Category Archives: Process Improvement

What’s the Problem?

Problem

Few decisions have a greater impact on the likelihood of success of an improvement project than the definition of the problem.

Stephen Covey says that the way we see the problem is the problem.

Albert Einstein warns that we cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking with which we created them.

The way we define and communicate the problem the team is expected to solve will greatly influence the speed and efficiency with which a team will complete its work, the degree of satisfaction between the team and the project sponsor, and the efficacy with which an organization prioritizes and sequences the problems to devote resources to.

Consider these different approaches to defining the same problematic situation:

  • Order fulfillment is too slow and is costing us a lot of business.
  • Our lost sale rate has increased from an average of 125 per month over the previous six quarters to 190 per month this quarter.
  • Our Order-to-Delivery timeline has increased to 60 days due to a bottleneck in packaging.
  • Profits are down.
  • Sales has missed their target for the past three months.
  • Packaging is too slow due to old equipment.
  • Order-to-Delivery time from the Mid-western plant in Q3 increased by 15 days over the same quarter prior year, and was cited as the cause of 42 lost sales in Q3 impacting revenue by $270,000 in the quarter.

Some of these are statements of fact, while others are judgments. Some are very broad, and others are very specific. They may ALL be valid observations about the same situation, yet the problem-solving efforts they would guide would differ greatly in urgency, efficiency, and efficacy.

Developing a good problem statement at the start will help you define and lead an improvement project that most efficiently arrives at better results.

Four Practices That Lead to Better Results
A good problem statement is not rocket-science, but simply requires some solid pre-work, thoughtful consideration & discussion, and the restraint to avoid speculating before the analysis. If you follow the four basic guidelines for problem definition, you will greatly improve the chances the right problem will get solved for good.

  1. Write It Down. If the problem is not written, shared, and discussed, all participants will feel comfortable that everyone is on the same page about the problem they are trying to solve. Such will not be the case, and the blissful ignorance about their different expectations will eventually give way to a combination of bewilderment, conflict, frustration, disappointment, and a great deal of inefficiency.

    Organizations can avoid the problem-solving frustration and rework by surfacing right up front any different views of the problem they are trying to solve. The best way to surface and discuss any differences is to write it down and discuss it with all participants, to ensure it is well understood and agreed to. In addition to getting everyone on the same page, only a written problem-statement can be tested against the next three qualities necessary to effective problem-solving teams.
  2. Include a Quantification of the Waste the Problem is Causing. Yes, this means you have done some pre-work, because no problem statement is as effective as it should be if it does not indicate why we care.

    Quantifying the waste makes certain that the organization does not invest scarce resources on something that will not have a significant impact. Every organization has more opportunities for improvement than capacity to execute on the improvements.

    Quantifying the waste also helps elicit the urgency and support that the project merits. A problem statement that is “…costing the organization $18,000 each week in excess charges” will receive more urgency than a problem “…costing the organization $800 a week.” And problems for which no discernable and measurable impact can be found probably should not receive much urgency at all. Quantifying the waste in the problem statement helps an organization make sure that they are working on first things first.

    The statement of impact best fits at the end of the problem statement but identifying and quantifying the waste should come at the start of the problem definition process. If we cannot reasonably measure the impact a problem is having on an organization, we cannot reasonably prioritize the effort.
  3. Be specific about the metric you are using to size the problem. Malcom Forbes once observed that “It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.” The rub is that you will have a hard time determining if your solutions are effective.

    To avoid this pitfall, your problem statement should incorporate the measurement you expect to move the needle on, the current baseline for that metric, and both the time and the place that your baseline measurement was taken.
    • The metric: If order-to-delivery timeframe is our problem, the problem statement should be a factual statement of order-to-delivery times. Maybe order-to-delivery times have deteriorated or maybe they have always led to lost orders. Either way, a recent measurement of order-to-delivery times must be part of the problem statement if this is the problem you intend to solve.

      For example: “order-to-delivery times have grown to 6 weeks and was cited as the reason for 25 lost orders last month.” A description such as “too long” is too general, but teams may be tempted to substitute this judgment instead of a metric because a recent measurement is hard to get.

