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.

Six Pitfalls that Lead to “Discontinuous” Improvement

Many, if not most organizations make attempts to improve their work. But no matter which specific methods predominate, 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
  2. Then they peter out

For an organization to go through a cultural change so that continuous improvement becomes the new way of working (not just a one-time ‘program’), we need to pay close attention to the ‘soft’ part of the improvement model.

This will enable us to smooth the path, remove the obstacles, and continue to lead, communicate, and motivate both emotionally and intellectually.
Following are six common causes of discontinuous improvement:
  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

How to Design a Poka-Yoke

Our previous post defined a “poka-yoke” as a means of mistake-proofing a product or process.

The question is, how might we best go about designing these fail-safes?

To begin, poka-yokes must be devised to prevent a particular type of error, which is why it is so important to thoroughly study the problem, the process, and the root causes. Once you have all the facts and data about what is going wrong most often, in what way, and why, you can set your collective creative minds to designing a poka-yoke that most effectively and efficiently prevents the most frequent human errors or omissions.

Yet a simple and powerful poka-yoke is almost never the first solution a team comes up with.

The best ideas take creativity, collaboration, and the time to press on past the weaker solutions that come to mind first. Most often, the first idea  ― which, as noted above, almost never represents the best solution ― is one of the following:

  1. Ask people to be more careful
  2. Ask management to send an email telling people to be more careful
  3. Schedule a training session in which people are instructed to, yes, be more careful

These solutions might help for a little while, but improvement is fleeting.

Instead, armed with a thorough understanding of the process and how things go wrong, you must keep brainstorming ideas until you can find a way to inexpensively make it much easier to do the work right or at least automatically alert a person when he or she has just made the mistake.

In addition, people often progress through weaker controls to progressively more effective poka-yokes. For example, one garage progressed from a weak control ― a warning sign stating ‘No vehicles higher over 7 feet high’ ― to a bar at 7 feet, which when pressed set off flashing lights and warning sounds. Eventually, they had an inexpensive laser beam which when broken would trigger an arm to fall, blocking entry. No more difficult extraction of vehicles that exceeded the height limit!

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.

Performance Management Contrasts

We’ve had some fascinating conversations about performance management over the years, and have found quite a range of formal and not-so-formal approaches, along with variations in defining the process.

But while different organizations may employ different methods, there are a few areas on which most everyone we’ve spoken with enthusiastically agrees:

  • Positive versus punitive performance management works best.
  • Recognition is an important element of managing the performance of individuals.
  • Management must manage the performance of both individuals and processes.
  • Regularly scheduled performance reviews or evaluations of individuals are key and should be conducted more frequently than once each year.
  • Performance evaluations need not be coupled with merit-based or time-based pay raises and, in most cases, are more effective if not coupled with pay raises.

How does your organization define and execute performance management?

 

Bigger CI Gains Can Come With “Bigger” Challenges

We all strive to achieve breakthrough or “bigger” gains when involved in Continuous Improvement, and a basic fact of accomplishing this is to pursue cross-organizational improvements.

However, these efforts typically involve more people, and this size factor alone can make projects more difficult to execute.

Consider that the larger the group, the more effort is required to ensure that good working relationships develop among the team members. Scheduling meetings becomes more difficult, and individuals may take less responsibility because with a large group it is easier to assume someone else will pick up the slack. There is often a limited window in which people are available, and the more people who must participate, the more constraints the project leader must schedule within.

Here are a few recommendations on how team leaders can minimize these “size-related” difficulties :

  • Make sure each participant has a clearly defined role and that everyone is clear about why each participant is needed.
  • Develop (and continue to refer back to) a clear charter and mandate from senior management
  • Develop ground rules about how to handle absences in a way that ensures the project continues forward. Will substitutes be used? Who can substitute and how will the team make sure that a substitute will know what is expected of them?
  • Set up firm meeting times and locations at the start of the project.
  • Publish minutes so that everyone is clear about what was decided and who has what action item.
  • Publish agendas so that everyone knows what is expected to happen at each meeting. Send reminders to make sure that action items are ready when planned.
  • Involve a facilitator to make sure that everyone provides input and that discussions stay on topic. Projects without a good facilitator will lose focus.
  • Develop concrete time lines and scope, and “chunk the work.” Breaking the work into specific deliverables helps to manage the size and complexity of cross-organizational improvements.

Reorganizations Can Work, But…!

In their book Reorg, published by the Harvard Business School Press, authors Stephen Heidari Robinson and Suzanne Heywood write, “A successful reorg can be one of the best ways for companies to unlock latent value, especially in a changing business environment – which is why companies are doing reorgs more often.”

However, they go on to acknowledge that most workplace reorganizations “just don’t work.”

