Tag Archives: continuous improvement

Risks of Quick Wins

risk of quick wins

Our previous post focused on the benefits of quick wins, which are many! But going after Quick Wins is not a sure fire strategy.

Without effective leadership, an organization may end up with quick failures instead. Here are some of the potential pitfalls of Quick Wins: To get a solution implemented quickly a team might skip over the analysis.

This is fine in situations where it is easy to quickly determine if the solution worked. If trying the solution is cheap, and it is quick and easy to determine if it solved the problem, just do it! In such a situation, measuring the results is all the analysis you need. But if the results are not likely to be quickly visible or measurable, it is better to do more analysis up front to make sure that the solution you want to implement will actually yield improvements.

For example, if an organization is concerned about employee morale, there are many quick changes that could be made in hopes to improve morale. But organizational morale cannot be measured daily or even weekly. It could take many months to know if a change was actually for the better. In a situation like this, more analysis up front is essential to choosing the right solution.

Sometimes, when you aim for speed, you get a rush to judgement resulting in sub-optimization; the first idea becomes the only idea, when a more thoughtful consideration of the alternatives would surface a substantially better solution.

An organization may simply resort to a band-aide or patch or work-around rather than a solution that addresses a root cause. These band-aides can accumulate until they represent a pretty big component of waste in themselves.

Often a Quick Win is really just an idea someone has “on the shelf” — that is an idea they have been carrying around for a while. When an organization is introduced to Continuous Improvement, a flood of these ideas may be surfaced. But an off-the-shelf idea doesn’t provide a real “cycle of learning” in systematic process improvement because eventually people run out of ideas “on the shelf”. Unless an organization really internalizes the search for waste, the study of facts and data, the search for root causes, and the testing then standardization of the solution, they don’t know how to keep improving once these “on the shelf” ideas get used up.

Speed, however, does not necessarily mean a team must take short cuts in the process improvement methodology. Thoughtful exploration of alternatives can be bounded by time. Even 30 minutes of brainstorming alternatives or improvements to an idea can make a difference. Allowing 24 hours for feedback and improvements on the idea can identify ways to make it even better — with minimal impact on speed.

Leveraging Quick Wins!

When it comes to Continuous Process Improvement, action is what it’s all about. It matters not a bit what training you provide, slogans you use, or posters you post if you do not promptly move into action to get things done, measured, and stabilized so the solution sticks.

‘Quick Wins’ is a powerful tool for moving teams into action.

But it is more easily said than done.

What Is A ‘Quick Win’?
The key elements are right there in those two words: it’s got to be quick and it’s got to be successful. 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 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.

Many Quick Wins do not require a formal team; often 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.

Why Do They Matter?
According to John Kotter, author of Leading Change and The Heart of Change, creating Quick Wins builds momentum, defuses cynics, enlightens pessimists, and energizes people.

In addition, and as depicted in the image above, when involved in any type of improvement or change initiative, education, promptly followed by action, yields motivation, and success inspires success. Theoretical opportunities and methodologies are meaningless until a person starts to see the possibilities through real-life hands-on process improvement.

Conclusions?
So a Quick Win is a shot of adrenalin for a Continuous Improvement culture. The people involved get a great deal of satisfaction from making the work more effective, more efficient, or lower cost. Their effort pays off, and pays off quickly.

Plus, they are more inclined to look for another such improvement. The people who see or hear about the Quick Win are often inspired to begin looking for their own Quick Wins as well!

Ultimately, the motivational value of a Quick Win makes the return on the effort even higher.

Retaining Talent Through Engagement

Continuing the theme of “retaining talent” from our previous post, we have found the combination of productivity and engagement drives many things, including employee retention.

In reality, and like most things in business or in life, it’s the ongoing execution, work, measurement, and improvement projects (which sounds remarkably similar to Deming’s Plan—Do—Study—Act cycle) that will yield better performance results as well as higher levels of employee engagement.

In fact, we have found engagement can be a bi-product of productivity, as opposed to the other-way-around, which is the more accepted ‘conventional wisdom’ opinion.

Thus, it is by taking a formalized approach to creating a workplace culture that is linked with team productivity, performance, and job satisfaction that an organization will achieve the fore-mentioned levels of performance gains, engagement, and talent retention.

In a white paper shared in the past, we described an approach that aligns nicely with the ISO 10018 People Involvement and Competence guidelines. It incorporates Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) as well as Continuous People Involvement (CPI), so we call it CPI².