      Bear in mind that if the problem is too hard to measure up front, chances are it will be too hard to measure later on when the team needs to evaluate the efficacy of the solution. Even if the team can gather measurements later, they will have no baseline with which to compare the new results.
    • Timeframe: When have you observed the problem? Is your metric from last week, last month, last quarter, or last year?
    • Scope: Where are you seeing the problem? Does the metric describe what is happening at one plant or all plants? Is it one product, a product family, or all products? By making the problem statement factual and specific about what observable phenomenon we saw when and where, we create for the team a clear and effective baseline against which to measure improvements.
  4. Omit Judgments and Opinions about Underlying Causes. Maslow observes that “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” We all have biases, and when we make assumptions about the underlying cause, we bias the process to overlook other possible causes.

    In theory, this could be a time-saver — if you hit upon the correct root cause. However, in our experience this rarely happens. Making assumptions about the causes almost always makes a problem more difficult to solve instead of easier to solve. This is because if one or more important underlying causes are overlooked by the bias introduced in the problem-statement, the problem will not be solved before the project goes through quite a lot of rework.

    Most people have some sort of bias or hunch, slight or strong, about possible underlying causes of most problems and they will consider these first.

    For example, some people easily incline toward thinking that the technology is not what it could or should be and theorize that this is the cause of most of the problems they encounter. Others are quick to suspect that the incentives are misaligned. And still others may speculate first that processes are not sufficiently defined and adhered to. These hunches are developed based on experience and people with diverse experience and biases tend to serve a project well.

    However, no matter how confident in the theory about the root cause, inclusion of an assumption about the cause or the solution in the problem statement is more likely to impede results than accelerate them. A hunch makes an excellent servant (in the problem analysis phase of the project) but a poor master. Leave any comment about possible underlying causes out of the problem statement.

    If you follow these four guidelines, your project will have a much better chance of arriving at, implementing, and validating an effective solution that produces lasting results.

Developing Teams – Start the Engagement Process Early

Onboarding

When engaged in continuous improvement (CI) it’s important to frequently assess our approach, starting with the foundation.

When it comes to engaging employees, the process begins with onboarding, which is the process for welcoming new employees. Among other things, onboarding is an opportunity to make new hires feel confident in their decision to accept the position as well as in their new role and team.

Despite the fact that onboarding sets the tone for the rest of your new employee’s experience at your company, and despite the fact that effective onboarding has a strong impact on retention and productivity levels, data shared by SHRM, Indeed, and others indicates that over 80% of businesses don’t have a very good onboarding plan.

If you’d like to improve your employee onboarding process you might start by considering the following best practices:

  • Start communicating before your new hire’s first day
  • Prepare well in advance
  • Set up the employee’s workspace before they arrive
  • Send out a new employee announcement including name, role, etc. If done by email, cc them
  • Pair new employees with a peer mentor / “buddy”
  • Ask new employees for their feedback early-on in the process and several months into the process

The Bottom Line Impact of Saving People’s Time: It May Not Be What You Think!

time management

In a few instances, the impact of increasing process productivity or saving people’s time on the bottom line is clear and simple. For example, it may reduce the expenditures on overtime or contract workers.

However, beyond those few cases, productivity improvements for employees do not directly reduce expenditures, but instead increase capacity.

How much these improvements benefit the bottom line depends on how that capacity is put to use. The impacts can be extremely profitable or can amount to nothing — or worse!

For example, an organization has 30 people at an average cost per person per year of $50k. This organization is able to make major process improvements that achieve a 50% reduction in the amount of time required to handle the current workload. In theory, the impact of the productivity improvement would be the same — 30 people, 50% productivity improvement, $50k/year — should be simple math, right?

But in the real world, the impact would vary dramatically. Other factors, such as potential for sales growth, amount of attrition, transferability and scarcity of skills, etc. have a very significant impact on the value of any productivity improvements the organization may achieve.

In this example, it turned out that demand for the work is stable, neither increasing nor decreasing. Consequently, no new value-adding work is brought into the organization and there is neither attrition nor layoffs. People quickly add non-value-adding activity to fill the gap and make themselves look and feel busy.

