Tag Archives: continuous improvement

Two Steps Forward… And Then What?

John Kotter Quote

“Two steps forward and one step back” is a phrase with which you might be familiar. It implies the inevitable fact that when we make improvements things are not likely to simply “go as planned.” Instead, unexpected snags, complexities, or opportunities for making even more improvements are likely to arise.

However there is another risk we must avoid – that being the devastating “backslide” to the way things were before the improvement was made.

Sustaining improvements is a fundamental aspect of Continuous Improvement. When the gain has been celebrated and attention shifted elsewhere, how do we keep the improvement from sliding back to the old way? To maintain the gains we have to stabilize the new process and new behaviors or the process will slip back out of control and people will slip back into old habits. How do we extend the improvement to other areas? How do we adapt the improvement efforts so they survive over the long term — getting better and better?

These “sustainability” questions are at the heart of ‘Step 7’ of Conway’s eight-step improvement process, and also align with the 8th step in John Kotter’s model for leading change.

Several forces can undermine sustainability, and prudent leaders must be prepared to both recognize and address them quickly. Among the most damaging are:

  • The issues and pressures that triggered the change are no longer visible or apparent to people.
  • Attention moves on to something else before the improvement has been effectively stabilized.
  • Sometimes those who initiated the change or participated in the analysis and improvement leave the organization and the on-going success of the improvement may be dependent on their understanding and adherence to the improved process.
  • Sometimes replacements inadvertently introduce variability.
  • Organizations can lose their focus. This can sometimes jeopardize the entire CI effort. Loss of focus is more profound ‘when an organization engages in strategic maneuvers.’ People’s roles are redefined, organizations, equipment, tools, teams are all in flux, creating mounds of waste that needs to be studied and removed — just when the teamwork needed to do it is at an all time low due to job anxieties.

In addition to avoiding the negative outcome of “backsliding” there are two concepts that leaders can (and should!) promote: “Stickability” and “Spreadbiltity,” which will be the subjects of our next post

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4 Ways to Increase Value-Added Work

value added work

Our previous post noted that approximately half of the work done in well-run organizations is value-added, which is defined as “the work our external customers would be willing to pay for if they know what we were doing.” Regrettably, the percentage plummets to only 20% in many businesses!

Yet in reality, a great deal of “non-value-added” work is necessary and important!

Consider that many people and functions play a vital role in helping the internal customer provide value for the external customer. These are the folks ‘on the banks’ of the value stream, some of them providing key enablers such as technology, safety, or information to those creating the value for external customers.

The key is to find the right balance. In most cases, the ultimate conclusion is that it’s to our advantage if we can increase the percentage of value-added work by identifying and eliminating the “waste” that is non-value-added.

Here are four ideas to increase the portion of resources that are directed at value adding activities:

1 — Work on The Bottlenecks
When we work on many things that have a small effect, we will have a small impact. The way to increase value most substantially is to work on the bottleneck, or constraint. All improvement effort that is off the critical path will have a lower impact on increasing the value add. If the bottleneck can be widened even just a little, it provides a pure increase in value.

2 — Increase Understanding of And Alignment With What Customers Truly Value
One of the biggest wastes is when the products or services we offer do not align perfectly with the customers’ needs and values. Errors are possible in two directions.

  1. Bundling a feature into the product or service that the customers do not really need or want. Does the technology have features that are seldom used? Does the product have any bells and whistles no one really cares about? What features have been introduced with inadequate understanding about how the products or services will actually be used? A systematic and thorough understanding of the customers is the only effective way of ensuring we are not merely adding cost instead of value when we add features to our offering.
  2. We also can err by overlooking ways we could leverage our capabilities to solve a problem that the customers may not even have articulated to themselves. We all, to a certain extent, take the world somewhat as we find it, assuming boundaries of what is possible simply by understanding what has always been. So listening to what customers would like to see is unlikely to surface needs. Innovative value creators will try to understand what the customers need before they even know they need it. Steve Jobs did this with the IPod: surfacing an unarticulated need that the resources at his disposal could brilliantly address.

3 — Get at The Root Causes
Replace the constant working on problems and symptoms with lasting solutions by drilling down to root causes. For example, the sales force of one company needed to better understand the value of additional services they could provide to customers. Rather than addressing the issue/opportunity in each proposal, they developed a calculator to make it quick and easy to help the customers (and themselves!) see the value provided by the additional services.