ISO 10018 and the concept of CPI² will require a formalized plan for improving the work and the workplace… a formalized plan for helping people to achieve higher-levels of productivity and job satisfaction, which will yield better business performance as well as the “skyrocketing” levels of engagement we all strive to attain.

To achieve optimum results, a system for gathering, synthesizing, and analyzing data must be developed, followed by a rigorous method of priority-setting to decide what to work on.

People at all levels must be involved; they must be educated, empowered, and engaged so that the concept of improving both their work and their workplace becomes cultural, and so they become emotionally-invested in their work and workplace.

Supporting this perspective is research conducted this past year by Dale Carnegie and MSW Research, which revealed that although there are many factors that impact employee engagement, there are three key drivers:

  1. Relationship with immediate supervisor
  2. Belief in senior leadership
  3. Pride in working for the company

Recognizing these drivers as “targeted outcomes” is a good first step for business leaders who would like to initiate and document (a-la ISO 10018) a formalized approach to engaging people into their organization’s quality and improvement system.

What’s the Problem?

Problem

Few decisions have a greater impact on the likelihood of success of an improvement project than the definition of the problem.

Stephen Covey says that the way we see the problem is the problem.

Albert Einstein warns that we cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking with which we created them.

The way we define and communicate the problem the team is expected to solve will greatly influence the speed and efficiency with which a team will complete its work, the degree of satisfaction between the team and the project sponsor, and the efficacy with which an organization prioritizes and sequences the problems to devote resources to.

Consider these different approaches to defining the same problematic situation:

  • Order fulfillment is too slow and is costing us a lot of business.
  • Our lost sale rate has increased from an average of 125 per month over the previous six quarters to 190 per month this quarter.
  • Our Order-to-Delivery timeline has increased to 60 days due to a bottleneck in packaging.
  • Profits are down.
  • Sales has missed their target for the past three months.
  • Packaging is too slow due to old equipment.
  • Order-to-Delivery time from the Mid-western plant in Q3 increased by 15 days over the same quarter prior year, and was cited as the cause of 42 lost sales in Q3 impacting revenue by $270,000 in the quarter.

Some of these are statements of fact, while others are judgments. Some are very broad, and others are very specific. They may ALL be valid observations about the same situation, yet the problem-solving efforts they would guide would differ greatly in urgency, efficiency, and efficacy.

Developing a good problem statement at the start will help you define and lead an improvement project that most efficiently arrives at better results.

Four Practices That Lead to Better Results
A good problem statement is not rocket-science, but simply requires some solid pre-work, thoughtful consideration & discussion, and the restraint to avoid speculating before the analysis. If you follow the four basic guidelines for problem definition, you will greatly improve the chances the right problem will get solved for good.

  1. Write It Down. If the problem is not written, shared, and discussed, all participants will feel comfortable that everyone is on the same page about the problem they are trying to solve. Such will not be the case, and the blissful ignorance about their different expectations will eventually give way to a combination of bewilderment, conflict, frustration, disappointment, and a great deal of inefficiency.

    Organizations can avoid the problem-solving frustration and rework by surfacing right up front any different views of the problem they are trying to solve. The best way to surface and discuss any differences is to write it down and discuss it with all participants, to ensure it is well understood and agreed to. In addition to getting everyone on the same page, only a written problem-statement can be tested against the next three qualities necessary to effective problem-solving teams.
  2. Include a Quantification of the Waste the Problem is Causing. Yes, this means you have done some pre-work, because no problem statement is as effective as it should be if it does not indicate why we care.

    Quantifying the waste makes certain that the organization does not invest scarce resources on something that will not have a significant impact. Every organization has more opportunities for improvement than capacity to execute on the improvements.

    Quantifying the waste also helps elicit the urgency and support that the project merits. A problem statement that is “…costing the organization $18,000 each week in excess charges” will receive more urgency than a problem “…costing the organization $800 a week.” And problems for which no discernable and measurable impact can be found probably should not receive much urgency at all. Quantifying the waste in the problem statement helps an organization make sure that they are working on first things first.

    The statement of impact best fits at the end of the problem statement but identifying and quantifying the waste should come at the start of the problem definition process. If we cannot reasonably measure the impact a problem is having on an organization, we cannot reasonably prioritize the effort.
  3. Be specific about the metric you are using to size the problem. Malcom Forbes once observed that “It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.” The rub is that you will have a hard time determining if your solutions are effective.

