensure the business outcomes are achieved. This means coaching, reinforcement, and accountability on multiple levels:

  • C-level must be committed and allocate resources for appropriate levels of learning as well as for reinforcement and ability coaching
  • L&D leaders must align with business outcomes, and move the “finish line” of their training to include an achievement phase
  • Front line managers must provide reinforcement and support
  • People at all levels are accountable for applying what they’ve learned and related behavioral change

4 Pre-Requisites to Creative Problem Solving

Creatively Achieving Breakthroughs

Recent posts have focused on the value of creative thinking when seeking to solve problems or achieve improvements.

While research has consistently shown that creativity can be developed, there are 4 requirements to harnessing it to solve problems and achieve breakthrough results:

  • We must have an audacious goal — one that cannot be achieved through standard procedures no matter how smart and hard we work
  • We must clearly and convincingly make the case for achieving this audacious goal
  • The goal must be measurable and timely, clearly laying out the degree of improvement and the deadline: “from x to y by when”
  • The people involved must be trained in methods for achieving breakthroughs and given the leeway (and amnesty) to challenge the status quo and to test outrageous ideas that just might work.

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.

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!