Tag Archives: how to achieve breakthrough improvements

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.

5 Catalysts to Innovation

THE WAY THINGS COULD BE?

Our two previous posts have focused on common barriers to innovation, so it seemed only logical to share some of our observations as to how organizations have overcome these barriers by leveraging various catalysts or “enablers” to innovative thought and behavior.

But be advised, these methods require strong and empowering leadership to lay out the market constraints, make clear the threats from the changing environment and the opportunities that may arise, and provide the amnesty to take a risk to put ideas and observations on the table.

Necessity – “the mother of invention”
When Xerox PARC created the mouse, it was simply amazing. And it cost $300 to build and only worked for a few weeks, but they had a generous budget so it was okay. Yet to make the mouse truly innovative required something quite different: constraints. Steve Jobs had the vision to add the constraints: the mouse must be buildable for under $15 and operate reliably for at least two years.

For successful innovation, you need people to seek out the real-world constraints that must be respected in order to actualize the idea. Until the idea can work within the constraints — like Apple’s mouse — it is still in the germination stage, not yet a true innovation.

“Freedom is just another word for nothing to lose”
It’s often easier to try something new or innovative, and to risk failure, when the status quo looks pretty untenable. As the saying goes, never waste a crisis, and if you don’t think you have one, look further around you. Change is inevitable; a threat is always on its way.

For example, one company observed that when their very survival was at risk, they began to implement a program of Continuous Improvement that called on everyone to contribute innovative implementable ideas. Because they had to develop new and better ways of operating, they did!

Similarly, a start-up company with few resources must innovate or quickly wither away. Or an established organization might need to make innovative changes due to operational disruption. For example, if the system or tool or supplier or technology they are using is going away or changing, it is a good time to rethink the work entirely.

It’s important to recognize that leaders must provide amnesty to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas when making these types of innovative changes.

It’s easier to think outside the box when you are from outside the box
Outsiders often come up with the best innovations, because they have no ties to the status quo. But outsiders often have a difficult time effecting real change because they are outsiders. A senior manager of a once innovative company wryly observed, “We say we like to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, but when they share them we explain that’s not the way we do it here.”

Know the market; know your customers — internal as well as external
Market instincts are more valuable than technological know-how or financial heft. For example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating article in The New Yorker, Creation Myth — Xerox PARC, Apple, and Creation of the Mouse, he suggests that Xerox could never have capitalized on the mouse because they did not have the instincts for the consumer market. They had the technological talent, but that was simply not enough; personal computing is a consumer market and Xerox’s reservoir of market instincts was for commercial enterprises. Steve Jobs knew the consumer market. Similarly, Cisco was forced to close down its Flip video and HP pulled out of the tablet market — both retreated from consumer markets back to their core markets.

Process innovation also requires getting close to the customers. To be able to innovate work processes, you must go to the work. ‘Go to the Gemba (or work place),’ is the Toyota mantra. Asking customers what they need or want is simply not going to be enough. They cannot innovate for you — you must go and watch them use your product to really understand the market. You must go and watch the work flow in order to understand the processes and the problems that workers grapple with. You must see for yourself in order to envision a better product or process.

Imagine Perfection
Last but not least, to foster process innovation summon the courage to acknowledge the deep areas of waste that are part of our standard work. We all have this: inspection or rework or moving or waiting that is so intrinsically a part of the way we work that we cannot envision the work without it. Because we cannot immediately think of any possible alternatives, we look the other way and thus we cannot innovate.

Summon the courage to put that waste on the table, calling it what it is. We have seen remarkable feats of innovation inspired by this simple act — recognizing waste for what it is. Go ahead and imagine the process without the steps that add no real value — that just compensate for a flaw somewhere in the process — and then take the time to search for ways to get to that vision. Imagine perfection or the way things could or should be if everything was right.

“Imagineer!”

4DX & Engagement

Not long ago during a meeting with our Partners in Improvement we discussed The Four Disciplines of Execution, an insightful book written by Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling.

As you may know, the ‘Four Disciplines’ or 4DX is a management system of making consistent and systematic progress on the vital few, a term derived from the Pareto Principle, which indicates that many defects come from relatively few causes.

Our conversation centered on the best ways for an organization to put the disciplines into practical use to improve business results.

An organization can have an excellent strategy, but fail to execute
effectively on that strategy. Almost always the reason is that everyone is BUSY. Organizations 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 something great, to make the organization
better and better… to achieve goals they’ve never achieved before!

