Category Archives: Process Improvement

Common Pitfalls to Completing Improvement Projects

pitfall

As I’m sure you are aware, to get and stay ahead of the competition, it is all about how to improve further and faster. But sometimes, despite the best intentions, our continuous improvement efforts can get bogged down.

While there can be a number of reasons for delays and the related under-achievement — such as failing to identify root causes — we have identified common pitfalls that every improvement leader should avoid.

Here’s a list of the top three along with some ideas on how you might avoid them:

  1. Pace: The most common cause of delay in achieving results is the pace. Some teams schedule an hour a week to work on the project, so that under the best of circumstances, two months will pass before the project gets one day’s attention. But far more often 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. And, of course, the current pandemic has complicated meeting schedules and effectiveness. Regardless of reason, when a project progresses this slowly, priorities may change or resources might be reassigned without ever completing the work and gaining the improvements.

    The secret to avoiding this trap is, to the fullest extent possible, employ the Kaizen approach. 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.
  2. Scope: The second most common trap that slows down progress is a poorly designed project scope. The scope may start out too large — i.e., trying to take on all locations, departments, functions, product lines, etc. all at once. When the scope is too large, you have too many aspects of the problem to track down, analyze, and address, and too many people to consult, inform, an persuade. A team’s progress can also be inhibited if too much of the scope falls beyond their sphere of control. For example, if a receiving team wants to address a Purchasing process or a Manufacturing team wants to address an Order Entry process.

    Sometimes a project begins with the intention of being short and sweet, but gradually the scope keeps growing until the project is in danger of crumbling under its own weight.

    Avoid the scope-trap by explicitly raising and resolving as many questions about scope as possible. Define the scope so that improvement results can be realized as quickly as possible. Decide what locations, functions, departments are in scope by identifying the one or two that will provide the biggest impact (you can do this by stratifying the data you used to quantify the opportunity). Decide what types of problems are out of scope. You may decide that systems design issues should be out-of-scope if the organization already has a multi-year waiting list for systems changes. An area that is slated for major change in the near future often should be deemed out-of-scope. Be clear about the expected project deliverable. Sometimes improvements can be implemented, verified, stabilized. In other situations, the project team may be chartered to merely gather, analyze, and report data about the problem.
  3. Poor communication: Sometimes delays are caused by insufficient communication, especially today when many of us are working remotely. When a team leader does not communicate regularly with the sponsor, many delays can crop up: the team leader misses out on useful information that the sponsor has on the topic; a team struggles with obstacles that the sponsor can move out of the way; a team becomes set on a solution that the sponsor feels is untenable or does not understand well enough to give it full support. Many things can go awry when the team and the sponsor are out of touch.

    This pitfall is easy to avoid by discussing these risks up front with the sponsor and agreeing how frequently to communicate about the project. The frequency really depends on the speed of the projects. If you are executing a Kaizen, you should communicate in advance and update the sponsor at the end of every day. If your improvement team is meeting an hour a week, perhaps too little happens to merit a weekly update, but a team leader should not go more than three weeks without updating the sponsor. Agree on the update schedule and put it in your calendars for the expected duration of the project.

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.

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

Why Systematic Performance Management?

In a previous post it was noted that a well-defined performance management process is a pre-requisite to achieving a high-performing culture.

But what does it take to develop and maintain such a process? As it turns out, it may take more than many of us would like to think.

“Performance management systems, which typically include performance appraisal and employee development, are the Achilles’ heel of human resources management,” said Elaine Pulakos, Executive Vice President and Director of the Washington, D.C. office of Personnel Decisions Research Institute (PDRI) in a Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) white paper.

Pulakos went on to cite a survey by Watson Wyatt, which showed that only 30% of workers agree that their company’s performance management system helps improve performance, and less than 40 percent of employees said their systems established clear performance goals, generated honest feedback or used technology to streamline the process.

So, how might we ensure that our approach will not succumb to these pitfalls?

There are many different approaches and ways to answer this question, but today we will focus on only one: systematize it.

Among the failures observed in the above-referenced survey and others like it, there is a common thread that can quickly bring-about the demise of a performance management effort, which is taking an ad-hoc approach. Instead, the first step is to create and document a process, which might include the following basic components as outlined in the SHRM white paper:

Performance Management – a Never-Ending Process

We’ll take a closer look at the advantages of this systematic approach in our next post.

The Best-Run U.S. Companies

A key focus of Conway Management‘s Continuous Improvement (CI) work has always been to help clients improve the way their businesses run; and, as noted in numerous posts, senior level management must provide support, exemplify desired behaviors and proactively lead the way in order to achieve a culture of CI.

Conversations about this reality often lead to questions about what constitutes a well-run company. While there are different ways to evaluate an organization, last year we shared a post about the Drucker Institute’s definition and listing of the “Most Well-Managed Companies” in the United States.