Therefore, the productivity improvements produced neither revenue growth nor cost reductions; the impact of the improvement in is slightly negative — equivalent to the value of any time and investment expended to achieve the productivity improvement.

A good example of how, in many cases, conventional wisdom isn’t so wise!

what’s your plan for avoiding theory blindness?

plan

Our previous post described the pitfall of “theory blindness,” and explained how, with good intentions, people can fall prey to it.

A sure way to avoid this pitfall is to adhere to a defined improvement methodology — one that goes well beyond the common (most often ineffective) two-step approach of:

  1. Someone in a position of authority comes up with an improvement idea
  2. The idea is immediately implemented

Instead, a more elaborate improvement process or plan will incorporate a systematic search for new knowledge and understanding in order to arrive at a solution that addresses the root cause of whatever problem we are hoping to solve or whatever process we’re hoping to improve.

Take, for example, the first six steps of the 8-step methodology we apply:

  1. First, we identify and quantify what to work on. After gathering a lot of ideas and opinions about opportunities, we prioritize and then quantify. Quantification helps us in two ways: it helps us set aside our pet ideas for improvement (theories) that simply are not supported by the facts, and it helps us proceed with appropriate urgency on the highest impact opportunities.
  2. Next, we put together a team of people who can study the opportunity for improvement from a variety of perspectives. We include input from both customers and suppliers of the process (internal and, when possible, external) which helps us overcome theory-blindness, because people who can see the process from different perspectives can help us spot the flaws in our theory.
  3. Third, we gather facts and data about the current situation. This step can be difficult for those who entered the project with a preconceived solution – but when a sufficient number of relevant facts and data are surfaced, they most often serve as effective treatments for theory blindness.
  4. Fourth, we analyze root causes: thinking expansively and systematically about possible causes and then critically examining each possibility.
  5. The fifth step is to implement, but we’re not finished yet!
  6. Step six is to study the results. Because we started the process with a good baseline measurement, when we study the results, we will either confirm a successful improvement or not. We can then complete the final steps and move on to the next project!

An uncommon solution to a common business problem

SMIT goals

As noted in our previous post, to pull significantly ahead of competitors an organization must make process innovations in addition to standard improvements.

Continuing with that theme, it is important to recognize that in order to achieve a breakthrough process innovation, a leader must make a powerful case that the breakthrough goal is truly necessary; and then the leader must follow that up with performance targets that are impossible to reach by conventional methods.

People almost always stop looking for an idea once they already have one. Even a flawed or inadequate idea can look good when it is the only one you’ve come up with.

But as French philosopher and journalist Émile Chartier (Alain) said, “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one we have!”

When we “fall in love with our first idea,” rationalizations as to why it is still ‘better than the alternative’ come easily. Furthermore, all the natural incentives in most organizations work against making a big innovative change. Big ideas are harder to think of; they are harder to sell, and they are risky or scary to implement. Process innovations simply do not happen unless the situation or an influential leader demands an innovation that is significantly and measurably better.

The Common Problem: SMART v. SMIT
Unfortunately, most of us don’t like to set our teams or ourselves a goal that could lead to failure, so we ask for goals we think can be met.

In fact, managers are taught to develop SMART goals, and ‘achievable’ and ‘realistic’ are at the heart of SMART goals. Yet, achievable and realistic goals never lead to innovation.

If the target is less than 20% improvement, most of the time people will tend to try to get there by doing the same things faster and harder or skipping steps without completely eliminating the need for those steps. These ‘stretch goals’ lead to disappointment or unintended consequences far more often than true innovation.

To inspire innovation, the goal must be out of reach via conventional thinking. Goals must be “SMIT” (specific, measurable, impossible, and timely) to spur innovation.

The Uncommon Solution
Innovation follows the necessity to invent, so a critical ingredient to process innovation is a leader with the courage, conviction, insight, and imagination to persuasively communicate the necessity for a game changing breakthrough process innovation.

The value of a written problem statement

problem

Few decisions have a greater impact on the likelihood of an improvement project’s success than the definition of the problem.

Stephen Covey says that, “The way we see the problem is the problem!”

