Tag Archives: continuous process improvement

The hardest part of continuous improvement

While almost every business puts some amount of effort into Continuous Improvement (CI), making ongoing and meaningful improvements to a business or to work processes is not easy.

discontinuous_improvement

We have also noticed that regardless of the specific methods used for making improvements, 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, and
  2. Then they peter out

So, as it turns out, these well-intended CI plans are, in fact, “discontinuous,” and the hardest part of Continuous Improvement is making it “continuous!”

Based on our research and experience, there are some common reasons why CI efforts tend toward becoming discontinuous.

The most common pitfall that leads to ineffective CI efforts is unclear or delegated leadership. Continuous improvement must be fully embraced by every line manager. Delegating the effort to a Quality Manager, HR leader, strategic planning manager, or other staff person, is very likely to lead the effort to fizzle.

John Kotter, a recognized pioneer in the field of leading change, uses the term ‘guiding coalition’ to describe a powerful and strategic group that works together to bring about the desired changes within an organization. The team must be committed to the achievement of a continuously improving culture. It should include a majority of the most powerful people in the organization and may also include some people who may not be a part of senior management.

The next culprit is insufficient communication. Leadership must continue to communicate at every possible opportunity and every possible way why continuous improvement must become part of the organization’s DNA.

The vision must be clear and simple, and throughout the organization, people in leadership positions should constantly communicate the importance of continuous improvement and the progress to date. Successes must be widely shared, learnings must be plowed back into the organization to accelerate results, and new opportunities to become better at improving should be identified and clearly communicated. New employees must hear the why, the how, the
history, and the vision of what’s next.

Finally, neglecting alignment is a sure way to undermine a comprehensive CI effort. Every one of us has our own personal goals and objectives in addition to the goals and objectives of our organization as a whole and our job in particular. When these get out of alignment, progress will stop.

For example, a natural and intended outcome of most process improvement is the ability to do more with less — often with less people-time. Instantly, we have a conflict between the organization’s goals for cost saving and people’s need for income retention. And processes cannot be effectively improved or improvements effectively sustained without the support of the people doing the work. Not coincidentally, the company with the longest history of a continuously improving culture, Toyota Motors, promises employees a very high level of job security.

The leadership must think several moves ahead to both maintain alignment and to capture financial gains from productivity improvements. The choice of where to focus improvement efforts is probably the most critical.

Among the best areas on which to focus are:

  • Aim improvement methods to address the constraint to sales.
  • Improve productivity in the parts of the organization with too much work, in order to eliminate the need to hire.
  • Improve productivity in an area where people have the skills that, if freed up, could be transferred to departments with too much work or that have had attrition.
  • Improve non-people costs, such as energy, scrap, paper waste (‘if you want to find the waste, find the paper’), and work with suppliers to identify ways to reduce costs.

Engagement Around the Work

Continuous Process Improvement Squared

Research over the past decade has consistently shown that increasing workforce engagement is a good thing:

  • Gallup: Disengaged workers cost the nation $450 billion to $550 billion per year in lost productivity.
  • Towers Perrin: Companies with engaged employees have 6% higher net profit margins.
  • Kenexa Research: Engaged companies have 5 times higher shareholder returns over 5 years.

Beyond greater productivity and profitability, additional documented positive benefits of engaged workers include lower turnover, better safety, fewer product defects and shrinkage, reduced absenteeism, and better customer satisfaction metrics.

But in spite of the proclaimed benefits of engagement, the efforts made to increase it have too often not paid off in a measurable way. .

We have identified four key reasons why so many have struggled to engage their workforce:

1. Lack of definition.

Taking a “we’ll know it when we see it” approach to employee engagement is like trying to hit a moving (or invisible!) target. The first step to a formalized engagement plan is to identify goals and metrics.

Stephen Wendel from HelloWallet, offers a commonly used definition of engagement: “Engagement means having an emotional attachment to work.”

With this definition, employees emotionally care about their work and their company. He further describes employee engagement as a mental state — it’s something in our heads and hearts that represents the attachment we feel to our work. The definition also includes an element of discretionary effort. “Engaged workers don’t work just for a paycheck or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization’s goals.”

However, as good as these definitions sound, they are not quite specific enough… instead, it would be better to use Wendel’s definitions as guides and add specific objectives based on your organization’s situation. These metrics might include “lower turnover by 25%” or “reduce absenteeism by half.”

2. Confusing Engagement with Happiness

As it turns out, a happy workforce is not necessarily and engaged workforce, as people can be satisfied or happy at work without being engaged. As Wendel further states, “Happiness is a current emotional state that is often related to many factors that have nothing to do with employment — the weather, family life, personality, etc.”

Without understanding the distinction between happy and engaged employees, organizations have taken a variety of paths to try to increase engagement. Some have focused on things such as dress-down Fridays (pre-pandemic), putting in vending machines with healthier snacks, or creating a work place with state of the art work-out facilities and a great latte bar. Those things might be nice — they might make for physically healthier and maybe even happier employees. But, there is plenty of evidence that these things do not increase engagement.

3. Misunderstanding the Link Between Engagement and Productivity

There is considerable research about what truly motivates people. Hands down, intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation! People are motivated primarily by an intrinsic desire to do a good job, to be recognized for it, and to be considered a valuable asset to their organization; in Deming’s words, “To have joy in work.”