4 — Eliminate the Non-Value Adding Administrative Work
A great deal of time in most organizations is spent on emails, meetings, and reports that do not produce additional value for the customers or the organization. Here are a few approaches to reducing this waste:

  • Reduce clutter in the inboxes
  • Introduce and enforce meeting management protocols and best practices
  • Streamline reports


Defining Problems?

defining problems

Our previous few posts have focused on identifying waste.

After an area of waste or an opportunity for improvement is identified, the next step is to define the specific problem. Few decisions have a greater impact on the likelihood of success of an improvement project than the definition of the problem.

For example, Stephen Covey says that the way we see the problem is the problem. Albert Einstein warns that we cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking with which we created them. The way we define and communicate the problem the team is expected to solve will greatly influence the speed and efficiency with which a team will complete its work, the degree of satisfaction between the team and the project sponsor, and the efficacy with which an organization prioritizes and sequences the problems to devote resources to.

Consider these different approaches to defining the same problematic situation:

  • Order fulfillment is too slow and is costing us a lot of business.
  • Our lost sale rate has increased from an average of 125 per month over the previous six quarters to 190 per month this quarter.
  • Our Order-to-Delivery timeline has increased to 60 days due to a bottleneck in packaging.
  • Profits are down.
  • Sales has missed their target for the past three months.
  • Packaging is too slow due to old equipment.
  • Order-to-Delivery time from the Mid-western plant in Q3 increased by 15 days over the same quarter prior year, and was cited as the cause of 42 lost sales in Q3 impacting revenue by $270,000 in the quarter.

Some of these are statements of fact, while others are judgments. Some are very broad and others are very specific.

They may ALL be valid observations about the same situation, yet the problem solving efforts they would guide would differ greatly in urgency, efficiency, and efficacy. Developing a good problem statement at the start will help you define and lead an improvement project that most efficiently arrives at better results.

In our next post we’ll share four best practices for defining problems.

8 Ways to Increase the Success Rate of Improvement Projects

Continuous Improvement

Our previous post shared a number of reasons why so many improvement projects fail or fall short of expectations.

Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to prevent the
downward spiral that can so easily plague improvement efforts, which we discussed during a meeting with our improvement Partners. These principles include the following:

Success! The first principle for making a project successful is simple: nothing succeeds like success. So start out with carefully selected projects staffed with highly qualified people to ensure they are successful. Give the earlier projects careful guidance and support. One of our Partners described an initiation process which started with 10 carefully selected and well trained individuals. They put five on one project and five on the other. Once those projects were complete, they launched five more improvement projects with two of their 10 trained leaders per project. This plan was designed to ensure early successes.

Communication About Success. The second principle is “advertising.” If a team applies the CI methodology to great success but no one hears about it, the methodology as “the way we do things around here” will be slow to catch on. Newsletters, presentations, story boards and discussions at staff meeting and water coolers are all ways to communicate success and make sure that everyone learns from it and is ready to try for some more.

Speed to Results. But an organization will not have many successes to advertise, if it does not make speed to results a priority. Once you start an improvement project, make sure that the project manager and the team run like heck to finish it. The more demanding the environment and more rapidly new challenges arise, the more critical it is that every effort be on the fast track to completion — before something arises to change priorities.
To the extent possible, compress the cycle time to results. Use Kaizen events and focused teams to tackle manageable chunks in short time frames.

Data. Use data to really understand the current reality and to test theories about underlying causes. The data will help you minimize the red herrings and wrong turns. People will want to substitute opinions for data because that is the way they have always worked. But the facts and data will help the team zero in on the real cause and the best solution more quickly than trial and error based on opinion. One of our partners observed that people will often create a flow chart, but then fail to get the facts about the process. A flow chart is just one step and is not really complete until it has been validated and populated with real data.

Keep It Simple. Keep the data analysis as simple as possible. Complicated is not necessarily better and it is almost always slower! A great deal can be learned from Pareto charts looking at the data from different angles — to rule out or confirm theories about the underlying dynamics and relationships.

Management Support. Pay attention to the soft side, making sure that management meets with the teams and individuals regularly. One CEO meets one-on-one with his leaders once a month and the sole topic is how the improvement project is going and what can he do to speed progress. Lots of visibility and encouragement for people working on systematic improvement helps to maintain interest, enthusiasm, and momentum.

