Tag Archives: challenges to continuous improvement

Barriers to Innovation

Our previous post identified the “innovation dilemma” faced by many organizations. Continuing on that theme, our experience and research into barriers to innovation surfaced three paradoxical observations:

Lack of Time or Too Much Time?
Many organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier. People are too busy to think about innovation. “If my boss’s boss is too busy to think about new and better ways of doing something, I
better be too.”

This is a good recipe for keeping things exactly the way they are while the world passes by.

But dedicating resources to innovation does not seem to work that well, either. It may foster a creative environment, but this does not necessarily translate into more workable innovations. One organization created an innovative think tank with 12-14 people led by a senior executive. After two years they were disbanded because while they came up with some innovative ideas, none of them were financially viable.

Similarly, Xerox created an inventor’s paradise, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), assembled incredible talent, big budgets, and freedom from oversight by senior management back East. They envisioned a great number of wonderful things, but that did not enable them to bring these visions or prototypes to market. Many of their greatest ideas were brought to fruition by other companies.

Too Much at Stake
Innovation requires risk taking, and large, well-established organizations simply have a lot on the plate to risk.

When the large financial information firm, Bloomberg, was a small start-up with a few big ideas, the founders carried their prototype via taxi over to Merrill Lynch, their first customer. The computer had only partial functionality and nowhere near the required reliability — yet. But the risks of not bringing it out, of waiting until everything was in order, exceeded the risks of showing the product, even with some flaws remaining and some features not quite built. The meeting went very well, and the rest is history.

But when a well established company with a broad customer base introduces a new product, expectations are quite high and risks must be carefully weighed. Each potential innovation must be considered and evaluated in light of the existing portfolio of products and commitments. Innovation becomes much more complicated and difficult.\

Similarly, managers at middle or high levels in an organization often have completely different risk profiles than they had in their twenties when they were just trying to make a name for themselves. For middle management, the costs of introducing a bad idea can far outweigh the costs of not introducing a good idea, and they become risk-averse.

Consider the impact of risk-aversion when the number of great ideas is a function of the total number of ideas. When it comes to innovation, the win/loss ratio is meaningless. All that matters is how many wins you have. And the number of wins varies with the number of tries. As Thomas Edison once said about his long journey toward a working light bulb, “I have not failed; I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

How many incomplete or unworkable ideas must one consider to find a real winner? Quite a few. Yet at what ratio of rejected ideas to accepted ones do people decide to keep their heads down and continue doing things the way they have always been done? Little wonder innovation is so hard to come by.

“Too Much of a Good Thing”
We cannot innovate with too few ideas, but can’t get anywhere with too many. Innovation requires a well disciplined process as well as a fast flowing stream of ideas. An organization needs to have an effective way to
pivot from idea creation to sifting, sorting, choosing, and doing. Ideas can get in the way of deeds, and effective innovation requires both.

In our next post we will share some ideas for overcoming these and other barriers to innovation.

Innovate Much?

Almost everyone we ask says they want to be innovative; and it is a well accepted concept that the best returns come to those who are first to market with a new product, process or solution.

It is a straightforward conclusion that a competitive advantage will be yours if you can provide better quality at lower costs, achieve breakthrough improvements, or if you create a management system or culture that constantly is clicking on all cylinders.

But how often do these things actually happen?

The Innovation Dilemma
Innovation is challenging for all of our organizations: large and small. Each new “frontier” is fraught with peril and risk… with each new idea inspiring both hope and worry. In fact, in our experience and research, we find that there is an “innovation dilemma” that makes innovation truly enigmatic:

  • Large organizations have more wherewithal to invest in systematic innovation, but smaller organizations seem more capable of capitalizing on innovative ideas.
  • Most innovations come not from visionaries at the top but from people closest to the work. Yet paradoxically, strong leadership and vision at the top of the organization are required to create an environment that fosters innovation and risk taking. Without strong leadership, organizations become bureaucratic and risk-averse.
  • Outsiders often have the most innovative ideas, but insiders’ know-how and buy-in are required to get them implemented.

So, with these challenges in mind, our next couple of posts will take a closer look at some of the barriers to innovation as well as ways to overcome them.

Does Your Organization Have a Strategic Internal Communication Plan?

Missing Link in Communication?

In a previous post we identified five ways to enhance the success of Continuous Improvement (CI) within an organization, with “communication” being one of the keys.

Consider that, even if a team applies the CI methodology to great success but no one hears about it, the goal of making CI a cultural way of doing business will not catch on.

However, facilitating consistent and open internal communication is one of the many things in life that might be simple, but not necessarily easy.

For example, Bruce Bolger, Co-Founder of the International Center for Enterprise Engagement, shared an interesting observation recently when he said, “Most organizations put far more effort into communicating with customers than with employees.”

We’ve found Mr. Bolger’s comments to be accurate. In many cases, customer communication is the higher priority, thus making it easy to put internal communications on the back burner. In other instances, the “silo” approach to operations tends to result in haphazard internal communication.

To gain the best results from its CI as well as its Engagement effort, an organization must connect these initiatives, along with internal communications, to a strategic and systematic approach.

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.

3 Key Strategies for Addressing Common CI Challenges

Our previous post referenced meetings of our “Partners in Improvement” groups, during which the Partners identified three common challenges associated with executing New Year CI plans, which were:
1.) Rapid growth and a scarcity of resources.
2.) Inspiring mid-management to embrace change.
3.) Measuring the impact of long-term CI projects.

The Partners also identified three key strategies to address these challenges:

Learn from the outside. One of our Partners explained that his organization was working very hard to expand ability to see
new possibilities by drawing analogies to specific tasks. By drawing analogies between specific work and that work in other industries, he creates the possibility of seeing their work in a new light and learning from others who have tackled the same problems.

He explained, “Amazon ships things all over the world, and we ship equipment all over the world. What can we learn? How can we improve by studying their work?”

Another partner collaborates with a consortium of other diverse companies to share ideas. The consortium includes a number of very different companies in very different industries, all learning from one another. The fact that the “learning relationship” has been formalized via the formation of the consortium has resulted in more consistent participation by all.

Another strategic approach to meeting the challenges ahead is becoming better at measurement. All of our Partners agreed, without a strong system of quantifying the waste and measuring the improvements, a CI initiative can easily drift into unproductive territory. Developing an effective method for, and consensus around, measuring the deep cause & effect improvement initiatives will be an important strategy for the challenges ahead.

To address the challenge of aggressive strategic growth plans with scarce resources, the primary strategy is alignment. Hiring goals and training goals will be aligned to achieve the strategic plans. Personal activities and projects must align to the strategic goals.

But alignment of the goals and objectives is only half of the challenge. Executing to the plans in expedient and focused fashion is perhaps an even bigger challenge. The partners identified key supporting processes to support execution:

  • Communication: One of our partners is working hard to make the goals visible and making clear and widely understood how well the goals are accomplished. Monthly dashboards and monthly newsletters that track and communicate percent complete should help to maximize goal completion and the alignment of individual activities to support those goals.
  • Training: In a time of growth, training becomes ever more critical. One of the partners is marshaling the knowledge of internal subject matter experts and to build both classroom and on-line training. The objective is to make the process as standardized and well-rounded as possible. In one of the partners’ organizations, CI has strong support from the CEO, but less so from middle management and first level supervisors. Training will be key to driving the execution needed to achieve the vision. Several of our partners employ a Learn & Do approach that follows up the training immediately with an improvement project.
  • Retention: Training is also key to another strategic objective: retaining the top talent is essential for several of the partners to address the challenges ahead. The retention goals demand using people wisely, developing their skills and abilities, providing growth paths, and making sure they have the right tools to succeed. Effective training and development will be a fundamental support tool for this initiative.
  • Marketing: One of the partners noted he finds lots of enthusiasm at the worker level, but not a lot of top down support. Constant marketing of the success and focusing the message on how the job is getting bigger and the resources are getting tighter is essential to cultivating the support required for on-going success.
  • Information Technology: Information technology will play an important role in achieving some of the growth goals. Applying the CI principles to the better leverage information technology will help to achieve the world class initiatives. Especially important will be getting the IT people involved up front in improvements – where they can add the most value.
  • Incorporating other areas into the CI effort: Operations has traditionally been the first area of engagement with CI, but opportunities exist throughout an organization. Several of our partners will be working to bring continuous improvement to the finance and admin groups as well.

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

Solutions?
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…