Category Archives: Process Improvement

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.

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.