Team Enthusiasm. One CEO lets his team leaders pick the project — focusing on what really ‘frosts’ them. This gains the enthusiasm for the work and results in quick wins.

Team Training. Most Partners believe that nearly everyone in the company needs some basic training. But team leaders need to be very well trained, so that they can ensure that the team follows the methodology, asks the right questions, gathers the right data, stays on track, and keeps the interest and engagement of the rest of the team. Choose team leaders very carefully.

In addition to the above-listed solutions for running an effective improvement initiative, there are several things that an organization can do before launching a project that can increase the likelihood of success. These best practices will be the subject of our next post…

Are Questions the Answer to Making Breakthrough Solutions?

questions

An article published in 2020 as part of the Drucker Forum’s “shape the debate” series raised some interesting perspectives about leadership and making breakthrough improvements.

The simple premise shared by consultant and author John Hagel is that “questions” are the answer.

“The most effective leaders of the future will be those who have the most powerful and inspiring questions,” Hagel said. “…and who are willing to acknowledge they don’t have the answers, and that they need and want help in finding the answers. It’s in sharp contrast to the conventional view of leaders as the ones who have the answers to all the questions.”

This view aligns nicely with ours, as we’ve found that posing questions of and involving the people closest to the work is the shortest path to the largest gains.

After all, where do new ideas that lead to lasting solutions come from?

They come from people… that is, if those people are asked.

Here are three different approaches to identifying new ideas and solutions along with some of the questions we might ask the right people while studying the related work:

  1. Classic brainstorming. When studying the current situation and causes does not lead directly to identifying lasting solutions, you need to elicit a number of different ideas from your team by asking questions that stimulate creativity. How can we increase our productivity by 10 percent? What are the most common obstacles causing the process to stall? What is the most difficult aspect…”

    Before you launch into your brainstorming, make sure you have convened a diverse group of people with some knowledge or interest in the problem at hand. Keep in mind that it is always easier for people to “think outside the box” when they come from outside the box.

    The classic rules for brainstorming are:
    • No criticism of ideas—no idea is too crazy
    • Go for quantity of ideas and worry about quality later
    • Brainstorm individually first and then read the ideas out round robin style it is okay to pass
    • Build on positive aspects of other ideas to create new ideas
    • Capture the ideas on flip charts or on large Post-Its that everyone can see and read
  2. Tools such as the Six Thinking Hats and Heuristic Discovery, which systematically change one’s perspective to open-up new possibilities for solving problems.
    • First, state the problem in terms of an opportunity or goal. For example, a keyboard refurbishing operation needed to increase throughput, so they would ask: “How to we double our daily throughput of refurbished keyboards?”
    • Second, create a picture or map of the problem as part of the system, labeling each of the significant components.
    • Third, describe the impact of each component as it impacts the goal. Use a question format. For example:
      • What tools might we use to increase throughput?
      • How can we make sure that people’s skills are sufficient to double the throughput?
      • How can we make sure that people’s speed is sufficient to double the throughput?
      • How can we ensure the workspace layout enhances throughput?
    • Fourth, Prioritize these and generate ideas for solutions to the component problems that are most likely to impact
  3. Imagineering perfection, which helps you surface possibilities to leap past incremental improvements…
    • “What would this process look like if everything were right?”
    • What would it mean if the input we need always arrives on time and exactly the way we need and want it—no delays, no expediting, no rework?
    • What if every step of the work process were to go exactly as it should with no waste, no rework?
    • What if our work produced exactly what the customer needs, on time, exactly as they require it all the time? What would this look like?
    • What exactly does the customer need for perfection?

It’s All About the Work: 10 Questions

Continuous Improvement is all about the Work

One of Bill Conway’s favorite sayings has always been, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on.”

In fact, we’ve found that half of Continuous Improvement involves working on the right things!

Once people know what to work on, there are ten critical questions to consider, the answers to which will lead the way toward building a high-performance culture of continuous improvement:

  1. What processes should we use to identify the best opportunities for improvement?
  2. How will we prioritize the opportunities?
  3. How can we ensure or increase alignment?
  4. How will we identify what ‘could or should be’ if everything were right?
  5. What specific improvement goals shall we set?
  6. How can we involve the people closest to the work?
  7. What tools will we use to find fundamental solutions?
  8. How will we measure progress?
  9. How will we recognize and communicate progress and achievement?
  10. What is our follow-up system to assure that the processes, once fixed, stay fixed?