A most interesting aspect of this list was the holistic approach taken to rate the contenders. Data came from numerous sources, including employee ratings on Glassdoor to five-year shareholder returns and trademark filings, and the five criteria for placement were:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Employee engagement and development
  • Innovation
  • Social responsibility
  • Financial strength

According to articles in the Wall Street Journal, these benchmarks represent Drucker’s core, as has always believed companies should exist for purposes beyond profits, stressing that they should care for workers and benefit society.

These factors are well-aligned with our way of thinking, as a clear vision to external customers along with innovation, workforce engagement and workforce development have always been components of our programming.

It is, therefore, reassuring to see these items on a list such as Druckers’.

If you’re curious, below are the “top 10” finishers on this year’s list which, incidentally, includes all of last year’s “top 5.”

  1. Apple Inc.
  2. Amazon.com Inc.
  3. Microsoft Corp.
  4. Nvidia Corp.
  5. Intel Corp.
  6. Alphabet Inc.
  7. Accenture PLC
  8. Johnson & Johnson
  9. Procter & Gamble
  10. International Business Machines Co.

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.

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.

Conventional Wisdom & Specialization

Conventional wisdom is an asset in so many situations that one can hardly do without it. After all, it “makes sense!” Or at least it seems to make sense… and it can speed-up consensus and increase our confidence in our decision making.

But in a dynamic world when the underlying assumptions shift, we conventional wisdom easily lead our organization to make some big
mistakes.

For example, conventional wisdom holds that specialization is good. A person can get very fast and reliable doing the same thing the same way again and again. The classic example is Henry Ford’s assembly line which broke the complex craft of auto assembly into a sequence of very specialized jobs that could be easily taught to the relatively unskilled labor on the assembly line. Assembly line efficiencies put automobile ownership in reach of a much larger portion of the country and made the benefits of specialization a part of our national business psyche.

Specialization is applied to many jobs today as well, such as dividing a call center into teams of specialists by type of call, or dividing incoming orders so that one person handles all of the especially complicated jobs, or conversely, the easiest tasks may be pruned off and assigned to a junior person to exclusively handle.

When the volume and nature of the work flow is predictable, specialization can increase both efficiency and quality. But when the quantity, timing, or nature of the demand for work is uncertain, specialization significantly reduces efficiency!

For example, when a service organization wanted to speed up throughput and reduce overtime costs for processing new account applications for clients in the Financial Services industry, they organized their processors into different groups to handle different clients. This enabled each processor to complete an account
set-up faster because they could easily memorize the steps and forms for their small group of clients.

Nonetheless, the efficiency of the operation as a whole declined substantially. Variation in the incoming volume resulted in one group being swamped one day and working overtime, while another group was very slow.

So the rule is: sequential specialization, like the assembly line, often speeds up the mastery and execution of the subset of work, but will also reduce the total throughput whenever there is variation in the amount of time that a step may take. Each hand-off is an opportunity for work to be waiting for a worker or for a worker to be waiting for
work. When variation is low, specialization can increase throughput, but if there is variation in incoming quality or in the amount of time needed to execute a step, specialization tends to reduce efficiencies of the operation as a whole.

Poka-Yokes?

Are you familiar with the term “poka-yoke?”

If so, then you know that a poka-yoke is a specially-designed feature of a process or a product that either prevents common mistakes or
catches them before they cause trouble. Often referred to as “mistake-proofing,” The term comes from the Japanese, meaning “inadvertent error” and “avoidance” and was popularized by the engineer Shingeo Shingo in his crusade to improve quality by eliminating human errors.

We see and use poka-yokes every day. For example, years ago, a dead car battery due to forgetfulness was a common problem. Since then, a poka-yoke was designed to sound a warning bell if the car lights are left on. A “warning” poka-yoke is a big help, but not fool proof. A more powerful poka-yoke has since been built-into newer cars and turns the lights on and off automatically.

Similarly, you see a wire gate swing out of the front of a school bus to guide children safely across the street; you are asked to double-enter a new password to guard against typos; wires are color-coded; highways have rumble strips.

All of these are features of a product or process that were specially designed to reduce the likelihood of a particular human error.

Has your organization created or made effective use of poka-yokes?

If so, we look forward to hearing from you! If not, our next post will focus on how to go about creating poka-yokes.

Workforce Capability, Management & Change

While identifying the right things to work on is a critical decision we must make each day, it’s important to also have the right people working on the right things if we hope to truly achieve breakthrough solutions. In other words, it is imperative to have a solid grasp of the team’s capabilities, strengths and  developmental  needs.

We’ve discovered that workforce assessments need to be done in an organized, comprehensive way that includes a strategic mixture of observation, one-on-one and small group interviews to cover a diagonal cross-section of an organization. Key activities include an analysis of layout, work flow, bottlenecks and yield, and also an assessment of people’s understanding of tools as well as how their work impacts the total organization.

It is also important to ask questions about the organization, how people feel they are treated and valued, and, in so doing, it’s important to assess their level of engagement.

Based on discovering the best opportunities for improvement, an improvement plan can then be implemented, which will involve making key changes in processes and behaviors.

Finally, it’s also necessary to review how people are being managed, as without engaged, effective leadership it is difficult to implement the changes that are necessary for achieving a culture of continuous improvement.