Category Archives: Continuous Improvement

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!”

New Year’s & CI Resolutions?

People often make “New Year’s resolutions” with good intentions, but then fail to follow-through.

Similarly, and as we’ve discussed in previous posts, many well-intentioned organizations find it difficult to execute and sustain their Continuous Improvement or strategic plans… these challenges have been highlighted in many publications, ranging from the well-regarded book “Four Disciplines of Execution” by Chris McChesney, Jim Huling, and Sean Covey, to our “Discontinuous Improvement” newsletter.

To achieve and sustain a culture of Continuous Improvement, execution is the key. 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 organizations are outstanding at execution. Here are a few of the common threads among those organizations:

  • Senior leaders become actively involved
  • They make prudent use of prioritization tools
  • Consistent structure and reporting
  • Engaged workforce
  • They set expectations and consequences — both positive and negative
  • They identify clear project plans for delivering results, including measures and milestones
  • Consistent and timely monitoring of progress
  • Recognition of team members’ accomplishment
  • Corrective action models (not punitive) when results are sub-par
  • Strategic actions to lock in the gains

As we’ve often observed, the hard part of Continuous Improvement isn’t making improvements, but rather it’s making the effort continuous.

Launching a Time Management Improvement Plan

The Value of Time?

A previous post focused on five steps for improving our use of time. In that post it was suggested that using “time” as a measure to find and focus opportunities for improvement has three big advantages:

  • Time drives important business results
  • Time is universally applicable
  • It is very simple to do

Should you decide to launch a time management improvement plan in your organization, it will be important to prepare people by ensuring that the following points are thoroughly understood:

  • The waste in the system is not the fault of the people doing the work; it is there because of the way the process is designed or because of the way that the supplying processes are designed.
  • The people closest to the work can help you find and fix what is wrong with the way the processes are designed.
  • Recognizing non-value-adding work does not mean that you can simply make it go away. It only means it is a candidate for elimination or reduction. An effective solution may not yet be at hand. That’s OK. Recognizing the waste is the first step to searching for a better way.
  • Value-added work is not as plentiful as people might think – on average, only 20% of all work is truly value-added. Keep in mind, every process will contain “necessary” work that is not value-added. The goal is to optimize time spent on value-added work, reduce time spent on other work, and eliminate waste.
  • Someone who has never done this before might find it difficult to identify non-value-added work during their analysis because it is hard to recognize the waste in standard operating procedures. “If we have always had to do something, it usually seems that it surely must add value,” they will likely think. In addition, rework typically compensates for a problem that is so familiar that everyone takes it for granted. Recognize and improve as much as you can, then circle back and look again.
  • With practice and coaching (and amnesty) people can identify more opportunity.
  • Everyone must have amnesty. If people are afraid for their jobs, either because they might be blamed for the waste or be no longer needed if the work is streamlined, there is every disincentive to find and eliminate waste.
  • Successes in reducing cycle time or saving time overall should be measured and celebrated!

Decision-Making Pitfalls: Part 2

Decision-Making Pitfalls

Our previous post shared data from a Wall Street Journal article about decision-making, which indicated that the way in which leaders make decisions (the process) is just as important as what decisions they make.

In that article, author Robert I. Sutton described four specific pitfalls associated with the decision-making process that can compromise a leader’s effectiveness as well as the effectiveness and attitudes of people throughout the organization.

The first of these pitfalls, which was the subject of our previous post, involves telling people they have a voice in decision-making when, in reality, they don’t.

Next on the list is the poor habit some leaders have of “treating final decisions as anything but!”

“Many insecure bosses have a habit that is especially damaging: After a decision has been made and communicated and implementation has begun, their insecurity compels them to revisit the choice too soon and too often. A few complaints, a small early setback, or simply anxiety about the decision can provoke such unnecessary reconsideration.”

Sutton goes on to explain that the insecurity and waffling “infects their teams.”  In addition, many of the people involved lose faith in their leaders’ ability to make good decisions, and also lose interest in implementing new directives that could soon become subject to change.

We will take a look at two additional decision-making pitfalls in our next post.

The “Hard” Part of Continuous Improvement

In past posts we have discussed the fact that more than half of all change initiatives fail, and that most “continuous improvement” efforts have two things in common:

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

Therefore, “discontinuous improvement” is, at times, the more appropriate description of what actually takes place; and as noted in one of our previous posts, there are a number of reasons why organizations fail to make their improvement efforts cultural, which include:

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

Along similar lines, in a recent article about “why process improvements efforts routinely fail,” author and educator Nicolas Argy, MD, JD, suggests that despite the numerous approaches to continuous improvement (i.e., LEAN, Six Sigma, etc.), “All these systems go in and out of vogue and, just like losing weight and the latest fad diet, all of them fail or only provide temporary results.”

Argy goes on to note that measurement, questioning and reporting, tend to influence and change people’s behavior. In support of this perspective he cites some well-known research.

  • Pearson’s law –“When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.”
  • Sentinel effect – The theory that productivity and outcomes can be improved through the process of observation and measurement.

These views are well-aligned with Dr. Deming’s fundamentals, such as the Deming Cycle, on which much of our work is based.