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

  1.  Identify and focus on a Wildly Important Goal (a WIG)
  2. Monitor and act on LEAD measures
  3. Keep a compelling SCOREBOARD updated by the people doing the work
  4. Develop a rhythm of ACCOUNTABILITY

Like many things in life, these elements are simple but not necessarily easy… but they do enable an organization to apply Deming’s Plan—Do—Study—Act cycle in the face of the whirlwind. They can also serve as catalysts for workforce engagement, as people become increasingly engaged when their goals are clear, and when their progress and productivity are measured and recognized.

We will take a closer look at each of the disciplines in upcoming posts.

Focusing on Waste Part 3: Three Ways to Find it!

Completing our series of posts about focusing on waste, people often ask how they might best nurture the ability to recognize the waste that is undoubtedly embedded in business processes.

Here are 3 proven methods:

  • Constant questioning. Ask yourself and everyone else if you would need this if everything were right, and right the first time.
  • It sometimes helps to bring in outsiders to help you look for waste, because it is easiest to think “outside the box” if you are “outside the box.” Customers and suppliers or people from adjacent processes may challenge assumptions we don’t even realize we are making.
  • Benchmarking internally, within the industry, and in different
    industries can also raise questions and help you recognize waste
    that you have overlooked before.

If you can take a path of searching for WASTE rather than just improvements, regardless of whether you already have a solution, you can avoid the “road of diminishing returns,” and instead delve into the underlying causes to make truly important improvements.

Silo Treatment?

Bill Conway always said, “The biggest waste is found in the interfaces and interstices.”

Or, said another way, the waste is found at the seams of the value stream as it crosses  different organizational boundaries, which are often referenced as the “silos” in which many of us work.

Some time ago, we were involved in an exercise in streamlining office work and had set up an order processing operation that had lots of obvious waste analogous to the sort commonly found in office processes. The simulation was conducted a number of times, usually in one large room with different departments in different areas of the room.

Participants were always able to identify large amounts of waste, because it really is much easier to see waste in someone else’s process than in one’s own. The simulation helped participants to see the waste and then to draw analogies to opportunities they had overlooked in their own work. So light bulbs would go on and participants would generally be able to redesign the process to increase throughput up to ten-fold!

Then one day, the training facilities were different: no large room, just one mid-sized room and a number of breakout rooms.

Even more realistic, we all thought… the Credit Checkers were in one room, the Order Processors in another, and so on.

But when we reconvened to debrief, everyone seemed oddly comfortable with the whole process they had been executing. They identified little things they could improve within their small group, but they missed the elephant in the room — perhaps because it was in next room, or rather the hallway where no one owned it.

As Bill always said, the big waste was in the “interfaces and interstices… and, as noted in a previous post,  “It is easiest to think outside the box, when you are from outside the box” (or silo!).

Challenge to CI: Focus on Improvement vs. Waste

When initially beginning to practice Continuous Improvement (CI), people are typically flooded with ideas and opportunities to improve.  Training in CI helps some team members to see opportunities they hadn’t noticed before, and others bring forth ideas that had occurred to them over time and that they had been keeping “on the shelf.”

But eventually, even the most richly-laden shelves will go bare
and all the “low-hanging fruit” will be harvested.

This scenario, which is a big challenge to Continuous Improvement, plays out when people embark on a search for solutions or ideas for improvement rather than a search for WASTE. To sustain an improvement effort, and to make the most significant gains, it is critically-important to focus on the waste, as opposed to simply on ideas for ‘improvement’.

What’s the difference?

Most of the big waste is hidden in plain sight — long-standing business practices that compensate for a problem that has
not yet been solved. The root causes of the problem have not been addressed, and compensating steps have been built in to avoid bad outcomes such as poor quality or lost productivity.

For example, a financial services company sends every transaction to “QC” for inspection and corrections; inventories are built-up just in case, and long production runs are scheduled to avoid long set-up times. Each of these is compensating for and masking an underlying problem that has not been addressed.

In fact, whenever we find ourselves trying to find the best
trade-off between two evils, we are most-likely masking
underlying root causes which, if addressed, would lead to
breakthrough business improvements. Nearly all the breakthroughs
of the past forty years have been the result of seeing waste and addressing the underlying causes where the competitors simply saw standard operating procedures.