    To avoid this pitfall, your problem statement should incorporate the measurement you expect to move the needle on, the current baseline for that metric, and both the time and the place that your baseline measurement was taken.
    • The metric: If order-to-delivery timeframe is our problem, the problem statement should be a factual statement of order-to-delivery times. Maybe order-to-delivery times have deteriorated or maybe they have always led to lost orders. Either way, a recent measurement of order-to-delivery times must be part of the problem statement if this is the problem you intend to solve.

      For example: “order-to-delivery times have grown to 6 weeks and was cited as the reason for 25 lost orders last month.” A description such as “too long” is too general, but teams may be tempted to substitute this judgment instead of a metric because a recent measurement is hard to get.

      Bear in mind that if the problem is too hard to measure up front, chances are it will be too hard to measure later on when the team needs to evaluate the efficacy of the solution. Even if the team can gather measurements later, they will have no baseline with which to compare the new results.
    • Timeframe: When have you observed the problem? Is your metric from last week, last month, last quarter, or last year?
    • Scope: Where are you seeing the problem? Does the metric describe what is happening at one plant or all plants? Is it one product, a product family, or all products? By making the problem statement factual and specific about what observable phenomenon we saw when and where, we create for the team a clear and effective baseline against which to measure improvements.
  4. Omit Judgments and Opinions about Underlying Causes. Maslow observes that “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” We all have biases, and when we make assumptions about the underlying cause, we bias the process to overlook other possible causes.

    In theory, this could be a time-saver — if you hit upon the correct root cause. However, in our experience this rarely happens. Making assumptions about the causes almost always makes a problem more difficult to solve instead of easier to solve. This is because if one or more important underlying causes are overlooked by the bias introduced in the problem-statement, the problem will not be solved before the project goes through quite a lot of rework.

    Most people have some sort of bias or hunch, slight or strong, about possible underlying causes of most problems and they will consider these first.

    For example, some people easily incline toward thinking that the technology is not what it could or should be and theorize that this is the cause of most of the problems they encounter. Others are quick to suspect that the incentives are misaligned. And still others may speculate first that processes are not sufficiently defined and adhered to. These hunches are developed based on experience and people with diverse experience and biases tend to serve a project well.

    However, no matter how confident in the theory about the root cause, inclusion of an assumption about the cause or the solution in the problem statement is more likely to impede results than accelerate them. A hunch makes an excellent servant (in the problem analysis phase of the project) but a poor master. Leave any comment about possible underlying causes out of the problem statement.

    If you follow these four guidelines, your project will have a much better chance of arriving at, implementing, and validating an effective solution that produces lasting results.

Four Agility “Enablers”

agility

Our previous post shared perspective on how to develop organizational agility, and noted that to do so leaders must build in their organizations four enablers:

  1. Create fast & effective information flows. We’d all like to be Wayne Gretzky and “just skate to where the puck is going to be.” What a brilliant idea! Of course, if we knew where the puck was going to be, everyone would be there. We don’t know. That’s why we need to build fast and effective information flows so that when indicators emerge about developing changes in the customers or markets, we spot them quickly. Here are some things we can do to accelerate critical information flows.
    • At each customer touchpoint, we need to solicit, capture, and quickly flow back feedback to be understood, prioritized and used to improve the work and better align the products and services with customer values and unmet needs.
    • Engage in rapid prototyping with customers. Develop small experiments and try them out with some real customers to accelerate learning about what they really think, want, and value.
    • Find out what data you have available, and develop ways to use it to understand how your customers are using your products and services. Many businesses have access to an astonishing amount of information, but do not yet know how to use it. Start by identifying the questions you and your team would really like to answer — and then explore what the data can tell you. When millions of answers are available, the advantage goes to whomever has the best questions.
    • Accelerate internal communication
  2. Strong leadership and teamwork to turn insight into action. Here are some things a leader can do to create the strong teamwork needed to operate with agility:
    • Foster trust on the team. Knowledge is becoming obsolete at a faster rate than at any time in history, so an agile team must be absolutely fearless about admitting their gaps in knowledge and questioning what they have long believed. This challenging, learning and growing does not happen when team members cannot let their guards down.
    • Establish a cadence of frequent and effective team communications: both formal and informal. These ensure the team is on the same page, and even able to write a really good page together.
    • Time is short and agile management teams leverage the tools available to help them get further faster. Some examples include affinity diagramming, interrelationship diagrams, cause & effect diagrams, FMEA, prioritization matrices, and quality tables.
    • Because innovations and process improvements have a shorter shelf life than ever, they must be executed more quickly. Make and stick to prioritization decisions and use a Kaizen approach or Design Sprints to accelerate results.
  3. Streamlined, simplified processes. If the processes that comprise your value stream are held together by patches, expediting, and human vigilance, or are full of inspection, rework, delays, over-specification, redundancies, excess inventory, complexity, etc. you will find it very difficult to execute changes you need. An agile organization must relentlessly streamline, simplify, and error-proof the work.
  4. Flexible Investments. Acceleration of change makes acquired assets obsolete faster, so both the investment and hiring strategy should consider the need for flexibility.
    • When making investments, consider what choices we could make today that will ensure the asset retains value if the expected use disappears.
    • How quickly and easily can this asset scale up, scale down, or change uses?
    • What skills should we hire for?
    • When should we use contract resources?