Common Pitfalls to Completing Improvement Projects

pitfall

As I’m sure you are aware, to get and stay ahead of the competition, it is all about how to improve further and faster. But sometimes, despite the best intentions, our continuous improvement efforts can get bogged down.

While there can be a number of reasons for delays and the related under-achievement — such as failing to identify root causes — we have identified common pitfalls that every improvement leader should avoid.

Here’s a list of the top three along with some ideas on how you might avoid them:

  1. Pace: The most common cause of delay in achieving results is the pace. Some teams schedule an hour a week to work on the project, so that under the best of circumstances, two months will pass before the project gets one day’s attention. But far more often it will take three or four months to complete one day’s effort on the project because meetings get cancelled, or start late, and then a portion of each meeting is spent going over the status or covering old ground for a member who missed a meeting. And, of course, the current pandemic has complicated meeting schedules and effectiveness. Regardless of reason, when a project progresses this slowly, priorities may change or resources might be reassigned without ever completing the work and gaining the improvements.

    The secret to avoiding this trap is, to the fullest extent possible, employ the Kaizen approach. Kaizen requires planning and data gathering up front and then all the necessary people are pulled off their jobs for one day or several days to completely solve the problem: designing, testing, stabilizing solutions usually in under a week. The Kaizen approach requires good planning on the part of the leaders and facilitator, but makes good use of the entire team’s time while accelerating the benefits of the improvement effort.
  2. Scope: The second most common trap that slows down progress is a poorly designed project scope. The scope may start out too large — i.e., trying to take on all locations, departments, functions, product lines, etc. all at once. When the scope is too large, you have too many aspects of the problem to track down, analyze, and address, and too many people to consult, inform, an persuade. A team’s progress can also be inhibited if too much of the scope falls beyond their sphere of control. For example, if a receiving team wants to address a Purchasing process or a Manufacturing team wants to address an Order Entry process.

    Sometimes a project begins with the intention of being short and sweet, but gradually the scope keeps growing until the project is in danger of crumbling under its own weight.

    Avoid the scope-trap by explicitly raising and resolving as many questions about scope as possible. Define the scope so that improvement results can be realized as quickly as possible. Decide what locations, functions, departments are in scope by identifying the one or two that will provide the biggest impact (you can do this by stratifying the data you used to quantify the opportunity). Decide what types of problems are out of scope. You may decide that systems design issues should be out-of-scope if the organization already has a multi-year waiting list for systems changes. An area that is slated for major change in the near future often should be deemed out-of-scope. Be clear about the expected project deliverable. Sometimes improvements can be implemented, verified, stabilized. In other situations, the project team may be chartered to merely gather, analyze, and report data about the problem.
  3. Poor communication: Sometimes delays are caused by insufficient communication, especially today when many of us are working remotely. When a team leader does not communicate regularly with the sponsor, many delays can crop up: the team leader misses out on useful information that the sponsor has on the topic; a team struggles with obstacles that the sponsor can move out of the way; a team becomes set on a solution that the sponsor feels is untenable or does not understand well enough to give it full support. Many things can go awry when the team and the sponsor are out of touch.

    This pitfall is easy to avoid by discussing these risks up front with the sponsor and agreeing how frequently to communicate about the project. The frequency really depends on the speed of the projects. If you are executing a Kaizen, you should communicate in advance and update the sponsor at the end of every day. If your improvement team is meeting an hour a week, perhaps too little happens to merit a weekly update, but a team leader should not go more than three weeks without updating the sponsor. Agree on the update schedule and put it in your calendars for the expected duration of the project.

Four Effective Methods of Identifying Waste

identifying waste

Our previous post shared the perils of taking an “idea-driven” approach to identifying waste or opportunities for improvement. While this method often feels right, it seldom addresses the biggest problems within an organization.

Instead, one of the following four approaches can help project teams to identify the best opportunities for improvement – the ones that can yield the biggest gains:

The Goal-driven Search:
Start with the most pressing organizational goal and drill down to find the waste that affects that goal. Do you want to save time, money, improve quality, conserve capacity – what? The goal driven search for waste takes that goal and looks for any problem that affects it.

