Tag Archives: continuous improvement

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.

All About Run Charts

Run Charts are simple line graphs of data plotted over time. They are used to better-understand the performance of a process, as they help people distinguish between random variation and special causes, or to track information and predict trends or patterns.

A run chart can also reveal whether a process is stable by looking for a consistent central tendency, variation and randomness of pattern.

One of the most common CI tools, a run chart is easy to interpret and does not require tedious calculations or special software to produce.

Sample Run Chart

How to create a run chart:

    1. Identify the question that the run chart will answer and obtain data that will answer the question over a specified period of time. For example, if you were looking at how long it takes to complete a task, you will make note of the time taken (in minutes) to complete it over a specified period of time.
    2. Gather data, generally collect at least 10 data points to detect meaningful patterns.
    3. Create a graph with vertical line (y axis) and a horizontal line (x axis).
    4. On the vertical line (y axis), draw the scale related to the variable you are measuring. In our example, this would include the complete range of observations measuring time-to-completion
    5. On the horizontal line (x axis), draw the time or sequence scale.
    6. Plot the data, calculate the median and include into the graph.
    7. Interpret the chart. Four simple rules can be used to distinguish between random and non-random variations:
      1. Shift – 6 consecutive points above or below the median
      2. Trend – 5+ consecutive points going up or down
      3. Too many/too few runs – too few or too many crossings of the median line
      4. Astronomical data point – a data point that is clearly different from all others (often a judgement call)

All About Flow Charts

Sample Flow Chart

A simple yet extremely useful improvement tool, a flowchart is a type of diagram that represents a workflow or process. As a graphic depiction or visual map, a flowchart can represent a process with greater clarity than text descriptions alone, thus enabling people to more easily view and follow the “steps.” Consequently, they are very useful when communicating with users or managers about policies, rules, and unnecessary, duplicitous or cumbersome steps within a work process, and help to quickly highlight problems or opportunities for improvement.

When creating a flowchart, process steps are shown as shapes of various kinds, and their order by connecting the shapes with arrows or lines. Different shapes are used to indicate actions, decision points, recycle loops, work and wait times.

Among the most commonly-used shapes are the following:

Common Flow Chart Symbols

Originally, flowcharts were created by hand using pencil and paper. Before the advent of the personal computer, drawing templates made of plastic flowchart shape outlines helped flowchart makers work more quickly and gave their diagrams a more consistent look. Today’s flowcharts are typically created using software.

All About Fishbone Diagrams

An Ishikawa or fishbone diagram is a visualization tool for categorizing the potential causes of a problem in order to identify its root causes. These diagrams are particularly useful in brainstorming sessions as they help people to focus their conversation.

The technique is named after Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa, a Japanese quality control expert, who invented it to help employees avoid solutions that merely address the symptoms of a much larger problem. The approach begins by stating the problem, and then requires people to identify at least four overall causes or categories that contributed to the problem. Once categories are selected, the team must brainstorm around each cause to further break-down how or why the effect took place.

Because the design of the diagram looks much like a skeleton of a fish, it is commonly referred to as a fishbone diagram.

Common uses of the fishbone diagram range from product design and quality defect prevention to identifying potential factors causing an overall effect or process failure. Each factor or cause for imperfection is a source of variation.

After brainstorming all the possible causes for a problem, users go on to rate the potential causes according to their level of importance and diagram a hierarchy.

Simple Implementation

Fishbone diagrams are typically worked right to left, with each large “bone” of the fish branching out to include smaller bones containing more detail.

  • Create a head, which lists the problem or issue to be studied.
  • Create a backbone for the fish (straight line which leads to the head).
  • Identify at least four “causes” or categories that contribute to the problem. Major categories often include: equipment or supply factors, environmental factors, rules/policy/procedure factors, and people/staff factors. Connect these four causes with arrows to the spine. These will create the first bones of the fish.
  • Brainstorm around each “cause” to document those things that contributed to the cause. Use the 5 Whys or another questioning process such as the 4P’s (Policies, Procedures, People and Plant) to keep the conversation focused.
  • Continue breaking down each cause until the root causes have been identified.

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.

Agility, Readiness & Change

Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt!

Rapid acceleration in the pace of change has taken place within the business world over the past ten years. This fact has also accelerated the need for organizational agility, in both thought and behavior.

Agility and change are inextricably linked. The goal in most change efforts is not only a change in attitude, but behavioral change.

But of course change is not always perceived as being good. In fact, people at all levels tend to react with fear, uncertainty, and doubt (the “FUD” factor) when new ideas, processes, policies or procedures are introduced; and many cringe at the mere suggestion that there might be a different or better way to do their jobs !

Yet without change comes stagnation and potential loss.

