Tag Archives: how to sustain a continuous improvement effort

Leverage Learning for Change

learning for change

The importance identifying threats and opportunities and then quickly making necessary changes / improvements was discussed in our previous post, which defined this competency as organization agility.

An equally important component of sustaining a culture of improvement and change is the pursuit of knowledge. To develop new insights, new solutions, new opportunities for competitive advantage, we must actively mine for knowledge that can trigger solutions. In other words, learning can become a catalyst for change.

Here are five key areas in which this knowledge can be accessed:

  1. Learn from the work. The most important knowledge of all is knowledge of your own value stream — he set of activities that move the value from your suppliers through your operations to your customers. Know it in detail — how long it takes, where it piles up, how well it is synchronized with the needs of the customers. 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. And those with the broader perspective and the influence do not really understand how the work as it is done today well enough to arrive at the ‘Eureka!’ moment. One of the fundamentals of the Lean approach is that you must “go to the work.” Don’t just talk about the results or listen to people talk about the work — go to the work. Look at the work, and learn from the people who do it every day. Without this knowledge, little can be substantially improved.
  2. Learn from the marketplace. A prime example of learning from the market took place in the early 1980’s when Toyota believed that, to grow their sales in the United States, they would need to have manufacturing facilities here. But they concluded they did not have enough knowledge to do so successfully. So, they entered into a joint venture with General Motors opening the NUMMI plant in California to produce both the Chevy Nova and the Toyota Corolla in the United States. Having achieved their learning goals, Toyota went on to open plants in Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana and more. General Motors had the opportunity to learn the production systems that enabled Toyota to produce very high-quality product with low cost. Indeed, many individuals at GM learned a great deal through this venture. But in keeping with the practice of gathering knowledge by chance and then leaving it where it lies, GM gained little more from the venture than the cars that came off the assembly line.
  3. Learn from customers. Customers may tell you what they want, but not necessarily why. What do they really value? How do they use or struggle to use what you give them? What are the things that you could do differently that the customers would not know to ask? They don’t ask because they know enough about your process to suggest it and you don’t know enough about their process to offer it. Contextual inquiry is a method of learning more about the customer needs than the customer could tell you by watching the customer use the product in context. It has been used by some software developers and systems designers for a number of years. But it can be used in many other circumstances. The staff of an assisted living facility was able to eliminate almost half the forms in the move-in process by spending time with the departments requesting the forms to really understand how and why they were used. With the new understanding, they were able to design a much simpler and less error-prone move-in process that also perfectly met the needs of the accounting, facilities, and medical departments as well.
  4. Learn from the competition. In his book, “Benchmarking: The Search for Industry Best Practices,” Robert Camp described a methodology to learn and apply better ways of doing things by identifying and studying the best. His is a rigorous and time-consuming methodology, and companies must choose the most important aspects of their work to compare and try to improve. In addition to benchmarking, there are a number of quick and inexpensive ways to mine competitive information. Visiting competitors’ websites can increase knowledge and generate ideas about how you might leapfrog them by combining the best of the competitors with your own best capabilities and offerings. Visiting the competitor as a customer can also tell you a great deal about their customer service and how you can improve your own. The manager of a loan processing and underwriting group went to a competitor to apply for an auto loan — and was astonished at their speed and quality. This learning experience changed his mindset: “We were processing loans as fast as we can. Now I know we have to process them as fast as they can!”
  5. Learn from the world at large. What is going on in technology? What methods are others trying out? How is it working for them? How could it work for you? In the mid-20th century, Toyota noticed that Ford auto workers were nine times as efficient as those at the Toyota plants. So, they sent Taiichi Ohno to study the Ford processes. Ohno concluded, however, that the capital-intensive Ford production model could not be applied to the Japanese automobile company. Nonetheless, Ohno continued to search for ideas for improvements. On one study mission, Ohno watched the bread replenishment system in a Midwestern grocery store and saw how he could adapt this method to make cars with low capital requirements. The Toyota Production System was conceived — a breakthrough achieved!

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

3 Key Strategies for Addressing Common CI Challenges

Our previous post referenced meetings of our “Partners in Improvement” groups, during which the Partners identified three common challenges associated with executing New Year CI plans, which were:
1.) Rapid growth and a scarcity of resources.
2.) Inspiring mid-management to embrace change.
3.) Measuring the impact of long-term CI projects.

The Partners also identified three key strategies to address these challenges:

Learn from the outside. One of our Partners explained that his organization was working very hard to expand ability to see
new possibilities by drawing analogies to specific tasks. By drawing analogies between specific work and that work in other industries, he creates the possibility of seeing their work in a new light and learning from others who have tackled the same problems.

He explained, “Amazon ships things all over the world, and we ship equipment all over the world. What can we learn? How can we improve by studying their work?”

Another partner collaborates with a consortium of other diverse companies to share ideas. The consortium includes a number of very different companies in very different industries, all learning from one another. The fact that the “learning relationship” has been formalized via the formation of the consortium has resulted in more consistent participation by all.

Another strategic approach to meeting the challenges ahead is becoming better at measurement. All of our Partners agreed, without a strong system of quantifying the waste and measuring the improvements, a CI initiative can easily drift into unproductive territory. Developing an effective method for, and consensus around, measuring the deep cause & effect improvement initiatives will be an important strategy for the challenges ahead.

To address the challenge of aggressive strategic growth plans with scarce resources, the primary strategy is alignment. Hiring goals and training goals will be aligned to achieve the strategic plans. Personal activities and projects must align to the strategic goals.

But alignment of the goals and objectives is only half of the challenge. Executing to the plans in expedient and focused fashion is perhaps an even bigger challenge. The partners identified key supporting processes to support execution:

  • Communication: One of our partners is working hard to make the goals visible and making clear and widely understood how well the goals are accomplished. Monthly dashboards and monthly newsletters that track and communicate percent complete should help to maximize goal completion and the alignment of individual activities to support those goals.
  • Training: In a time of growth, training becomes ever more critical. One of the partners is marshaling the knowledge of internal subject matter experts and to build both classroom and on-line training. The objective is to make the process as standardized and well-rounded as possible. In one of the partners’ organizations, CI has strong support from the CEO, but less so from middle management and first level supervisors. Training will be key to driving the execution needed to achieve the vision. Several of our partners employ a Learn & Do approach that follows up the training immediately with an improvement project.
  • Retention: Training is also key to another strategic objective: retaining the top talent is essential for several of the partners to address the challenges ahead. The retention goals demand using people wisely, developing their skills and abilities, providing growth paths, and making sure they have the right tools to succeed. Effective training and development will be a fundamental support tool for this initiative.
  • Marketing: One of the partners noted he finds lots of enthusiasm at the worker level, but not a lot of top down support. Constant marketing of the success and focusing the message on how the job is getting bigger and the resources are getting tighter is essential to cultivating the support required for on-going success.
  • Information Technology: Information technology will play an important role in achieving some of the growth goals. Applying the CI principles to the better leverage information technology will help to achieve the world class initiatives. Especially important will be getting the IT people involved up front in improvements – where they can add the most value.
  • Incorporating other areas into the CI effort: Operations has traditionally been the first area of engagement with CI, but opportunities exist throughout an organization. Several of our partners will be working to bring continuous improvement to the finance and admin groups as well.

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.