Tag Archives: how to sustain a continuous improvement effort

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.