Tag Archives: challenges to continuous improvement

New Year’s & CI Resolutions?

People often make “New Year’s resolutions” with good intentions, but then fail to follow-through.

Similarly, and as we’ve discussed in previous posts, many well-intentioned organizations find it difficult to execute and sustain their Continuous Improvement or strategic plans… these challenges have been highlighted in many publications, ranging from the well-regarded book “Four Disciplines of Execution” by Chris McChesney, Jim Huling, and Sean Covey, to our “Discontinuous Improvement” newsletter.

To achieve and sustain a culture of Continuous Improvement, execution is the key. Even when people excel at identifying major opportunities for improvement, if they don’t execute, they don’t make gains. In our work with hundreds of organizations, we have observed that the most successful organizations are outstanding at execution. Here are a few of the common threads among those organizations:

  • Senior leaders become actively involved
  • They make prudent use of prioritization tools
  • Consistent structure and reporting
  • Engaged workforce
  • They set expectations and consequences — both positive and negative
  • They identify clear project plans for delivering results, including measures and milestones
  • Consistent and timely monitoring of progress
  • Recognition of team members’ accomplishment
  • Corrective action models (not punitive) when results are sub-par
  • Strategic actions to lock in the gains

As we’ve often observed, the hard part of Continuous Improvement isn’t making improvements, but rather it’s making the effort continuous.

A Big Challenge to Improvement: Lack of Buy-in X 2

Not long ago our Partners In Improvement forum met to discuss the common causes of failure in Continuous Improvement efforts .

It was noted that when organizations embark on a path of Continuous Improvement, the effort is abandoned within a year or two in a high-percentage of cases.

The reason? No results…

The Partners discussed what can cause improvement projects to fail to achieve their potential. While several challenges were identified, lack of buy-in from both managers and participants was identified as one of the most common reasons improvement efforts get derailed.

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 that new opportunities or problems will arise, thus decreasing available resources further.

When projects fail to produce good results, buy-in can deteriorate rapidly at all levels within an organization as well. As people’s interest and confidence levels wane, projects can become “unpopular” or worse, and subsequent efforts become less and less likely to succeed.

In our next post we will share some of remedies our Partners identified for maintaining higher-levels of buy-in for Continuous Improvement throughout an organization.

Challenging Assumptions?

To achieve a significant breakthrough through a significant process innovation and improvement, we must challenge and overcome assumptions.

This type of process innovation is one that significantly changes the speed, the cost, and/or an aspect of the quality of a process or service, and has the potential to change the competitive landscape.

A few examples:

  • An insurance company overwhelmed the competition by shortening the time between claim filing and payment from weeks to hours.
  • A small bank picked up market share through a process innovation reducing the number of days to approval by 80%.
  • Dell Computer went from upstart to market leader with a process innovation that dramatically shortened the time from start-of-build to ready-to-ship — enabling them to build-to-order and dramatically reduce manufacturing costs.

But every business operates under the constraints of operating assumptions, many of which are not recognized as such because they are considered simple  facts-of-life; because they are so ingrained in an organization’s paradigm that we assume they are irrefutable facts.

To challenge these “facts” is, of course, easier said than done.  We all want to achieve a process innovation that will remake the competitive landscape in our favor, and we all want to make improvements that will enhance our competitive position in the marketplace. But it is hard to accomplish these types of continuous improvements when people are running hard just keeping up with the day-to-day workload, and when some of the barriers to attempting significant changes appear to be irrefutable facts-of-life.

Consequently, game changing innovations are rare.

If your organization is going to identify and execute process innovation, you have to have created both the right human conditions and the best methods to successfully identify, challenge, and reverse the constraining assumptions that are keeping you and your competition trapped in the status quo.

Challenge to CI: Focus on Improvement vs. Waste

When initially beginning to practice Continuous Improvement (CI), people are typically flooded with ideas and opportunities to improve.  Training in CI helps some team members to see opportunities they hadn’t noticed before, and others bring forth ideas that had occurred to them over time and that they had been keeping “on the shelf.”

But eventually, even the most richly-laden shelves will go bare
and all the “low-hanging fruit” will be harvested.

This scenario, which is a big challenge to Continuous Improvement, plays out when people embark on a search for solutions or ideas for improvement rather than a search for WASTE. To sustain an improvement effort, and to make the most significant gains, it is critically-important to focus on the waste, as opposed to simply on ideas for ‘improvement’.

What’s the difference?

Most of the big waste is hidden in plain sight — long-standing business practices that compensate for a problem that has
not yet been solved. The root causes of the problem have not been addressed, and compensating steps have been built in to avoid bad outcomes such as poor quality or lost productivity.

For example, a financial services company sends every transaction to “QC” for inspection and corrections; inventories are built-up just in case, and long production runs are scheduled to avoid long set-up times. Each of these is compensating for and masking an underlying problem that has not been addressed.

In fact, whenever we find ourselves trying to find the best
trade-off between two evils, we are most-likely masking
underlying root causes which, if addressed, would lead to
breakthrough business improvements. Nearly all the breakthroughs
of the past forty years have been the result of seeing waste and addressing the underlying causes where the competitors simply saw standard operating procedures.

Continuous Improvement & Snow Cones?

In an earlier post, we shared six common reasons why so many continuous improvement efforts fail to be continuous.

This discontinuous improvement concept was nicely described in a recent LinkedIn post by KaiNexus, an improvement software company based in Texas, in which they compare an organization’s improvement effort to a snow cone… if you neglect it, it will melt!

People at all levels are likely to agree that continuous improvement is a good thing —“Always getting better is overrated, said nobody, ever,” the post jokes.

