Tag Archives: continuous improvement

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.

Don’t Just Do Something: Waste Walk Best Practices

waste walk

Continuing the theme of “waste walks,” there are several fundamental guidelines that should be followed in order to optimize the value and outcomes.

Here are some best practices for implementing Waste Walks (or “going to gemba“) that have proved successful in organizations and that have brought-about break-through results:

  • Communicate before starting. Begin by breaking the ice with the people in the work area so they know what is happening and why; make it clear that this is not a fault-finding mission, that there is amnesty, and that the Waste Walk is an effort to “help, not to shoot the wounded.”
  • Communicate with the gemba team. Establish ground rules, making sure to describe the theme or the forms of waste the team will be targeting, along with any other expectations relative to objectives people issues, desired outcomes, and so on.
  • Describe the start and end points of what you want to observe and study.
  • Conduct the Waste Walk and maintain communication protocols throughout; remind the team that as they interact with and pose questions to those doing the work, they must listen carefully to the answers.
  • Reconvene in a meeting room afterward to record ideas, consider what the team has learned, set priorities, and move into action! Sometimes it gets harder as the team disperses, so be sure to maintain communication and measure progress after-the-fact.
  • Be inquisitive…curious…
  • Make Waste Walks a regular part of people’s work; they should not happen once in a blue moon

Finally, if there is an over-arching theme or mantra associated with an effective waste walk, it is NOT “Don’t just stand there; do something!”

Conversely, the best over-arching mantra is, “Don’t just do something; stand there and learn!”

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.”