The Best Time Management Plans

time_management

A past post focused on five steps for improving our use of time. In that post it was suggested that using “time” as a measure to find and focus opportunities for improvement has three big advantages:

  • Time drives important business results
  • Time is universally applicable
  • It is very simple to do

Should you decide to launch a time management improvement plan in your organization, it will be important to prepare people by ensuring that the following points are thoroughly understood:

  • The waste in the system is not the fault of the people doing the work; it is there because of the way the process is designed or because of the way that the supplying processes are designed.
  • The people closest to the work can help you find and fix what is wrong with the way the processes are designed.
  • Recognizing non-value-adding work does not mean that you can simply make it go away. It only means it is a candidate for elimination or reduction. An effective solution may not yet be at hand. That’s OK. Recognizing the waste is the first step to searching for a better way.
  • Value-added work is not as plentiful as people might think – on average, only 20% of all work is truly value-added. Keep in mind, every process will contain “necessary” work that is not value-added. The goal is to optimize time spent on value-added work, reduce time spent on other work, and eliminate waste.
  • Someone who has never done this before might find it difficult to identify non-value-added work during their analysis because it is hard to recognize the waste in standard operating procedures. “If we have always had to do something, it usually seems that it surely must add value,” they will likely think. In addition, rework typically compensates for a problem that is so familiar that everyone takes it for granted. Recognize and improve as much as you can, then circle back and look again.
  • With practice and coaching (and amnesty) people can identify more opportunity.
  • Everyone must have amnesty. If people are afraid for their jobs, either because they might be blamed for the waste or be no longer needed if the work is streamlined, there is every disincentive to find and eliminate waste.
  • Successes in reducing cycle time or saving time overall should be measured and celebrated!

The less we know… the more we think we’re right!

questions

Just as continuous improvement teams face hidden perils associated with confirmation bias (see related post), there is another frequently unrecognized pitfall that plagues many-a-project, and that merits our constant attention.

“Theory blindness” is a remarkably common condition in which our theory about the way the world works blinds us to the way the world really works.

When afflicted, we readily accept evidence (however meager or flawed) that supports our assumption or theory, and we explain away or simply fail to notice or correctly interpret evidence that contradicts it.

Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli-American psychologist and economist notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, as well as behavioral economics, for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he suggests the human brain is wired to apply a number of biases, theory-blindness being one of them. The impact of theory blindness is that we are inordinately influenced by what we see, and greatly undervalue information we do not have. As a result, paradoxically, the less we know, the more sure we are of our conclusions.
It’s just how we are wired.

The Less We Know…
When engaged in improvement projects it is important to maintain an open mind and a heightened awareness of the impact of theory blindness, lest we fall prey to the pitfall and “assume” things that just aren’t so.

But beware!

Confidence, it turns out, depends much more on coherence (whether all the information at hand points to the same conclusion) than completeness. Thus, while the less we know the less likely we are to be right, the more likely we are to think we are right!

The value of a written problem statement

problem

Few decisions have a greater impact on the likelihood of an improvement project’s success than the definition of the problem.

Stephen Covey says that, “The way we see the problem is the problem!”

In a past post, we shared four guidelines for accurately defining problems, which included:

  1. Defining the problem in writing
  2. Specifying and quantifying the waste the problem is causing
  3. Identify the metric that will be use to “size” the problem
  4. Omit judgments, opinions, and predispositions about the underlying causes

These aspects of framing a problem have a huge impact on how well a team can analyze and solve a problem. They also enable a team to create an accurate problem statement.