If your goal is to free up people’s time, you would then study the time to identify and prioritize every aspect that waste’s time. A work sampling study would provide you with a great deal of information about this.

If you want to free up production capacity, you would study and prioritize all the factors that waste your capacity – bottlenecks, set up times, producing the wrong thing (product that sits in inventory), yields – all the capacity spent producing product that cannot be sold, production capacity devoted to rework.

If you want to increase revenue, you would focus on identifying and quantifying the waste in all the factors that get in the way of sales, such as the use of sales reps time, selling methodology, lead generation, causes of lost sales, delays in installations or shipments, and so on.

The distinctive feature of the goal driven approach is that not all waste is treated equally. Instead of looking for waste in all its forms, this approach zeros in to identify and prioritize for removal of all the waste associated with a particular important goal.

The Brainstorming Approach:
The brainstorming approach is perhaps the quickest and easiest way to identify an extensive list of the waste in an organization. The first step is to collect a group of people knowledgeable about the work and solicit all the ideas about waste (i.e., identify waste, specify where it is, etc.)

Because the people who know most about the work identify the waste, these people are often very committed to working on improvement projects to get rid of it. This is one of the primary reasons why brainstorming is an excellent way to start an organization on a path of systematic continuous improvement.

The Work Walk-through Approach:
This method involves getting a group of people together to directly observe the work as it is done, searching for and capturing every bit of waste you can spot. It is a good idea to make sure your organization has a clear idea about “amnesty” and so that the people hard at work do not feel you are
watching for any mistakes they make. As you may know, almost all the waste in an organization is due to flaws in the system of work; management has the job of making sure the system is working well so as to minimize wasted time, materials, capital, etc.

Check-out the Process Approach:
This method of identifying waste involves creating a value map to identify inventory pileups, bottlenecks, and delays. You can then use a process evaluation tool to analyze the process and identify and quantify the waste.

You might also use a SIPOC tool to evaluate process flow. As you may know, a SIPOC diagram is a very high level process flow, identifying each key input and output of each process. The acronym SIPOC stands for suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers which form the columns of the table. It was in use at least as early as the total quality management programs of the late 1980s and continues to be used today in Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and business process management.

Watching v. Visualizing

visual management

A concept that might be a distant relative to watching our work is visual management.

When one recognizes the power of Visual Management, words seem superfluous. It is a powerful communication tool that lets people know quickly and effectively exactly the right thing to do in each situation by way of an agreed upon use of signals.

Because Visual Management highlights the critical information in ways that can’t be ignored, it enables a person to assess the status of the situation at a glance. Consequently, people can get far more done, more quickly, with fewer errors and without the need of additional instruction.

The benefits are significant! Faster response time, fewer mistakes, increased safety, higher productivity!

Visual Management has been effective in improving results in almost every organization. Among the benefits with specific examples are:

  • Speed of execution in a time-sensitive process
  • Reduced number of OSHA-reportable accidents
  • Fewer errors in production, materials management, maintenance, and office operations
  • Faster process analysis and improvements
  • Reduced inventory and fewer stock-outs
  • Higher productivity and throughput
  • Better team-work and more engaged employees

There are two types of Visual Management tools:

  1. Tools that indicate quickly and reliably what actions to take and not to take in order to maintain process control.
  2. Teamwork tools that communicate how a process is performing compared to an agreed upon standard or goal, so the people doing the work easily spot and implement the needed adjustments or improvements.

Our next post will take a closer look at each type of visual management, and share specific examples as well as best practices.

Watching Our Work: The Ohno Circle

ohno circle

A related concept to waste walks, the subject of our previous few posts, is the “Ohno Circle.”

Taiichi Ohno is credited for much of the thinking behind the Toyota
Production System, and he invented a novel method of making improvements. He would go to draw a chalk circle on the floor, and stand in it. He would stand for hours, watching and thinking about what he was seeing. He would look for what was getting in the way of people creating value and he would study the situation to determine what was causing it. This gave him the insight he needed to make lasting improvements.

Ohno’s approach is different from simply visiting “gemba” or touring the line, as it goes beyond “looking” to “watching.” Taking the time to actually watch work being done can pay big dividends, and often helps well-intentioned people avoid “learning too little and assuming too much.”

In fact, many CI leaders have confessed, after-the-fact, that, if they had simply stood in one place long enough to watch carefully, they would have quickly seen the true root causes of many problems that took weeks to solve.