But no matter what you call it or which specific method predominates (i.e., Lean, Six Sigma, CPI, TQM, etc.), a high percentage of initiatives aimed at gaining greater efficiency, quality, speed, and/or customer delight have two important things in common:

  • They generally produce some improvements
  • Then they peter out

The key to solving this problem is effective leadership. Simply stated, while a culture of continuous improvement must involve people at all levels, it must also start at the top.

If leadership maintains a constant vigilance over alignment, an early pursuit of quick wins, a determination to identify and remove obstacles, and consistent, effective communication of the vision, strategy, successes, and next opportunities, then improvements can continue forever.

See related article… 

Steps for Quantifying Waste

Noting that at least 50% of improvement is working on the right things, our previous post shared insights on “why” identifying and quantifying waste within our organizations is so important.

Now, the question is “how” to do it…

The first step is to identify areas of waste, many of which may have previously gone unnoticed. This step often requires the use of historical financial and operational data, and also that we think “outside of the box” when examining our work processes. Involving people at all levels, and people from cross-functional areas, can help the team look at each problem or bottleneck without bias.

Once problems are uncovered, review how each affects the four forms of waste:

  • Lost sales or opportunities (typically the largest waste)
  • Material costs
  • Capital costs
  • Lost time

If the problem causes delays, think through and estimate the form of waste that the delay results in.   Does it increase capital such as inventory or receivables?  Does it delay sales and revenue?  Does it cost you customers and future business? Does it require additional people time?

Keep in mind that many problems will affect more than one of the four forms of waste.

For example, excess inventory not only ties up capital, but may increase the number of people who need to manage it, the warehouse costs to store it, and the probability of scrapping All these factors can be reasonably estimated with some historical data and getting close enough to the work.

Next we must quantify the impact of each problem, recognizing that some assumptions and estimates will probably have to be made.  Try to document a range that you are pretty confident about.

Finally we can “do the math” to prioritize the improvement projects we’ll undertake first. Key criteria will be the overall potential savings (i.e., the problems creating the most waste), and the estimated time-frame for implementation.

These two determining factors are important, and sometimes it is better to opt for a smaller “return” if the project will involve fewer complexities and a significantly shorter time-frame. We’ll take a closer look at this perspective in our next post.

6 Reasons Why Improvement Efforts Fail to be Continuous

As noted in our previous post, the biggest challenge to continuous improvement is not making the improvements, but rather making the effort continuous.

For an organization to go through a cultural change so that continuous improvement becomes the new way of working (not “just a 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, 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

Read the full article…

Are Your Employees Able to Speak-up?

Are all your employees motivated and able to speak up about their everyday business problems?

This simple question was the focus of a recent discussion among CI leaders, which brought forth a number of enthusiastic comments. Here are a few of the most common perspectives:

  • Respect is the basic rule. A good leader should be able to create a platform that allow employees involved in decision making for problems solving. Involvement and achievement can raise the moral of the work force.
  • It often boils down to the person who you are reporting to. Many years ago I was advised “When a problem is discovered, the only person you don’t want to be is that one that reports it.” I have found this to be true in many cases — especially where the issue has existed for a while.
  • This is one of the major failure mechanisms that destroys the implementation of successful improvement and transformation. It is not that CI fails; it is the current thinking of the leadership that kills it.
  • The solution is to treat all the problems as opportunities to improve, and to reward people when they raise their hand instead of ridiculing or punishing them.
  • It is not enough that the employees speak-up about the problems. Some action needs to happen afterwards as well. Otherwise the employees will give up after some time.
  • Employees that are engaged will speak up, as their goal is to improve the organization; those who are disengaged will not. If leaders promote a culture of engagement, they can enjoy the benefits of continuous improvement.

5 Creativity Boosters for CI Leaders

boxIn a recent post we shared perspective on “creativity” being among the traits of a good CI Leader, and how creativity is often the driving force behind innovation and change.

In that post we also shared five “creativity killers,” which CI leaders should avoid.

In contrast, a recent article posted on Inc.com focused on ways to enhance our creativity. “Often ten minutes is all you need to kick start your brain and wildly increase the likelihood of a breakthrough,” states author Jessica Stillman, a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work.

Stillman also shared the following list of creativity boosters:

  1. Doodle
  2. Pause & Move
  3. Channel your inner kid
  4. The 30 Circles Test
  5. Write Some Flash Fiction

Read the full article…

Building a High-Performance Culture of Continuous Improvement

culture3Numerous past posts have focused on the importance of an organization’s “culture” as a driver of continuous improvement and high-performance.

Critical to success in building this type of culture are the concepts of trust, amnesty, open communication, and engagement. In addition, we’ve found that the highest achieving organizations are those that have successfully planned and developed high performance cultures.

When helping clients build such cultures, our approach begins by identifying the underlying assumptions, beliefs and values that cause people to behave the way they do (the practices).

Key steps in helping clients develop a high performing/high achieving culture include:

  • Identifying a clear link between individual/team/department performance and organizational goals.
  • Helping people develop a clear sense of purpose.
  • Helping management devote the necessary time and attention to the performance management culture.
  • Creating a work environment that supports high quality and productivity.
  • Helping people at all levels understand the core values and beliefs which drive behavior.
  • Promoting practices that are in sync with organizational values and beliefs.
  • Clearly defining roles and responsibilities, performance gaps and accountabilities.
  • Help managers develop and refine their skills and ability to coach for improved performance.

While these steps might appear simple, they are not easy to implement; and nearly impossible to achieve without significant contributions of time and energy from senior leaders. These “contributions” must extend well beyond simply setting a strategy… leaders must also exemplify desired behaviors and consciously work at building and driving a high-performance culture if it is to be sustainable.

As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!”