A Sequence for Focusing Your Improvement Effort

In one of last year’s posts, we shared some insight on how productivity gains might actually impact the bottom line, given the fact that in many instances a group’s efforts to increase productivity actually increases capacity instead, which does not always yield measurable results. 

Taking this perspective a step further, here is a simple sequence of four steps you might take when determining where to focus your organization’s Continuous Improvement effort:


  1. When you want to gain productivity improvements, you look first toward parts of the business that are growing and profitable rather than those whose workload is shrinking and/or unprofitable. This may seem counter-intuitive for companies that think of productivity improvements as a means of cost cutting and focus most of their attention on the lagging areas — but growth areas are clearly where the most lucrative returns from productivity improvement will be found.

  2. If no parts of the business are currently growing, look to where productivity improvements might leverage excess capacity to help gain business. The additional capacity gained from studying and improving the work enables an organization to bring in considerably more revenue at the same cost structure, providing a pricing advantage. Or explore whether the capacity can be used to add services which drive up business volume.

  3. If there are no growth opportunities, look to areas with high attrition.

  4. If there are no opportunities for growth and no areas with especially high attrition, develop a resource plan that identifies how many people a department can profitably afford. Then adjust the workforce to the right number and improve the processes so that the workforce can do it well. Retain the people most effective at studying and improving their own work and that of the departments they manage because you will need these skills. The contrary more often happens, with downsizing organizations disproportionately retaining people who are least effective at capitalizing on the opportunities for eliminating waste in their work because their work appears less accessible to improvement efforts.


Time Finder…

In one of our recent posts, we discussed the importance of “finding time” for CI, as many organizations report the fact that they often face challenges in this area.

Based on data from the Productivity Institute, the five most common barriers to good time management (and to productivity!) are:


  1. Other people

  2. Weather

  3. Poor Attitude

  4. Personal Fatigue

  5. Unproductive Habits

Additional data indicates that time management is, in fact, a relative exercise, as different people and organizations have different strengths and are challenged by different things. So, this leads us to the most important question, where are people actually losing time and productivity?

And where are they actually spending their time?

As a first step, you might consider a work study  and if you need help, you might find our “
Time Finder” kit a great place to start! However you opt to approach the matter, the best first step is always to establish a base line, and then work on improving the “right” thing.

Beyond Engagement…

As noted in several earlier posts, studies have consistently found a high positive correlation between employee engagement and financial performance. But correlation is not necessarily causation. And while employee engagement is a necessary ingredient for high performance, like flour to a cake, it is not enough.

An engaged workforce can easily perform at or near average year after year. To raise an organization to high performance, something beyond engagement is required. As any baker knows, the dough won’t rise until you add the yeast.

Here’s a quick list of three additional components that leadership must provide an engaged workforce in order to bring the organization to a new level of performance and competitive excellence:




  1. Create and maintain an ongoing forum

  2. Increase people’s skills and habits

  3. Practice full-circle communication

For added perspective, please read the full article on our web site.

When I Die I Hope it’s at a Meeting: Part 4

Our most recent posts have focused on the fact that Improvement projects can easily be compromised by poorly-run team meetings, which can also contribute to the time management and a score of related challenges.

In addition, we identified four key components to well-run meetings: design, planning, process and follow-through. Today’s post will focus on the fourth component, “follow-through.”

Here are three simple ideas for effective follow-through that will improve the effectiveness of any business meeting assuming, of course, that the meeting has been properly designed and planned, and run accordingly!

First, do what you said you would do… this means following-through on any and all tasks that you as the meeting leader agreed to do during the meeting.

Next, maintain a proactive communication style with all meeting participants who are responsible for action items of their own. Doing your part is important, but helping others to feel and be accountable for doing what “they” said they’d do is equally important. And please note, the key word in this paragraph’s opening sentence is “proactive!” An open-door policy is fine, but waiting for others to come looking for help isn’t enough. The most effective meeting leaders take the initiative… they seek out participants a-la Hewlett Packard’s famous MBWA (Management by Walking Around) and check on progress, achievement or problems, and then take action.

Third, use appropriate information gathered or learned while proactively following-through as agenda items for the next meeting. This helps to develop consistency and sends a strong implied message to the group that action items are important!

When I Die I Hope it’s at a Meeting: Part 3

Our most recent posts have focused on the fact that Improvement projects can easily be compromised by poorly-run team meetings, which can also contribute to the time management and a score of related challenges. 

In addition, we identified four key components to well-run meetings: design, planning, process and follow-through. Today’s post will focus on the third component, process.

Here are five key best practices that will improve the effectiveness of any business meeting  assuming, of course, that the meeting has been properly designed and planned!


  1. Start and end on time  even if everyone hasn’t arrived. If we wait, they’ll very likely arrive late the next time too…

  2. Begin with two key statements:


    • Statement of purpose (what we hope to accomplish and, possibly, why)

    • Statement of decorum (roles, how questions will be handled, cell phone policy, etc) 

  3. Stick to the agenda, and make use of a “parking lot” for any off-agenda or non-group-level items that might come up

  4. Involve and engage participants


    • Use a strategic mix of open-ended (to involve participants) and closed-ended (to limit participation) questions to manage communication

    • Listen

    • React accordingly

  5. Reserve time to de-brief the meeting, even if it means not covering the entire agenda.


    • Identify specific next steps and assign responsibilities

    • Identify “did wells” and “do betters” with respect to the process itself

    • Confirm next steps and, as we’ll discuss next time, follow-through!