But regardless of your approach or beliefs, it’s apparent that the “hard” part of continuous improvement isn’t making improvements, but rather making it “continuous.”

If an organization can develop a culture in which making improvements is the constant “way of doing business,” then they can achieve break-through gains on a recurring basis as opposed to the ad-hoc improvements associated with an on-again/off-again effort.

 

A Different Take on Waste Walks

As you are likely aware, a “Waste Walk” is a planned visit to where work is being performed  (often referred to as gemba) to observe what’s happening and to note the waste. In many organizations Waste Walks 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.

However, while Waste Walks are most often put into practice within the above-mentioned areas, many that take place in other organizational areas have also proven to be extremely worthwhile, as we discussed with our Partners in Improvement groups.

For example, a supply chain management company used these 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 own 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 look at their own work through a different lens, 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 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

During one of our Partners discussions, CI leaders agreed with this perspective and identified some best practices for conducting a waste walk in an office environment, which included:

  • Communicating in advance with the people whose work will be reviewed, making sure to let them know the intent is not to take on a “big brother” approach, but rather to interact and learn from the workers themselves —the people closest to the work!
  • Communicating openly and in a “two-way” fashion during the waste walk. Administrative work can not really be understood by simply observing; the waste walk team must ask questions and engage in a bi-directional dialog with the office workers and thus learn about obstacles and challenges faced by those workers.
  • Focusing on the process rather than the tools. It can be easy to conclude that the best opportunities for improvement involve investing in new IT solutions or software programs.
  • Quantifying the opportunities for improvement and following-up with the office personnel afterward to share what was learned and to discuss specific steps for improvement.
  • Measuring gains and celebrating wins!

Performance Management Best Practices

Bill Conway would say that there are two things that matter: working on the right things and working on them the right way. Performance Management is all about how we as leaders orient our organizations around those two things.

When we asked our Partners In Improvement to define Performance Management, we heard a range of perspectives:

  • the strategic orientation of the organization
  • process performance management
  • setting of goals and objectives
  • individual performance appraisals
  • daily direction and feedback to reinforce desired behaviors
  • providing tools and coaching to help people be successful
  • rewards and recognition

From the strategic perspective, performance management begins with the identification of what’s vital to the organization. If these priorities are not clear and it is not clear what role everyone plays in the priorities, the rest is unlikely to mean much.

Several of the Partners pointed out that performance management refers not just to people management, but to process management, and plant management (which one of the Partners called the “3 Ps – People, Plant, and Process”).

One of the Partners explained that she always starts by measuring the performance of the process. To improve the process, based on the root cause analysis she would work to improve the people performance, tools, materials, methods, the environment, or whatever factor was driving the performance of a process.

While there are clearly a wide range of views about how to manage performance, several excellent points or best practices generated quite a bit of support during our discussions:

  • Performance Management must be about much more than individual performance measurement. As Deming said, over 90% of problems are caused by the system not the person. To manage performance, we must manage the system by which people, plant, process interact to produce results.
  • Frequent observation and feedback is more helpful to people than formal annual reviews.
  • Frequent communication about what an organization needs and wants greatly increases the odds that the organization will get what they need and want.
  • Group rewards encourage teamwork, while individual rewards encourage an individual to optimize his or her own goals even if it may sub-optimize the organization as a whole.
  • Tying money directly to performance appraisal can be a two-edged sword – raising stress and reducing the intrinsic rewards and personal satisfaction from doing a good job for the team.
  • Avoid performance management in the rear view mirror – in other words, avoid “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
  • Make more of the goal setting process which produces targets against which we measure performance and take corrective action

 

Why An 8-Step Improvement Plan?

While organizations in most sectors work at making at least some ongoing improvements to their work and work processes, most industries or vertical markets consist of leaders and followers.

People often ask about what makes the difference between the industry leaders and the follow-behinds.  In our experience, there are two things:

  1. What they work to improve
  2. How they go about the improvement

Industry leaders tend to “work on the right things,” which, as we’ve noted numerous times in this blog, is the most important decision we all must make every day. They also go about making improvements in an effective way. By working on the right things and following a proven effective improvement process, an organization can get further faster.

We recommend an 8-step process for studying and improving the work. While it is possible to make improvements in fewer steps, the more comprehensive eight-step process helps to ensure people are working on the “right” things, and also that the improvements will “stick.”

These steps are:

  1. Identify and quantify the waste you want to eliminate
  2. Clearly define what you want to do (including problem statement, objective, measurements, scope, team, and plan)
  3. Study and measure the current situation
  4. Analyze the root causes and evaluate and plan solutions
  5. Implement
  6. Study the results and take appropriate action until objectives are met
  7. Stabilize and standardize the improvement so that it stays in place and is used throughout
  8. Evaluate and learn from this improvement effort and plan the next

As noted above, some people think this seems like a lot of steps and wherever we go we meet people who want to “streamline” this process . We call them the “two-fivers” because the improvement process they follow is simply:

  • think of something they believe will improve things
  • implement it

Two-fivers eliminate 3/4 of the steps we recommend! Possibly a good, or at least workable idea… but the whole point of the eight steps is to make sure people are working on the right thing, that they get to the right solution, and that it sticks. If you can do without that, by all means, be a two-fiver.