Tag Archives: continuous improvement process

Is Year-end a Good Time for a Fresh Look?

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As we approach the end of this year and look ahead to 2023, this might be an ideal time to gather the group together for a fresh and penetrating look at where the business has the biggest opportunities for getting more of the waste out.

Over the past year, you likely have studied the work in a number of areas and found and eliminated a substantial amount of waste.

Congratulations! And while bringing those results to the bottom line, you almost certainly got close enough to the work to identify even more waste and opportunities for the new year. As long as you are willing to roll up your sleeves and really learn about the work, the opportunities for improving the business will continue to grow larger and larger. The more you gain, the more possibilities you can see.

Now is an excellent time to gather up these insights, step back, and make sure you are focusing your efforts on the right thing.

Inventory the Opportunities
Where do you go for your inventory of next best ideas?

Many organizations make sure that they document their findings about additional waste as a regular part of their improvement efforts, and it is a good idea to make a habit of capturing the improvement opportunities that become visible when a team goes after an area of waste.

By maintaining an easily accessible repository for these newly visible opportunities, not only does the organization gain the benefit of these insights and observations, but it helps teams to avoid scope creep as well because each new opportunity is documented, but not added to the initial scope.

But in addition to collecting these insights, step back and do some Imagineering: what would the business look like if everything were right? When people start to answer this question in detail, some major areas of waste are bound to surface.

Ask your group what problems and challenges are delaying the organization from achieving the vision and mission.

What strategic challenges does the organization face? What changes to the business are necessary to ward off strategic threats and capture strategic opportunities?

How do these translate into specific problems to solve?

Go through your list of improvement possibilities and areas of waste you have identified so far.

Which ones further your most important objectives?

Which ones should we focus on when the New Year arrives in January?

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.

what’s your plan for avoiding theory blindness?

plan

Our previous post described the pitfall of “theory blindness,” and explained how, with good intentions, people can fall prey to it.

A sure way to avoid this pitfall is to adhere to a defined improvement methodology — one that goes well beyond the common (most often ineffective) two-step approach of:

  1. Someone in a position of authority comes up with an improvement idea
  2. The idea is immediately implemented

Instead, a more elaborate improvement process or plan will incorporate a systematic search for new knowledge and understanding in order to arrive at a solution that addresses the root cause of whatever problem we are hoping to solve or whatever process we’re hoping to improve.

Take, for example, the first six steps of the 8-step methodology we apply:

  1. First, we identify and quantify what to work on. After gathering a lot of ideas and opinions about opportunities, we prioritize and then quantify. Quantification helps us in two ways: it helps us set aside our pet ideas for improvement (theories) that simply are not supported by the facts, and it helps us proceed with appropriate urgency on the highest impact opportunities.
  2. Next, we put together a team of people who can study the opportunity for improvement from a variety of perspectives. We include input from both customers and suppliers of the process (internal and, when possible, external) which helps us overcome theory-blindness, because people who can see the process from different perspectives can help us spot the flaws in our theory.
  3. Third, we gather facts and data about the current situation. This step can be difficult for those who entered the project with a preconceived solution – but when a sufficient number of relevant facts and data are surfaced, they most often serve as effective treatments for theory blindness.
  4. Fourth, we analyze root causes: thinking expansively and systematically about possible causes and then critically examining each possibility.
  5. The fifth step is to implement, but we’re not finished yet!
  6. Step six is to study the results. Because we started the process with a good baseline measurement, when we study the results, we will either confirm a successful improvement or not. We can then complete the final steps and move on to the next project!

Why An 8-Step Improvement Plan?

While organizations in most sectors work at making at least some ongoing improvements to their work and work processes, most industries or vertical markets consist of leaders and followers.

People often ask about what makes the difference between the industry leaders and the follow-behinds.  In our experience, there are two things:

  1. What they work to improve
  2. How they go about the improvement

Industry leaders tend to “work on the right things,” which, as we’ve noted numerous times in this blog, is the most important decision we all must make every day. They also go about making improvements in an effective way. By working on the right things and following a proven effective improvement process, an organization can get further faster.

We recommend an 8-step process for studying and improving the work. While it is possible to make improvements in fewer steps, the more comprehensive eight-step process helps to ensure people are working on the “right” things, and also that the improvements will “stick.”

These steps are:

  1. Identify and quantify the waste you want to eliminate
  2. Clearly define what you want to do (including problem statement, objective, measurements, scope, team, and plan)
  3. Study and measure the current situation
  4. Analyze the root causes and evaluate and plan solutions
  5. Implement
  6. Study the results and take appropriate action until objectives are met
  7. Stabilize and standardize the improvement so that it stays in place and is used throughout
  8. Evaluate and learn from this improvement effort and plan the next

As noted above, some people think this seems like a lot of steps and wherever we go we meet people who want to “streamline” this process . We call them the “two-fivers” because the improvement process they follow is simply:

  • think of something they believe will improve things
  • implement it

Two-fivers eliminate 3/4 of the steps we recommend! Possibly a good, or at least workable idea… but the whole point of the eight steps is to make sure people are working on the right thing, that they get to the right solution, and that it sticks. If you can do without that, by all means, be a two-fiver.

Improving the “Improvers”

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A Standardized Model…

Some organizations are very, very good at process improvement. Have you ever wondered how they get so good at it? The odds are, they have studied and “improved” the improvement process.

In other words, process improvement is itself a process that can be improved…, yet it is often ignored by the very professionals who spend their time improving other work processes.

Have you ever wondered about the effectiveness of your organization’s continuous improvement processes?

Is your improvement process as successful as you want it to be?

How well would your improvement process work if everything were exactly right the environment?

A good first-step toward answering these questions might be to evaluate the team. Do the people involved possess the necessary skills? Do they understand the improvement methodology and how it is executed?

During a recent CI discussion, participants agreed that deploying an organization-wide standard improvement process and making sure all stakeholders were taught “how” to implement (and ultimately master) this standard process was the best first step toward improving the improvement process.

To emphasize the importance of standardized work and work processes, one person referenced a Taiichi Ohno quote: “Where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen.”