Tag Archives: continuous improvement

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.

It’s About Time!

Our previous post focused on the value and importance of achieving “quick wins” when engaged in Continuous Improvement. Continuing with the theme of time, today’s post takes the concept of working on the right things to a different level,  and focuses on studying and more effectively using the most universal and, arguably, most valuable component of work and work processes: time.

When we are faced with the challenge of evaluating and improving a business, we have many metrics to choose from. We can ‘follow the money’ — study the spending: where does it go, how does it compare to previous periods or to competitors; we may look at market share or wallet share; we might measure revenue per employee or benchmark against the competition; or we might measure customer satisfaction or the customer experience.

But one of the most powerful measurements for helping to make breakthrough improvements is also one of the simplest: following where the time goes.

By determining how much time it takes to complete a cycle of value (i.e., building a widget, closing the books, making a sale, completing a project, etc.) and how much of that is truly adding value, an organization captures information that provides a motivating vision and road map for making improvements.

Key areas to study are: delays, over-processing, rework, transportation, and inspection; and using time as a measure to find and focus opportunities for improvement has three big advantages:

  1. time drives important business results
  2. time is universally applicable
  3. it is very simple to do — measuring time is something anyone can do!

Our next post will take a deeper-dive into the concept of measuring time, and will share some specific and proven methods for making improvements by studying the use of time.

 

Why “Quick Wins” Are Important to Your CI Effort

When it comes to Continuous Process Improvement (CPI), action is what it’s all about — thus the importance of “Quick Wins,” which require us to promptly move into action to get things done, measured, and stabilized.

A “Quick Win” must be completed in 4 to 6 weeks at most, but many are implemented much faster such as in a “kaizen blitz” where a small group focuses full time on an improvement for a day or two, or half-time for a week.

Because of the speed imperative, if a solution requires a significant capital investment, it is probably not going to be a “Quick Win.” If it requires a large team or cross-functional buy-in, chances are it will be a slow win if it succeeds at all. In fact, many “Quick Wins” do not require a formal team, but rather a natural work team can identify the problem and implement a quick solution. For a solution to become a “Quick Win” it is almost always an improvement that can be completed with the people closest to the work and with the resources close at hand.

Sometimes a “Quick Win” is a high value improvement executed with speed. But even an improvement with small dollar impact can have a great ROI — because the time and expense invested is so low and the organization begins reaping the benefits so quickly.

In addition to making sustainable and potentially-recurring gains in less time, there are a number of related or consequential benefits associated with “Quick Wins” as well. For example, according to John Kotter, author of Leading Change and The Heart of Change,  “Quick Wins” are important because they:

  • build momentum
  • defuse cynics
  • enlighten pessimist
  • energize people

Six Pitfalls that Lead to “Discontinuous” Improvement

Many, if not most organizations make attempts to improve their work. But no matter which specific methods predominate, almost all of these initiatives aimed at gaining greater efficiency, quality, speed, and/or customer delight have two important things in common:
  1. They generally 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 (not just a one-time ‘program’), we need to pay close attention to the ‘soft’ 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:
  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

Workforce Capability, Management & Change

While identifying the right things to work on is a critical decision we must make each day, it’s important to also have the right people working on the right things if we hope to truly achieve breakthrough solutions. In other words, it is imperative to have a solid grasp of the team’s capabilities, strengths and  developmental  needs.

We’ve discovered that workforce assessments need to be done in an organized, comprehensive way that includes a strategic mixture of observation, one-on-one and small group interviews to cover a diagonal cross-section of an organization. Key activities include an analysis of layout, work flow, bottlenecks and yield, and also an assessment of people’s understanding of tools as well as how their work impacts the total organization.

It is also important to ask questions about the organization, how people feel they are treated and valued, and, in so doing, it’s important to assess their level of engagement.

Based on discovering the best opportunities for improvement, an improvement plan can then be implemented, which will involve making key changes in processes and behaviors.

Finally, it’s also necessary to review how people are being managed, as without engaged, effective leadership it is difficult to implement the changes that are necessary for achieving a culture of continuous improvement.

Performance Management Contrasts

We’ve had some fascinating conversations about performance management over the years, and have found quite a range of formal and not-so-formal approaches, along with variations in defining the process.

