Category Archives: Continuous Improvement

3 Reasons Continuous Improvement Efforts Fail

Why Projects Fail…

During one of our Partners In Improvement forums it was noted that in approximately 80% of the cases organizations embark on a path of Continuous Improvement, they abandon the effort prematurely.

The reason? No results.

The Partners went on to the discuss “why” so many CI efforts fail to succeed, and agreed that the following three causes are among the most common:

  1. Lack of buy-in from both managers and participants derails many improvement efforts. Management support is required to free up the resources to work on improvement, without which meetings tend to get pushed out and progress slows. The slower the effort moves, the more likely it becomes that priorities will change, or new opportunities or problems arise that decrease available resources further. When projects fail to produce good results, buy-in deteriorates rapidly. Unless serious intervention counters this adverse reinforcing loop, subsequent efforts become less and less likely to succeed.
  2. Lack of data when defining a project is another common reason for failure. Without data the waste is not adequately quantified, thus increasing the likelihood of working on the wrong things and the likelihood that priorities will shift before the project is complete — leading to no results and subsequent lack of buy-in.
  3. Along similar lines, poor decisions about scope can cause stalls and frustration during implementation and can ultimately result in failure to achieve goals. If the project tackles too much at once, progress will be slow; and if the team substitutes opinions for facts/data about the problem and possible solutions in an effort to accelerate pace, they are likely to make a number of wrong turns — once again slowing progress and bringing the effort to an unsuccessful conclusion.

Fortunately there are some straightforward ways to avoid these three common pitfalls, which we will summarize in our next post.

All About Run Charts

Run Charts are simple line graphs of data plotted over time. They are used to better-understand the performance of a process, as they help people distinguish between random variation and special causes, or to track information and predict trends or patterns.

A run chart can also reveal whether a process is stable by looking for a consistent central tendency, variation and randomness of pattern.

One of the most common CI tools, a run chart is easy to interpret and does not require tedious calculations or special software to produce.

Sample Run Chart

How to create a run chart:

    1. Identify the question that the run chart will answer and obtain data that will answer the question over a specified period of time. For example, if you were looking at how long it takes to complete a task, you will make note of the time taken (in minutes) to complete it over a specified period of time.
    2. Gather data, generally collect at least 10 data points to detect meaningful patterns.
    3. Create a graph with vertical line (y axis) and a horizontal line (x axis).
    4. On the vertical line (y axis), draw the scale related to the variable you are measuring. In our example, this would include the complete range of observations measuring time-to-completion
    5. On the horizontal line (x axis), draw the time or sequence scale.
    6. Plot the data, calculate the median and include into the graph.
    7. Interpret the chart. Four simple rules can be used to distinguish between random and non-random variations:
      1. Shift – 6 consecutive points above or below the median
      2. Trend – 5+ consecutive points going up or down
      3. Too many/too few runs – too few or too many crossings of the median line
      4. Astronomical data point – a data point that is clearly different from all others (often a judgement call)

Learning & Development: 3 Key Best Practices

We are often asked about how organizations can optimize the value of their Learning & Development programs, with many C-level 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. For as long as the recording might be available, you can listen to the webinar here.

Alternatively, 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.”

In case anyone needed convincing, some thought-provoking statistics were then shared.

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.”

Next Steps: 3 Best Practices
For those determined to improve the value and effectiveness of their Learning & Development programs, that is to increase learning transfer and reduce learning scrap, three best practices were suggested:

  1. 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”?”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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

All About Pareto Charts

The Pareto Chart

Simply stated, a Pareto chart is a bar graph that represents problems or opportunities in order of descending magnitude or frequency.

Considered one of the seven key quality and improvement tools, it is named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher. He made several important contributions to economics, particularly in the study of income distribution. He is most well-known for his observation that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by about 20% of the population – now referenced as the “Pareto Principle” or “80/20” rule.

Pareto charts are used for a number of purposes, such as to analyze the frequency of defects in a process, to look at causes in a process, to figure out what the most significant problem in a process is, or to communicate data with others.

Here are seven simple steps for creating a Pareto chart:

  1. Decide what categories you will use to group items
  2. Decide what measurement is appropriate. Common measurements are frequency, quantity, cost and time.
  3. Decide what period of time the Pareto chart will cover: One work cycle? One full day? A week?
  4. Collect the data, recording the category each time, or assemble data that already exist.
  5. Subtotal the measurements for each category.
  6. Determine the appropriate scale for the measurements you have collected. The maximum value will be the largest subtotal from step 5. (If you will do optional steps 8 and 9 below, the maximum value will be the sum of all subtotals from step 5.) Mark the scale on the left side of the chart.
  7. Construct and label bars for each category. Place the tallest at the far left, then the next tallest to its right and so on. If there are many categories with small measurements, they can be grouped as “other.”

All About Fishbone Diagrams

An Ishikawa or fishbone diagram is a visualization tool for categorizing the potential causes of a problem in order to identify its root causes. These diagrams are particularly useful in brainstorming sessions as they help people to focus their conversation.