Deming was very clear about how to make sure that employees have “joy” in work — by enabling them with the training, tools, and resources they need to do a good job; to listen to their ideas for improvement and to continuously improve the work of everyone.

In other words, many organizations focus only on engagement as the strategy, but productivity yields engagement — not the other way around!

“Employee happiness and morale is NOT the critical path to employee productivity. but productivity and employee achievement are the critical path to high morale and a happy work environment. Morale and employee happiness aren’t the means to the end; they are the end itself.” —Morale and Motivation Myth…No Strings Attached

By increasing employees’ productivity, you get increased engagement, and that engagement, in turn, increases productivity, and the other positive and measurable results that come from increased engagement.

4. Seeking a Quick Fix

Engagement efforts often fail because we wishfully think and hope that a few superficial suggestions and tips for increasing engagement will actually result in substantive change It’s a classic case of one of Deming’s truisms: “I didn’t say it would be easy. I just said it would work.”

There is no magic bullet for engagement. It requires fundamental culture change and that requires commitment and
the required resources. This is a culture change in which engagement is the byproduct of having everyone involved in the continuous improvement of everything!

It’s an approach we call Engagement Around the Work, as it’s all about achieving goals through people!

We call it CPI2 his method has two parts:

1) CPI – Continuous Process improvement — improving all that we do through improving all our work processes

2) CPI – Continuous People Involvement — providing the tools, resources and environment for people to be critically involved in all aspects of improvement.

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?

Implementing a New Year Strategic Plan?

implementation

In a 2018 post we noted that an organization can have an excellent strategy but make little-or-no gains if they fail to execute effectively on that strategy.

It was also noted that this happens in a great many instances, as people at all levels frequently struggle to stay-the-course when it comes to achieving goals, keeping resolutions, or executing strategic plans. Instead, they fall prey to “working so hard on the urgent that they forget about what’s really important.”

Since we are about to begin a New Year, and since many organizations have, in fact, created a strategic plan for the upcoming year, it seems an ideal time to re-share and reaffirm the fact that “planning” does little good without execution. Fortunately, there are solutions!

The Four Disciplines of Execution, an insightful book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling, shares one of these solutions.

As you may know, the ‘Four Disciplines’ comprise a management system of making consistent and systematic progress on executing plans and achieving goals. An organization can have an excellent strategy but fail to execute effectively on that strategy. Almost always the reason is that everyone is BUSY, and that they experience a conflict between all of the demands to keep the business running on a day to day basis (the ‘whirlwind’) and the time required to move the organization forward to accomplish existing or new goals!

The book identifies four key elements of execution that can help any organization achieve steady progress on the strategic objectives:

The first discipline is to focus on the “wildly important” (WIG—Wildly Important Goals). It is suggested that we’re better off executing a small number of goals right instead of spreading ourselves too thin. It is also important to not only identify, but also communicate exactly what these wildly-important goals are so that everyone is working on what matters. Equally as important, each of these goals must be associated with a targeted completion date – in other words, they must be time-based.

The 2nd discipline is to set (and act upon) lead measures. While lag measures tell you whether or not you have achieved your wildly-important goals, in most cases, by the time the results are in, it’s too late to do anything about them. Lead measures are predictive; they tell you how the lag measures will move, and they are “influenceable” (you can do something about them).

For example, a person might set an important goal of losing weight. The lag measure will be to take periodic measurements of weight. But to influence the weight goal the person must act on the lead measures: exercise (calories burned) and calories consumed.

The 3rd discipline is to keep a compelling scorecard. The scoreboard shows the lead measures and lag measures defined in the first two disciplines. This scoreboard must be ‘a players’ scoreboard’ not a ‘coach’s scoreboard’. It must support, guide, and motivate the players to act effectively on the lead measures and influence the lag measures.

People play the game differently when they are keeping score, and they play differently if they are keeping the score themselves! In fact, the action of recording their own results has proved to have a strong effect on people ― fostering ownership, engagement, and a deeper appreciation of the impact of their effort.

In addition, there are four important requirements to creating an effective scorecard that will truly promote execution and engagement:

  • The scorecard must be visible. If it is out of sight, on your computer or on the back of the door, it is less effective at aligning the team to focus on moving those measurements.
  • It must be simple, showing only the data required to ‘play the game’ ― to let the players know how they are doing day to day.
  • It must show both lead and lag measures.
  • It must show “at a glance” how the team or players are doing.

The 4th discipline is to develop a “rhythm of accountability.” This is the discipline that enables you to win… without a rhythm or cadence of accountability, teams will have a much more difficult time and will tend to become less engaged. The threat, of course, is that the whirlwind of running the day-to-day business that will consume all the available time.

By setting a rhythm or cadence the authors mean an inviolable regular schedule to which everyone is committed. For example, teams should meet every week or every two weeks as opposed to “whenever something comes up.” It’s also best to schedule the meetings at the same day and time each week or every-other week. These meetings should never be canceled ― they must be viewed as important and productive, thus promoting strong feelings of belonging, commitment, productivity, and accomplishment, which are all drivers of engagement.

As noted in the book, “without accountability, the whirlwind will win!”

Like many things in life, these elements are simple but not necessarily easy… but they do enable an organization to more easily achieve important goals in the face of the whirlwind.

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!”

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.”