But while different organizations may employ different methods, there are a few areas on which most everyone we’ve spoken with enthusiastically agrees:

  • Positive versus punitive performance management works best.
  • Recognition is an important element of managing the performance of individuals.
  • Management must manage the performance of both individuals and processes.
  • Regularly scheduled performance reviews or evaluations of individuals are key and should be conducted more frequently than once each year.
  • Performance evaluations need not be coupled with merit-based or time-based pay raises and, in most cases, are more effective if not coupled with pay raises.

How does your organization define and execute performance management?

 

Communication & CI Part 2: Hidden Costs?

As noted in our previous post, communication is an important, yet often over-looked tool for bringing about a culture of continuous improvement and engagement within a workforce.

But the effect of communication depends on its quality, and poor communication can be costly.   Even worse, these costs frequently go unnoticed!

For example, as reported in a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article, a survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication to and between employees. The article also referenced another study showing that miscommunication in smaller companies of 100 employees cost an average of $420,000 per year.

To determine or impact the quality of internal business communication, it is important to recognize that some communication forums are better than others.

For example, many organizations use suggestion boxes as forums. But the results are often disappointing. While a suggestion box requires little time or effort to initiate, its success relies on the ideas being completely and clearly expressed in writing.  Unfortunately, many people with good ideas simply cannot express them well.

Furthermore, if a suggestion requires more  explanation  or  development before it can be turned into a really great idea, the suggestion box does not offer an opportunity for clarification, debate, or refinement. Even worse, when the initial ideas are not fully formed or expressed, and management doesn’t have an opportunity for clarification, the ideas are harder to act upon, and often management loses interest.  When people notice nothing comes of the suggestion box, they stop offering ideas.

Here are some additional examples of costly miscommunication in business environments identified by Helen Wilkie, a consultant and author specializing in profitable, applied communication:

  • Long, boring, poorly-planned unproductive meetings that reach no conclusion and serve no purpose
  • Sales presentations that show no concern for, or understanding of, the client’s needs
  • Wasted time due to miscommunication about time or scheduling
  • Badly written e-mail messages that cause misunderstandings, ill will and wasted time
  • Employee alienation caused by managers who don’t listen
  • Lack of understanding between people of different age groups
  • Lack of understanding between male and female employees

Ultimately, the best forums are regularly-scheduled gatherings in which people can surface and discuss problems, waste, and opportunities for improvement.

When well-crafted, these forums allow for discussion to make sure each idea or observation is fully understood; any problems with an idea should be raised freely and discussed with the goal of improving the idea. In the end, the most effective improvements and innovations are often quite different from both the initial ideas and even the counter proposals. They emerge from listening to and incorporating different perspectives about barriers and unintended consequences to raise concepts to new levels.

Engagement & CI Correlation

In one of last year’s posts we noted that, while enterprise engagement has emerged as a key objective in today’s business world, a surprising number of organizations have no formalized engagement strategy.

At this year’s Engagement World Conference in Galveston, this fact was once again recognized, along with several other connections between enterprise engagement and Continuous Improvement (CI).

For one, an ad-hoc approach is almost never effective.

Whether attempting to engage a workforce or drive continuous improvement, a formalized plan with clearly-stated objectives and measures is required.

Similarly, without the buy-in and support of top management, engagement and improvement efforts alike are bound to fail… they will not become the “cultural way,” and instead will simply peter-out as priorities shift.

Another correlation is the importance of quantification. Just as a CI project requires us to quantify waste and the gains our effort will generate, a successful engagement initiative will include the calculation of an anticipated return on investment or ROI once objectives are achieved.

Finally, just as ISO 9001 helped bring-about the use of more standard procedures in CI, ISO 10018 will now encourage organizations to standardize their engagement efforts. 

As noted in our previous post, the emergence of these new standards brings into focus both process improvement and quality people management/engagement, both of which are necessary to achieve and sustain high levels of quality and performance.

 

 

ISO Quality Management Principles – Balancing Process & People

As you may know, in 2015 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) issued an update to its widely followed 9001 standards. 

This update was not, at the time, officially part of the 9001 standards, but it included the addition of new Quality Management Principles outlining, according to an Engagement Strategies Media (ESM) article, the fundamental conditions necessary for an organization to sustain high levels of quality and performance.

The Quality Management Principles are:
  1. Customer focus
  2. Leadership
  3. Engagement of people
  4. Process approach
  5. Improvement
  6. Evidence-based decision-making
  7. Relationship management

As noted in the article, these principles focus on both “process” and “people/engagement.” As the article goes on to suggest, this balanced focus is clearly necessary to achieve and sustain high levels of quality and performance.

Read the full article…