The first step in any change effort, and in maintaining organizational agility, is to help people develop the right mental attitude and understand that timely change is a constant part of long-term success — this readiness for change will require:

  • Making continuous improvement a permanent part of the organization’s culture…
  • Getting people at all levels to change the way they think, talk, work, and act, and fostering a culture of open-mindedness and amnesty.
  • Establishing new perspectives on work, work processes and value-added work.
  • Effectively using various statistical tools to identify, analyze, understand and communicate variation.
  • Enlisting input from of people operating the work processes.
  • Quantifying how continuous improvement benefits all stakeholders.
  • Improving leadership and coaching skills that lead to increased employee capability and engagement.

Managing Change

What Does it Take to Implement Change?

In a past post we shared some perspective about assessing workforce capability as well as leadership when planning a change or improvement initiative. Among other things, it was noted that without engaged, effective leadership it is difficult to implement the changes that are necessary for achieving a culture of continuous improvement.

Effective leadership is about driving change. The ability to anticipate, lead and manage change is a critical indicator of organizational success.

But, of course, change does not “just happen.” It takes place when leaders at all levels see opportunities and get others to share their passion about what can be accomplished.

Strong leaders provide the initial and ongoing energy for change. Without strong leadership, most change efforts will fail. As noted in our previous post, implementation is the key step. Simply making speeches, declaring a new mission or vision and handing out short-term rewards alone will not cut it; management must advocate, lead and support change, and do so not only at the “launch” but throughout the implementation phase and beyond.

It’s also important to remember that people will only follow leaders if they trust them, if they see the need for change, and if they are involved in creating the change. Change is brought about by a combination of strong leadership, human relations systems, beliefs, values and cultural practices. They are the true catalysts to sustained change and 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.

The “Hard” Part of Continuous Improvement

In past posts we have discussed the fact that more than half of all change initiatives fail, and that most “continuous improvement” efforts have two things in common:

  1. They produce some improvements
  2. Then they peter out…

Therefore, “discontinuous improvement” is, at times, the more appropriate description of what actually takes place; and as noted in one of our previous posts, there are a number of reasons why organizations fail to make their improvement efforts cultural, which include:

  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

Along similar lines, in a recent article about “why process improvements efforts routinely fail,” author and educator Nicolas Argy, MD, JD, suggests that despite the numerous approaches to continuous improvement (i.e., LEAN, Six Sigma, etc.), “All these systems go in and out of vogue and, just like losing weight and the latest fad diet, all of them fail or only provide temporary results.”

Argy goes on to note that measurement, questioning and reporting, tend to influence and change people’s behavior. In support of this perspective he cites some well-known research.

  • Pearson’s law –“When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.”
  • Sentinel effect – The theory that productivity and outcomes can be improved through the process of observation and measurement.

These views are well-aligned with Dr. Deming’s fundamentals, such as the Deming Cycle, on which much of our work is based.

But regardless of your approach or beliefs, it’s apparent that the “hard” part of continuous improvement isn’t making improvements, but rather making it “continuous.”

If an organization can develop a culture in which making improvements is the constant “way of doing business,” then they can achieve break-through gains on a recurring basis as opposed to the ad-hoc improvements associated with an on-again/off-again effort.

 

Why An 8-Step Improvement Plan?

While organizations in most sectors work at making at least some ongoing improvements to their work and work processes, most industries or vertical markets consist of leaders and followers.

People often ask about what makes the difference between the industry leaders and the follow-behinds.  In our experience, there are two things:

  1. What they work to improve
  2. How they go about the improvement

Industry leaders tend to “work on the right things,” which, as we’ve noted numerous times in this blog, is the most important decision we all must make every day. They also go about making improvements in an effective way. By working on the right things and following a proven effective improvement process, an organization can get further faster.

We recommend an 8-step process for studying and improving the work. While it is possible to make improvements in fewer steps, the more comprehensive eight-step process helps to ensure people are working on the “right” things, and also that the improvements will “stick.”

These steps are:

  1. Identify and quantify the waste you want to eliminate
  2. Clearly define what you want to do (including problem statement, objective, measurements, scope, team, and plan)
  3. Study and measure the current situation
  4. Analyze the root causes and evaluate and plan solutions
  5. Implement
  6. Study the results and take appropriate action until objectives are met
  7. Stabilize and standardize the improvement so that it stays in place and is used throughout
  8. Evaluate and learn from this improvement effort and plan the next

As noted above, some people think this seems like a lot of steps and wherever we go we meet people who want to “streamline” this process . We call them the “two-fivers” because the improvement process they follow is simply:

  • think of something they believe will improve things
  • implement it

Two-fivers eliminate 3/4 of the steps we recommend! Possibly a good, or at least workable idea… but the whole point of the eight steps is to make sure people are working on the right thing, that they get to the right solution, and that it sticks. If you can do without that, by all means, be a two-fiver.