In a past post, we shared four guidelines for accurately defining problems, which included:

  1. Defining the problem in writing
  2. Specifying and quantifying the waste the problem is causing
  3. Identify the metric that will be use to “size” the problem
  4. Omit judgments, opinions, and predispositions about the underlying causes

These aspects of framing a problem have a huge impact on how well a team can analyze and solve a problem. They also enable a team to create an accurate problem statement.

In fact, creating a written, specific and measurable problem statement that incorporates a baseline against which solutions can be tested helps people avoid biases about root cases or solutions. This practices also makes clear why and how much we should care about the problem, and might inspire a team leader and sponsor to more enthusiastically guide the team to efficiently achieving the results the organization desires.

The act of crafting a problem statement does require some careful thought, but a good problem statement is worth the effort because it helps you to ensure that:

  • Team participants, leaders and sponsors, have a shared understanding of the problem that will be solved
  • The organization will give the project the appropriate priority and urgency
  • The team has a good baseline against which they can test the results of their solutions
  • The team is open to surfacing and testing a range of possible root causes so as to increase the likelihood of finding an effective and lasting solution.

Why employee engagement matters more now

engagement around the work

A recent article shared by Gallup indicated that 36% of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work. Surprisingly, this statistic is higher than it has been for many years, though the number itself is typically perceived as disappointing. However, Gallup also says that globally, only 20% of employees are engaged at work.

Equally important, their findings indicate the percentage of actively disengaged employees in the U.S., has risen to 15% through June 2021. Actively disengaged employees cost businesses a lot… higher turnover, more safety issues, more absenteeism, and so on; they generally “report miserable work experiences and are generally poorly managed. They also tend to bring-down their coworkers.

Why Now?
The reason workforce engagement has emerged as more important now is that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says employee turnover or “quit rates” are reaching record highs, and Gallup research has found “substantial differences in intentions to change employers as a function of the quality of the work environment.”

“Among actively disengaged workers in 2021, 74% are either actively looking for new employment or watching for openings. This compares with 55% of not engaged employees and 30% of engaged employees,” the article states.

With this fact in mind, and despite the recent rise in engagement levels, with only 36% of U.S. employees engaged in their work, there is much room for improvement.

The first step in this improvement process is to formalize an employee engagement plan, and to do so in the same fashion as one would implement a continuous process improvement initiative:

  • Get acceptance and buy-in from senior leaders. Little will be accomplished without this; the best results are achieved when leaders understand the benefits of engagement and take action.
  • Create a formalized implementation plan and establish performance measures so that progress can be tracked. Develop realistic, achievable, and measurable goals and objectives.
  • Work with the leaders so that they can model the right behaviors and cascade the concepts throughout the organization.
  • Create and equip project teams to identify and quantify opportunities for improvement.
  • Foster an atmosphere of collaboration, innovation, continuous improvement, and fun. Increases in productivity yield increases in engagement.
  • Make sure people have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed.
  • Implement an appropriate integrated communication plan, reinforcing the concept of improving both the “work and workplace.”
  • Reward and recognize people so that they feel supported in their efforts.
  • Measure results and ROI… and keep your foot on the gas!

What to do when Improvement projects stall or hit the wall

question mark what to do

Our previous post shared ten reasons why improvement projects stall or peter out.

But simply knowing “why” doesn’t help when we’ve hit the wall!

A poll of CI leaders and specialists revealed the following suggestions when a project grinds to a halt:

  • Go back to basics… “be true to the Continuous Improvement process and manage it; review systems, put routines in place, collect additional data, and reaffirm objectives.”
  • Review of CI fundamentals and roles with both participants and sponsors can often result in getting projects back on track. “It’s important for sponsors to fully understand their role; otherwise, when things begin to shutdown they are unable to provide the necessary support.”
  • Encourage project participants by showing or reminding them of “what’s in it for them” (WIIFT) as opposed to how the organization-as-a-whole.
  • Reassign people and tasks to bring about fresh outlooks and give everyone a shot in the arm that helps them get back on track.
  • Communicate! This must involve running effective team meetings and action planning sessions as well as publicizing success, or even the lack of it. “It’s important to celebrate the wins and achievements to help anchor the participants, and also to make the results as well as the activities known throughout the organization.”
  • Root-out naysayers.
  • Conduct more frequent project reviews.
  • Make sure you’re working on the right things; on things that will make a difference.
  • Measure progress and results in a “visual” way.
  • Apply the principles outlined in the “4 Disciplines of Execution”
    • Identify and focus on a Wildly Important Goal (a WIG)
    • Monitor and act on LEAD measures
    • Keep a compelling SCOREBOARD updated by the people doing the work
    • Develop a rhythm of ACCOUNTABILITY.