Their findings are consistent with our observations and experience, which indicate barely 20% of reorganization efforts deliver the expected benefits.

But it’s important to recognize that the concept itself may not be at fault, but rather the execution. In fact, too many implementations begin prematurely, thus sealing the fate of those involved.

Here are a few key steps that can help ensure your reorganization effort will be successful:

  1. Start with a comprehensive design that includes the strategic engagement of leaders at all levels, and that takes into consideration the critical processes that create value for customers.
  2. Use flow charts or value-stream mapping to identify critical processes as well as those that are error-prone or that fail to add value so your plan can encompass the redesign of both the processes and the organization.
  3.  Select an Implementation Team with overall responsibility for every step, and begin with an “impact assessment.”
  4. Communication must be open and widespread throughout the process so that people at all levels are aware, on-board, and prepared for the upcoming changes. Be sure to include reasons for the reorganization and appropriate information about the implementation plan in this ongoing communication.
  5. Provide training for people in new or redesigned jobs.
  6. Provide coaching to help people at all levels make the transition.
  7. Follow-up, to ensure that any gaps in the implementation plan are closed.

Communication & CI Part 2: Hidden Costs?

As noted in our previous post, communication is an important, yet often over-looked tool for bringing about a culture of continuous improvement and engagement within a workforce.

But the effect of communication depends on its quality, and poor communication can be costly.   Even worse, these costs frequently go unnoticed!

For example, as reported in a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article, a survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication to and between employees. The article also referenced another study showing that miscommunication in smaller companies of 100 employees cost an average of $420,000 per year.

To determine or impact the quality of internal business communication, it is important to recognize that some communication forums are better than others.

For example, many organizations use suggestion boxes as forums. But the results are often disappointing. While a suggestion box requires little time or effort to initiate, its success relies on the ideas being completely and clearly expressed in writing.  Unfortunately, many people with good ideas simply cannot express them well.

Furthermore, if a suggestion requires more  explanation  or  development before it can be turned into a really great idea, the suggestion box does not offer an opportunity for clarification, debate, or refinement. Even worse, when the initial ideas are not fully formed or expressed, and management doesn’t have an opportunity for clarification, the ideas are harder to act upon, and often management loses interest.  When people notice nothing comes of the suggestion box, they stop offering ideas.

Here are some additional examples of costly miscommunication in business environments identified by Helen Wilkie, a consultant and author specializing in profitable, applied communication:

  • Long, boring, poorly-planned unproductive meetings that reach no conclusion and serve no purpose
  • Sales presentations that show no concern for, or understanding of, the client’s needs
  • Wasted time due to miscommunication about time or scheduling
  • Badly written e-mail messages that cause misunderstandings, ill will and wasted time
  • Employee alienation caused by managers who don’t listen
  • Lack of understanding between people of different age groups
  • Lack of understanding between male and female employees

Ultimately, the best forums are regularly-scheduled gatherings in which people can surface and discuss problems, waste, and opportunities for improvement.

When well-crafted, these forums allow for discussion to make sure each idea or observation is fully understood; any problems with an idea should be raised freely and discussed with the goal of improving the idea. In the end, the most effective improvements and innovations are often quite different from both the initial ideas and even the counter proposals. They emerge from listening to and incorporating different perspectives about barriers and unintended consequences to raise concepts to new levels.

An Often Overlooked Tool for Driving Continuous Improvement

A vitally-important tool for bringing about a culture of continuous improvement and engagement within a workforce is communication, which many people agree is the most frequently-used skill in today’s workplace.

Aside from standard team or project meetings, there are a number of ways leaders might go about accomplishing this. For example, employee forums are an ideal way to engage people around their work and contribute to the building of a high performance culture of continuous improvement.

Consider that one of the most obvious yet often overlooked requirements for high performance is a setting for employees to share and discuss problems and ideas for improvement.

But too often, managers and leaders tend to believe that if someone has a really great idea for improvement, they will raise it.  Yet when we talk to people close to the work, we more often hear ideas they have carried around for months or even years but never found the right time or place to share; or felt their idea would not be welcomed.

Even worse, when no forum for sharing improvement ideas is provided, people adapt to the way things are and stop noticing the waste—the elephant in the room—and stop trying to think of better ways.

A number of other examples of effective discussion forums that were shared during one of our Partners in Improvement sessions included:

  • Monthly safety talks at the end of which the company president discusses pertinent issues with team members and provides input as well as support
  • Weekly one-on-one session between management and team members during which leaders not only offer ideas and support, but also gather feedback on successes and challenges
  • Regular “town hall” meetings where he shares information about what is going on and what to expect, and also provides an opportunity for people to raise questions or concerns

It is also important to recognize that some “forums” are better than others, which will be the subject of our next post.

Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement