Tag Archives: continuous improvement

Learn From the Work

Deming Cycle
The Deming Cycle

In an earlier post we pointed-out that the most important knowledge of all is knowledge of our own work and value stream — we must know it in detail.

Bill Conway often said, “All of the waste comes from the work…what we work on and how we do that work. To improve it, we need to get closer to the work.”

This means we must know how long it takes, where it piles up, and how well it is synchronized with the needs of the customers.

A simple but proven way to learn more about the work is a Waste Walk or by “going to gemba.”

As you may know, “Genba,” which has been popularized as “Gemba,” is a Japanese word meaning “the real place.” The word is widely used in Japan, where detectives frequently refer to a crime scene as genba, and Japanese TV reporters often refer to themselves as reporting from genba/gemba. In the business realm, gemba refers to the place where work is done and value created; in manufacturing the gemba is typically the factory floor, but looking further afield it can be any location — a construction site, administrative office, or sales bullpen — where the actual work is being done.

When it comes to Continuous Improvement (CI), problems are most visible in these areas, and the best improvement ideas will come from going to gemba. There is no substitute for ‘going to the work’ and there are things that can only be learned by going there and watching the work with a purpose. Thus a gemba walk, or Waste Walk, is an activity that takes management and other stakeholders to the front lines to look for waste and opportunities for improvement; to observe the work where the work is being done, and to identify what goes wrong or could go wrong, how often it does or could go wrong, and the associated consequences. It fits nicely into the “Deming Cycle” shown above, as it is a method of “checking” our work.

The Waste Walk is designed to help everyone understand the value stream and its problems; it is not to review results and make superficial comments. Gathering input from the people closest to the work is an important element of making improvements as well. After all, they are the ones that know the most about the work!

Unfortunately, and as noted in the above-referenced past post, in most organizations there is a knowledge barrier that holds the waste in place: the people who know the work best are seldom in a position to know the big picture so when they see waste, they often assume there must be a reason for it. And if they know of better ways of doing something, they often lack the influence to make any significant changes. Including their input in a waste walk can help remedy this problem.

Our next post will focus on best practices for executing an effective waste walk.

Change: the Way Things Could or Should Be?

We all know the pace of change has significantly accelerated over the past ten years and is continuing to do so. This faster pace is often referenced as being exponential!

People most often agree that change is an important and necessary element of success but, truth be told, we don’t really like it. It is far more common to feel that “change is good and I think YOU should.”

Yet the value of change is clear. Consider that 100 years ago the average life expectancy in the United States was 53.1 compared to 78.8 today. Only 35% of households had electricity in 1920, and only 1% had both electricity and running water.

Business examples of what happens without change include Converse in sneakers, Kodak in photography, and Blockbuster in video. Each of these established and successful entities experienced significant declines in market share (or worse!) and profits as competitors introduced new and improved, lower-cost alternatives.

What Could or Should Be?
We have defined “waste” as the difference between the way things are now and the way they could or should be if everything were right. While this definition still rings oh-so-true today, what has changed is the expectations many have of what could or should be.

Who, ten years ago, would have thought there could be self-driving cars? Who would have envisioned a supermarket without checkout stations? Who could have imagined a printer that could generate 3-D objects? Yet all of these things, and many others of similar proportion, have suddenly become real.

Considering the exponential pace of change and the enhanced expectations of what could or should be, business leaders will need to find more innovative and timely ways to promote and bring about change and improvements to eliminate waste in all work processes if they are to maintain their competitive positions. Their customers will, one way or the other, demand this way of managing a business. Or as we’ve always called it, “The Right Way To Manage©.”

Our next post will focus on specific steps for successfully driving organizational and cultural change.

Reducing the Cost of Disengaged Workers

Our previous post focused on the cost associated with disengaged workers and the often-unrecognized lost opportunities associated with turnover.

Fortunately, there are proactive steps that can be taken to avoid these costs and the collateral damage to team morale and brand that is a regular side-effect.

Based on research and data shared by the Enterprise Engagement Alliance (EEA) and The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the following five steps can drive employee engagement, and reduce the number of disengaged workers and the associated costs:

  1. Enhanced recruiting and on-boarding — At a recent Engagement World Conference leaders from several organizations explained how they had increased employee engagement and retention beginning at the recruiting stage. The first steps involved the inclusion of the organization’s mission and vision into interviewing conversations, and a more conscious effort to identify and hire people with aligned goals. Adding a mentor program to the on-boarding process helped new hires assimilate faster so they became more productive in less time. Enabling people to achieve higher levels of productivity and success early-on promotes greater engagement levels, and reduces first-year attrition rates. Early churn tends to demoralize everyone, so in addition to reducing re-hiring and re-training costs, the costs associated with negativity within the existing workforce are also reduced.
  2. Consistent performance management and communication — People need to have meaning in their work, and understand how their work aligns with organizational objectives. This point was well made by several speakers in an episode of TED Radio Hour, called The Meaning of Work. If managers communicate a shared purpose or sense of direction, and encourage employees to openly share their perspectives and input, then they can increase employee engagement.
  3. Learning and development — a past post shared the fact that, for the first time in two decades, the percentage of engaged workers in the US rose in 2019. The increase was due to positive changes in how organizations were developing people. In addition, a recent article in Human Resource Executive magazine identified “continuous learning opportunities and personal development” as being two of the four key criteria (scheduling flexibility and social responsibility being the other two) recent graduates value most as they evaluate career options.
  4. Recognition and rewards — Recognizing and rewarding employees is not a new concept, but if the goal is to engage people rather than simply acknowledge milestones (such as length of service), then the approach must be aligned with what is meaningful to each recipient. An EEA article outlines an effective approach, which begins by stepping-back from the traditional monetary rewards.

    “To receive a deeper level of benefit that can come from sincere recognition, look beyond monetary rewards and get to the human connection – reward employees in ways that connect with them
    emotionally and psychologically,” the article suggests.
  5. Flexibility and work/life balance — Employer/employee relationships, expectations, and engagement criteria have evolved significantly over the past decade. In the Human Resource Executive article referenced above, data from a PwC survey of 44,000 workers who had become less-engaged indicated that “71% said their jobs interfered with their personal lives, and 70% said they wanted to be able to work from home.” The current pandemic, which has necessitated higher-levels of working from home, will no doubt add to the number of people wishing to do so more often.

Continuous Improvement Impediments

People most often agree that the “hard” part of Continuous Improvement (CI) isn’t making improvements, but rather making it “continuous!”

In a past newsletter we entitled this reality as “Discontinuous Improvement,” noting that two things common to a high percentage of CI efforts are:

  1. They 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 and not just a one-time program, we need to pay close attention to the softer 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, which hopefully your organization can avoid:

  • Neglecting aligning individual or team goals with those of the organization
  • Insufficient communication between management, the workforce, project teams and CI leaders
  • Delegating leadership, which is a responsibility that should stay with senior management
  • Manager’s or Sponsor’s failure to remove obstacles
  • Lack of quick success
  • Letting-up on the “gas” when initial results are made

Amnesty: A Foundation Block for Better Project Meetings & Improvement

We have often referenced the importance of “amnesty” in the realm of Continuous Improvement. If people are not comfortable talking about problems and process complexities, either out of fear of retribution or criticism, then it will be impossible to achieve a high performing culture of improvement.

One place where the freedom to share opinions, observations or ideas is critically important is in project team meetings. In support of the above-stated position regarding amnesty, a recent Harvard Business Review article shares some excellent perspective on “making your meetings safe.”

In the piece, author Paul Axtell shares an excellent example based on input from a young engineer and his supervisor Josh. This engineer worked on several project teams within a manufacturing facility. His story is as follows:

“Josh, my manager, would take everyone out for pizza when he came to the factory, and we’d have a ‘no secrets’ meeting. Josh asked us about whatever he wanted to know and we did the same in return. It was a meeting where everyone had permission to say or ask anything. It was amazing.”

The article goes on to explain how the manager, Josh, used these meetings to discover how his team was doing, how their projects were progressing, and what they needed in terms of support and resources. He asked broad questions to initiate open conversation, such as:

  • What do you think I need to know?
  • Where are you struggling?
  • What are you proud of?

This approach is well-aligned with ours. When the people closest to the work are confident that their ideas or suggestions for improvements will be honestly considered without recourse they are ideally suited for engaging in true Continuous Improvement. But without the “amnesty” to speak their mind or share their observations, the organization is doomed to live in the “status-quo.”

As Axtell put it, “The quest for better meetings ultimately lies in leading with mutual respectful, inclusivity, and establishing a space that is safe enough for people to speak their minds.”

Ready for a Change?

Is the team ready?

As noted in previous posts, the start of a new year is often a time for making resolutions or strategic improvement plans, which is another way of saying “a time for change.”

As we all know, change is a critical component of growth and ongoing success; and, to be effective, change initiatives must involve not only a change in attitude, but also behavioral change.

But, as we also know, change is not always perceived as being good. In organizations of all types, people tend to look with skepticism at innovations and new methods, processes, policies and procedures; and people at all levels sometimes cringe at the suggestion that there might be a different or better way to do their jobs!

Yet without change comes stagnation and potential loss. Examples include: Converse in sneakers or Kodak in photography, each experiencing significant declines in market share and profits as competitors introduced new and improved, lower-cost alternatives.

Readiness… the Right Attitude
The first step in any change effort is to help people develop the right mental attitude and understand that change is a constant part of long-term success. We have found that this “readiness for change” is best brought about through assessment, communication, education, empowerment, measurement, and recognition.

Components of helping people prepare for and embrace change include:

  • Making continuous improvement a permanent part of your corporate culture so that people at all levels change the way they think, talk, work, and act
  • Establishing new perspectives on work, work processes and value-added work
  • Clearly identifying the necessary or desired changes to actions and behaviors
  • Effectively using statistical tools to identify, analyze, understand and communicate variation and to measure improvement
  • Enlisting the help of people operating the work processes
  • Quantifying how continuous improvement benefits all stakeholders
  • Improving leadership and coaching skills that lead to increased employee engagement

Quantifying Waste

Why & How

Bill Conway always said that at least 50% of improvement is working on the right things. Organizations that are able to engage people in making good, fact-based decisions about what to work on and then execute with laser focus reap huge gains. An opportunity search is key.

That means that we must identify and act upon the opportunities for improvement that will potentially yield the greatest results. In other words, we must identify and quantify waste.

Quantifying the waste helps in three significant ways. First, it helps distinguish between the big‐hitters and the nice‐to‐have improvements so you focus on the most important opportunities first.

Second, it makes the organization aware of the cost of a delay in tackling a ‘big‐hitter’. If a problem is wasting $5 million a year, every week of delay is wasting nearly $100,000, so the organization wants to make sure nothing slows this improvement effort.

And third, quantifying the waste enables you to have more meaningful discussions with other parts of the organization whose support you need to change the processes that cause the waste.

Here are a few guidelines for “how” you might go about the quantification step:

  1. Identify if and how the problem affects the four forms of waste: lost sales, material costs, time, and capital costs. 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? Many problems will affect more than one of the four forms — lost sales, material, time, and/or capital. 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 it. All these factors can be reasonably estimated with some historical data and getting close enough to the work.
  2. Quantify the impact, recognizing that assumptions and estimates will probably have to be made. If you have or can gather data, use the data and document where you got it. If you must use assumptions or estimates, document how you came up with that — who did you talk to? Perhaps document a range that you are pretty confident about. The Conway Waste Calculator can help with the documentation.
  3. Do the math to roll it up into annual dollars.

Creative Problem Solving With “TRIZ”

How to Apply Creativity to CI

Our previous post focused on the value of creative thinking in Continuous Improvement. One interesting example of how we might apply creativity when solving problem is called the Theory of Inventive Problem-Solving (TRIZ).

The concept dates back to the 1950’s and Russian innovator G.S. Altshuller’s belief that innovation processes could be improved by studying patterns in
problems and solutions. Altlshuller and his team analyzed millions of patents to identify patterns, and they deduced from this data a small number of principles that can be applied to make the creative process more predictably effective. The result, TRIZ, is an acronym for Russian words that translate as “the theory of inventive problem solving.”

The fundamental premise is that there is nothing new so, whatever your challenge, if you understand it both in its specific and general form and you do the research, you will find that someone somewhere has already solved it. Then if you focus your creativity on adapting the general solution to your particular challenge, you will achieve your breakthrough faster and more predictably.

TRIZ accelerates breakthroughs by guiding the human intellect along paths most likely to be fruitful. And speed of innovation is essential because most people and groups abandon a “stretch” goal fairly quickly and settle for a compromise; and “slow innovation = no innovation.”