The technique is named after Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa, a Japanese quality control expert, who invented it to help employees avoid solutions that merely address the symptoms of a much larger problem. The approach begins by stating the problem, and then requires people to identify at least four overall causes or categories that contributed to the problem. Once categories are selected, the team must brainstorm around each cause to further break-down how or why the effect took place.

Because the design of the diagram looks much like a skeleton of a fish, it is commonly referred to as a fishbone diagram.

Common uses of the fishbone diagram range from product design and quality defect prevention to identifying potential factors causing an overall effect or process failure. Each factor or cause for imperfection is a source of variation.

After brainstorming all the possible causes for a problem, users go on to rate the potential causes according to their level of importance and diagram a hierarchy.

Simple Implementation

Fishbone diagrams are typically worked right to left, with each large “bone” of the fish branching out to include smaller bones containing more detail.

  • Create a head, which lists the problem or issue to be studied.
  • Create a backbone for the fish (straight line which leads to the head).
  • Identify at least four “causes” or categories that contribute to the problem. Major categories often include: equipment or supply factors, environmental factors, rules/policy/procedure factors, and people/staff factors. Connect these four causes with arrows to the spine. These will create the first bones of the fish.
  • Brainstorm around each “cause” to document those things that contributed to the cause. Use the 5 Whys or another questioning process such as the 4P’s (Policies, Procedures, People and Plant) to keep the conversation focused.
  • Continue breaking down each cause until the root causes have been identified.

3 Key Strategies for Addressing Common CI Challenges

Our previous post referenced meetings of our “Partners in Improvement” groups, during which the Partners identified three common challenges associated with executing New Year CI plans, which were:
1.) Rapid growth and a scarcity of resources.
2.) Inspiring mid-management to embrace change.
3.) Measuring the impact of long-term CI projects.

The Partners also identified three key strategies to address these challenges:

Learn from the outside. One of our Partners explained that his organization was working very hard to expand ability to see
new possibilities by drawing analogies to specific tasks. By drawing analogies between specific work and that work in other industries, he creates the possibility of seeing their work in a new light and learning from others who have tackled the same problems.

He explained, “Amazon ships things all over the world, and we ship equipment all over the world. What can we learn? How can we improve by studying their work?”

Another partner collaborates with a consortium of other diverse companies to share ideas. The consortium includes a number of very different companies in very different industries, all learning from one another. The fact that the “learning relationship” has been formalized via the formation of the consortium has resulted in more consistent participation by all.

Another strategic approach to meeting the challenges ahead is becoming better at measurement. All of our Partners agreed, without a strong system of quantifying the waste and measuring the improvements, a CI initiative can easily drift into unproductive territory. Developing an effective method for, and consensus around, measuring the deep cause & effect improvement initiatives will be an important strategy for the challenges ahead.

To address the challenge of aggressive strategic growth plans with scarce resources, the primary strategy is alignment. Hiring goals and training goals will be aligned to achieve the strategic plans. Personal activities and projects must align to the strategic goals.

But alignment of the goals and objectives is only half of the challenge. Executing to the plans in expedient and focused fashion is perhaps an even bigger challenge. The partners identified key supporting processes to support execution:

  • Communication: One of our partners is working hard to make the goals visible and making clear and widely understood how well the goals are accomplished. Monthly dashboards and monthly newsletters that track and communicate percent complete should help to maximize goal completion and the alignment of individual activities to support those goals.
  • Training: In a time of growth, training becomes ever more critical. One of the partners is marshaling the knowledge of internal subject matter experts and to build both classroom and on-line training. The objective is to make the process as standardized and well-rounded as possible. In one of the partners’ organizations, CI has strong support from the CEO, but less so from middle management and first level supervisors. Training will be key to driving the execution needed to achieve the vision. Several of our partners employ a Learn & Do approach that follows up the training immediately with an improvement project.
  • Retention: Training is also key to another strategic objective: retaining the top talent is essential for several of the partners to address the challenges ahead. The retention goals demand using people wisely, developing their skills and abilities, providing growth paths, and making sure they have the right tools to succeed. Effective training and development will be a fundamental support tool for this initiative.
  • Marketing: One of the partners noted he finds lots of enthusiasm at the worker level, but not a lot of top down support. Constant marketing of the success and focusing the message on how the job is getting bigger and the resources are getting tighter is essential to cultivating the support required for on-going success.
  • Information Technology: Information technology will play an important role in achieving some of the growth goals. Applying the CI principles to the better leverage information technology will help to achieve the world class initiatives. Especially important will be getting the IT people involved up front in improvements – where they can add the most value.
  • Incorporating other areas into the CI effort: Operations has traditionally been the first area of engagement with CI, but opportunities exist throughout an organization. Several of our partners will be working to bring continuous improvement to the finance and admin groups as well.