In fact, creating a written, specific and measurable problem statement that incorporates a baseline against which solutions can be tested helps people avoid biases about root cases or solutions. This practices also makes clear why and how much we should care about the problem, and might inspire a team leader and sponsor to more enthusiastically guide the team to efficiently achieving the results the organization desires.

The act of crafting a problem statement does require some careful thought, but a good problem statement is worth the effort because it helps you to ensure that:

  • Team participants, leaders and sponsors, have a shared understanding of the problem that will be solved
  • The organization will give the project the appropriate priority and urgency
  • The team has a good baseline against which they can test the results of their solutions
  • The team is open to surfacing and testing a range of possible root causes so as to increase the likelihood of finding an effective and lasting solution.

Why employee engagement matters more now

engagement around the work

A recent article shared by Gallup indicated that 36% of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work. Surprisingly, this statistic is higher than it has been for many years, though the number itself is typically perceived as disappointing. However, Gallup also says that globally, only 20% of employees are engaged at work.

Equally important, their findings indicate the percentage of actively disengaged employees in the U.S., has risen to 15% through June 2021. Actively disengaged employees cost businesses a lot… higher turnover, more safety issues, more absenteeism, and so on; they generally “report miserable work experiences and are generally poorly managed. They also tend to bring-down their coworkers.

Why Now?
The reason workforce engagement has emerged as more important now is that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says employee turnover or “quit rates” are reaching record highs, and Gallup research has found “substantial differences in intentions to change employers as a function of the quality of the work environment.”

“Among actively disengaged workers in 2021, 74% are either actively looking for new employment or watching for openings. This compares with 55% of not engaged employees and 30% of engaged employees,” the article states.

With this fact in mind, and despite the recent rise in engagement levels, with only 36% of U.S. employees engaged in their work, there is much room for improvement.

The first step in this improvement process is to formalize an employee engagement plan, and to do so in the same fashion as one would implement a continuous process improvement initiative:

  • Get acceptance and buy-in from senior leaders. Little will be accomplished without this; the best results are achieved when leaders understand the benefits of engagement and take action.
  • Create a formalized implementation plan and establish performance measures so that progress can be tracked. Develop realistic, achievable, and measurable goals and objectives.
  • Work with the leaders so that they can model the right behaviors and cascade the concepts throughout the organization.
  • Create and equip project teams to identify and quantify opportunities for improvement.
  • Foster an atmosphere of collaboration, innovation, continuous improvement, and fun. Increases in productivity yield increases in engagement.
  • Make sure people have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed.
  • Implement an appropriate integrated communication plan, reinforcing the concept of improving both the “work and workplace.”
  • Reward and recognize people so that they feel supported in their efforts.
  • Measure results and ROI… and keep your foot on the gas!

What to do when Improvement projects stall or hit the wall

question mark what to do

Our previous post shared ten reasons why improvement projects stall or peter out.

But simply knowing “why” doesn’t help when we’ve hit the wall!

A poll of CI leaders and specialists revealed the following suggestions when a project grinds to a halt:

  • Go back to basics… “be true to the Continuous Improvement process and manage it; review systems, put routines in place, collect additional data, and reaffirm objectives.”
  • Review of CI fundamentals and roles with both participants and sponsors can often result in getting projects back on track. “It’s important for sponsors to fully understand their role; otherwise, when things begin to shutdown they are unable to provide the necessary support.”
  • Encourage project participants by showing or reminding them of “what’s in it for them” (WIIFT) as opposed to how the organization-as-a-whole.
  • Reassign people and tasks to bring about fresh outlooks and give everyone a shot in the arm that helps them get back on track.
  • Communicate! This must involve running effective team meetings and action planning sessions as well as publicizing success, or even the lack of it. “It’s important to celebrate the wins and achievements to help anchor the participants, and also to make the results as well as the activities known throughout the organization.”
  • Root-out naysayers.
  • Conduct more frequent project reviews.
  • Make sure you’re working on the right things; on things that will make a difference.
  • Measure progress and results in a “visual” way.
  • Apply the principles outlined in the “4 Disciplines of Execution”
    • Identify and focus on a Wildly Important Goal (a WIG)
    • Monitor and act on LEAD measures
    • Keep a compelling SCOREBOARD updated by the people doing the work
    • Develop a rhythm of ACCOUNTABILITY.