The developers and practitioners of TRIZ observe that problems often emerge from contradictions, and that most solutions aim at compromising with the contradictions instead of overcoming them. Here are some of the
contradictions that may appear in the workplace:

  • It takes time to do something the right way, but the thing must be done quickly
  • A task requires precision, but it must be done without precise tools
  • A product must have dozens of features, but it must be simple to use.

Each problem is a specific example of a general contradiction. TRIZ research has paired every general contradiction with a small number of general solutions. So a practitioner of TRIZ can focus their effort and intellect on translating the specific problem into one of several dozen general problems. The next step is to look up in the TRIZ resources the general solutions that have been applied to that general problem in the past. Then one focuses one’s creativity on identifying and testing specific solutions that could apply the general solution to the problem at hand.

TRIZ research and practice has been expanded into a rich tool kit for
innovation, but probably the simplest approach is to use the ‘40 Principles.’ A list of these can be found at triz-journal.com/40-inventive-principles-examples.

Can You Become Creative? And Why Should You Try?

Creativity & CI

Over the years we have recognized that creativity can be a desirable trait for a good Continuous Improvement (CI) Leader as well as for project team members.

Consider that a creative mind can be a great asset when trying to identify the difference between the status-quo and the way “things could or should be if everything were right,” which is a clear definition of waste.

Although not often associated with leadership, establishing a creative culture of continuous improvement can help managers in their efforts to achieve higher levels of team performance. Specific steps for doing so include encouraging new ideas, orchestrating “no bad ideas” brainstorming sessions, tolerating failure and using it as a learning experience, and recognizing the achievement of those involved in applying creativity to improvement initiatives.

In addition, creative thinking can be a tool for helping people accept and adapt to change.

But it is important to realize that many people fear that they are not creative or believe that they lack the ability to think in a creative fashion, which tends to prevent them from putting forth an earnest effort.

Can You Become Creative?
Fortunately, according to data shared by Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, and others indicates that only “10% of creativity is genetic,” and that there are a range of activities that can help people develop a creative way of thinking. These include:

  • Consume content that’s outside your comfort zone
  • Maintain a positive outlook (often “fuels” creativity)
  • Participate in brainstorming activities
  • Test new ideas
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Recognize that very little in this world is original, and that creative solutions more often come from improving what’s current
  • Apply strategic constraints to your ideas– this is a component of “Imagineering,” which involves first setting the “sky as the limit” when we imagine what “could or should be if everything were right,” and then engineer it back to earth for practical application

Manage the “Whirlwind” with Accountability

The Key to Execution

In past posts we’ve noted that many organizations develop improvement strategies but fail to execute and sustain those strategies. While there can be a number of reasons for this, the most common is that the “whirlwind of running day-to-day business” takes over… in other words, we ignore what might be “important” at the expense of what’s “urgent.”

In order to achieve maximum results from improvement efforts, people must implement and sustain a plan. 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 are outstanding at execution.

In several past posts we have referenced the 4 Disciplines of Execution, a book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling, as an effective guide to execution.

The disciplines, as defined by the authors, are:

  1. Identify and focus on a Wildly Important Goal (a WIG)
  2. Monitor and act on LEAD measures
  3. Keep a compelling SCOREBOARD updated by the people doing the work
  4. Develop a rhythm of ACCOUNTABILITY

While each of the ‘disciplines’ is obviously important, we have found that it’s the fourth one ― accountability ― that ultimately enables success. Without a cadence of accountability, the team will have a much more difficult time. By ‘cadence’ the authors mean an inviolable regular schedule, commitments, and expectations. The commitments can be modest, such as ‘what is the one thing I can do by next week to move forward,’ but they must be met. The threat, of course, is the whirlwind of running the day-to-day business that will consume all the available time.

If you’d like to improve your organization’s ability to hold all stakeholders accountable for implementing strategic plans, here are five key areas of focus that can help:

  • Get senior leaders to become actively involved
  • Identify clear project plans for delivering results, including measures and milestones
  • Engage team members and stakeholders
  • Set expectations and consequences — both positive and negative
  • Develop an organized structure and activity / accomplishment reporting / recognition plans – communication matters!