3 Common New Year CI Challenges

During discussions about common challenges associated with New Year strategic plans with our Partners in Improvement groups, three themes emerged:

Implementing CI plans in a growth organization when resources tend to be scarce. When opportunities are many and resources are scarce, choosing where to focus becomes very difficult – and also very critical. Spreading improvement resources thinly slows progress – just when improvements must be completed faster than ever because when opportunities are numerous relative to resources, top priorities change more quickly. If the pace of change in the organizational priorities surpasses the pace of improvement execution, nothing gets done.

Further, if the growth involves bringing on new people, what training is needed to effectively use their talents? How much technical training will they need? How much training in CI to continue and strengthen the deployment of CI throughout the organization?

Some of the partners identified a different key challenge: inspiring middle management and first level supervisors to embrace CI. These folks had the support of the leadership, but faced challenges in working throughout the organization to get alignment around the goals and methods of CI. It is all about the perspective with which people approach the work – coming to a true understanding of the why and the how of CI. To fully reap the
benefits of CI, this understanding must be cultivated throughout the organization. People need to see what CI can do to help them do their jobs better. To gain effective union involvement, it must be clear how it benefits everyone – industrial safety, helping people do their jobs better, helping them look at their everyday work differently.

Finally, a smaller number of partners expressed having difficulty in measuring the impact of deep level improvements, which often requires longer intervals of time. First, keeping the enthusiasm going is more difficult when one cannot see immediate results; and second, without a clear measurement and feedback mechanism about the effectiveness of the improvement, it can be difficult to test whether the root cause was accurately identified and whether the solution was actually effective, resulting in loss of momentum or, in some cases, doubt.

In our next post we’ll talk about some of the solutions to these challenges.

Agility, Readiness & Change

Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt!

Rapid acceleration in the pace of change has taken place within the business world over the past ten years. This fact has also accelerated the need for organizational agility, in both thought and behavior.

Agility and change are inextricably linked. The goal in most change efforts is not only a change in attitude, but behavioral change.

But of course change is not always perceived as being good. In fact, people at all levels tend to react with fear, uncertainty, and doubt (the “FUD” factor) when new ideas, processes, policies or procedures are introduced; and many cringe at the mere suggestion that there might be a different or better way to do their jobs !

Yet without change comes stagnation and potential loss.

The first step in any change effort, and in maintaining organizational agility, is to help people develop the right mental attitude and understand that timely change is a constant part of long-term success — this readiness for change will require:

  • Making continuous improvement a permanent part of the organization’s culture…
  • Getting people at all levels to change the way they think, talk, work, and act, and fostering a culture of open-mindedness and amnesty.
  • Establishing new perspectives on work, work processes and value-added work.
  • Effectively using various statistical tools to identify, analyze, understand and communicate variation.
  • Enlisting input from of people operating the work processes.
  • Quantifying how continuous improvement benefits all stakeholders.
  • Improving leadership and coaching skills that lead to increased employee capability and engagement.

Time Management V. Pace Management

Why pace is so important…

Several recent posts have focused on the benefits of measuring time, and on the best approach for launching time management improvements.

But a related, often overlooked measure that can significantly accelerate or compromise an improvement effort is “pace.”

In fact, the most common cause of delay in achieving results is the pace.

Some teams schedule an hour a week to work on an improvement project, which might sound like a good approach. But, under the best of circumstances, two months will pass before the project gets one day’s attention. It is also more likely that it will take three or four months to complete one day’s effort on the project because meetings get cancelled, or start late, and then a portion of each meeting is spent going over the status or covering old ground for a member who missed a meeting.

In addition, when a project progresses this slowly, priorities may change or resources might be reassigned without ever completing the work and gaining the improvements. Sometimes these teams feel like they’ve got analysis paralysis, but in fact very little analysis has been completed. The real culprit is really pace paralysis. And while the pace of their project may be slower than they’d like, the overall pace of business continues to accelerate… thus making the life-cycle or “window” of innovation that much shorter.

Bear in mind that the longer the project length, the more project overhead and rework time is expended and the lower the benefit, because every week of delay means a week of benefit is lost.

One proven way to avoid these pitfalls is to employ the Kaizen approach. A Kaizen requires planning and data gathering up front and then all the necessary people are pulled off their jobs for one day or several days to completely solve the problem: designing, testing, stabilizing solutions usually in under a week. The Kaizen approach requires good planning on the part of the leaders and facilitator, but makes good use of the entire team’s time while accelerating the benefits of the improvement effort.

New Year’s Execution?

Planning does little good without execution!

Since many organizations tend to make strategic plans at the outset of a New Year, it seems an ideal time to reaffirm the fact that “planning” does little good without execution.

For many of us, this reality will apply to personal “New Year’s resolutions” as well.

Thus, as we’ve done in the past, it seems like a good time to reaffirm the importance of “execution” as presented in The Four Disciplines of Execution, an insightful book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling.

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. Or, as Ben Franklin put it, “Well done is better than well said!”