The hardest part of continuous improvement

While almost every business puts some amount of effort into Continuous Improvement (CI), making ongoing and meaningful improvements to a business or to work processes is not easy.

discontinuous_improvement

We have also noticed that regardless of the specific methods used for making improvements, almost all of these initiatives aimed at gaining greater efficiency, quality, speed, and/or customer delight have two important things in common:

  1. They generally produce some improvements, and
  2. Then they peter out

So, as it turns out, these well-intended CI plans are, in fact, “discontinuous,” and the hardest part of Continuous Improvement is making it “continuous!”

Based on our research and experience, there are some common reasons why CI efforts tend toward becoming discontinuous.

The most common pitfall that leads to ineffective CI efforts is unclear or delegated leadership. Continuous improvement must be fully embraced by every line manager. Delegating the effort to a Quality Manager, HR leader, strategic planning manager, or other staff person, is very likely to lead the effort to fizzle.

John Kotter, a recognized pioneer in the field of leading change, uses the term ‘guiding coalition’ to describe a powerful and strategic group that works together to bring about the desired changes within an organization. The team must be committed to the achievement of a continuously improving culture. It should include a majority of the most powerful people in the organization and may also include some people who may not be a part of senior management.

The next culprit is insufficient communication. Leadership must continue to communicate at every possible opportunity and every possible way why continuous improvement must become part of the organization’s DNA.

The vision must be clear and simple, and throughout the organization, people in leadership positions should constantly communicate the importance of continuous improvement and the progress to date. Successes must be widely shared, learnings must be plowed back into the organization to accelerate results, and new opportunities to become better at improving should be identified and clearly communicated. New employees must hear the why, the how, the
history, and the vision of what’s next.

Finally, neglecting alignment is a sure way to undermine a comprehensive CI effort. Every one of us has our own personal goals and objectives in addition to the goals and objectives of our organization as a whole and our job in particular. When these get out of alignment, progress will stop.

For example, a natural and intended outcome of most process improvement is the ability to do more with less — often with less people-time. Instantly, we have a conflict between the organization’s goals for cost saving and people’s need for income retention. And processes cannot be effectively improved or improvements effectively sustained without the support of the people doing the work. Not coincidentally, the company with the longest history of a continuously improving culture, Toyota Motors, promises employees a very high level of job security.

The leadership must think several moves ahead to both maintain alignment and to capture financial gains from productivity improvements. The choice of where to focus improvement efforts is probably the most critical.

Among the best areas on which to focus are:

  • Aim improvement methods to address the constraint to sales.
  • Improve productivity in the parts of the organization with too much work, in order to eliminate the need to hire.
  • Improve productivity in an area where people have the skills that, if freed up, could be transferred to departments with too much work or that have had attrition.
  • Improve non-people costs, such as energy, scrap, paper waste (‘if you want to find the waste, find the paper’), and work with suppliers to identify ways to reduce costs.

Implementing a New Year Strategic Plan?

implementation

In a 2018 post we noted that an organization can have an excellent strategy but make little-or-no gains if they fail to execute effectively on that strategy.

It was also noted that this happens in a great many instances, as people at all levels frequently struggle to stay-the-course when it comes to achieving goals, keeping resolutions, or executing strategic plans. Instead, they fall prey to “working so hard on the urgent that they forget about what’s really important.”

Since we are about to begin a New Year, and since many organizations have, in fact, created a strategic plan for the upcoming year, it seems an ideal time to re-share and reaffirm the fact that “planning” does little good without execution. Fortunately, there are solutions!

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

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.