When I Die I Hope It’s at a Meeting – Part 2!

In our last post we discussed the fact that Improvement projects can easily be compromised by poorly-run team meetings, which can also contribute to the time management and a score of related challenges. We also identified four key components to well-run meetings: design, planning, process and follow-through.

While the elements of “planning” are straightforward (meetings only work well if someone plans them well; we must recognize that meetings are not solutions, but rather vehicles to arrive at solutions), many people are not as familiar with the components of “designing” a meeting. Here’s a list of considerations that fall into the design category:


  • Identify purpose  clear reasons that answer the questions, “Should we meet?”

  • Identify specific goals  S.M.A.R.T. goals that are aligned with purpose

  • Participant selection  only people integral to goal achievement should be invited; also, the relative impact on each participant’s workload and situation should be considered

  • Logistics  how will the schedule and location impact the attendees’ work? Should we meet in a “live” setting or might a conference call or webinar be a better choice? How does this choice align with participant selection?

Next we’ll review a few best practices associated with process. In the meantime, we look forward to your thoughts!

When I Die I Hope it’s at a Meeting!

Possibly this “tongue-in-cheek” quote is a familiar one? It’s derivation is unknown, but it’s meaning is clear  business or team meetings can be unpleasant, unproductive and, in some cases, unnecessary!

According to a study by the Wharton Center for Applied Research and a subsequent article in the Wall Street Journal, the average CEO spends seventeen hours per week in meetings, and senior executives spend an average of twenty-three hours per week in meetings; middle managers average eleven hours per week… but, according to participants, only 56% of these meetings are productive! And in 25% of these cases, participants claimed an email or memo could have accomplished as much if not more.

Improvement projects can easily be compromised by poorly-run team meetings, which can also contribute to the time management challenges noted in our previous post. From a research perspective, the best meetings are those that are well planned and in which participants are held accountable for their participation and behavior. 

The four fundamentals of running effective business / improvement team meetings are:


  • Design
  • Planning
  • Consistent Process
  • Follow-through
We’ll examine these four fundamentals over the next few posts. In the meantime, how does your organization manage meetings? How do you measure their effectiveness?

Time for Improvement

Today’s business climate is frequently described as challenging, and certainly many are tasked with trying to “do more with less” thanks to a trend of downsizing, an overall reluctance to hire and a declining availability of resources. 

Given these circumstances, a fair number tell us that it is increasingly difficult to find or make time for improvement. Staff members have little capacity for going above-and-beyond when they’re struggling to simply get the job done! As the tongue-in-cheeck saying goes, “We don’t have time for another time-saving initiative!”

Yet many also agree that eliminating waste and finding better ways to get the job done might well be the best of all available solutions!

Is your organization able to allocate time, people and resources to Continuous Improvement?

If so, how have you been able to engage the workforce to prioritize and participate?

10 Key Improvement Opportunities

In our March 14th post, we discussed the topic of Imagineering — how your business would look if everything were right. When people consider this concept in detail, some major areas of waste (or opportunities for improvement) are bound to surface.

For example, you might ask your group what problems and challenges are delaying the organization from achieving the vision and mission… or what strategic challenges does the organization face? What changes to the business are necessary to ward off strategic threats and capture strategic opportunities? How do these translate into specific problems to solve?

As you consider the improvement possibilities and areas of waste you have identified so far, you might also ask which ones further your most important objectives?

Here’s a “Top 10 List” of key places to look for improvement opportunities from Bill Conway’s  book Winning the War on Waste (Pages 73-74):

  1. Identify reasons for back orders and begin to eliminate them
  2. Reduce average wait times at check out counters, on telephones, for response to customer inquiries, in waiting rooms, for specific equipment
  3. Reduce make-ready time for a critical process
  4. Reduce invoice pricing errors
  5. Reduce time between shipment and invoicing
  6. Reduce time between customer payment and application of cash
  7. Identify reasons for late delivery and begin to eliminate them
  8. Reduce volume of hazardous waste
  9. Reduce time for sales people spent on travel, meetings, reports and increase number of sales calls made per day
  10. Reduce the amount of time spent in meetings and increase the value

Might you have a few items to add to this list?

 

A Measure of Workforce Engagement?

engagement4In an earlier post, the question of how an organization might go about measuring employee engagement was posed. We’ve asked a number of different managers and business leaders about this and, consistent with the data shared in that post, most acknowledge that they have no formal process for moving toward a culture of employee engagement or of measuring the degree to which their workforce is engaged.

More recently, a client shared a few benchmarks they have been using to measure employee engagement over a six month period, which include:

  1. Absenteeism: they’ve documented a decline which they believe indicates an increase in overall employee engagement
  2. Teamwork: mid-level managers have consistently observed an increase in the number of instances in which people have proactively offered to help others in different departments in times of peak demand or crises; they believe this is due to a series of training sessions on teamwork and a trend toward better morale
  3. Volunteering:  a documented increase in the number of people participating in improvement initiatives, optional events or personal development opportunities that were made available to staff members during off-hours; a similar increase in employee survey participation was documented a well; surprisingly, the survey results were not significantly more positive when compared to past data

Has your organization used similar measures? Might you have additional ideas for measuring workforce engagement?

Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement