Tag Archives: how to optimize continuous improvement efforts

Ten Key Questions for Optimizing Our Continuous Improvement Effort

One of Bill Conway’s favorite sayings is, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on….”

While at first glance this might seem a simple questions, upon reflection most of us will realize it is not necessarily an easy one to answer.

Possibly the following ten questions can help us move forward in a fashion that enables us to get the most out of our improvement efforts:

  1. What should we work on?
  2. What process should we use to decide what to work on?
  3. How should we prioritize?
  4. What is our “readiness to change?”
  5. What do we do now?
  6. What do we do next?
  7. How do we go about it?
  8. Which tools will best enable us to achieve goals?
  9. Which methods will best enable us to achieve goals?
  10. How can we increase alignment?

The Best opportunities?

continuous improvement

Continuing with our previous post’s theme of identifying waste (or the best opportunities for improvement), the process of doing so is one that is often misunderstood.

Case in Point
For example, we were invited to visit a large packaging company which had been “in Continuous Improvement (CI)” mode for many years. They wanted help because their efforts were not having any impact on their profitability.

Their sector of the industry suffers from substantial over-capacity, which has created major challenges for all the major players. We began with an assessment, during which we met a broad cross-section of people so we could gain an understanding of what they had been working on, how they had gone about it and what results they have achieved.

What we found was very interesting…

Conventional wisdom in this industry dictated that the only way to make money is to keep the presses running. Consequently, anything that slows down the presses needed to be “fixed.”

With that principle in mind, the company launched a number of projects aimed at improving uptime; project teams consisting of the crews and technical people were put in place and they developed good ways of measuring performance, getting to root causes and taking corrective action. Several of these projects delivered substantial improvements in up-time.

However, in this industry, cost of raw materials is by far the largest proportion of total cost. It therefore made sense to re-focus the improvement efforts on ways of improving yield, which was defined as the percentage of inputs that end up as saleable product made correctly the first time.

This new focus revealed all kinds of problems leading to yield loss, including:

  • Lack of training
  • Inconsistent procedures
  • Errors in getting correct customer requirements
  • Inconsistent internal information
  • Standard loss factors which may lead to complacency
  • Inconsistent raw materials coming from a sister plant

This is an example of a well-intentioned company with well-intentioned people who did not ask what impact their projects would have on the bottom line. If that question had been asked, a much different direction would likely have been taken.

As Bill Conway often said, at least 50% of Continuous Improvement involves working on the right thing.

Investing in Continuous Improvement?

investinemployeesNot too long ago. a member of a prospective client’s senior management team spoke of a past consulting relationship in which the recommended “solution” for improving their process was to buy a new (and expensive!) software package.

He went on to say, “Upgrading an IT system is not the kind of answer we’re looking for… we want to learn how to improve the work!”

We completely agreed…

This same topic came up during a more recent discussion among CI Leaders. The group recognized that many organizations invest in technology or IT systems hoping to improve productivity, but also noted this type of investment frequently fails to deliver a sustainable solution.

As one member of the group said, “Software rarely fixes problems; people do. A bad process, with new software, will only run faster, not better.”

Thus the question was posed, “What kinds of investments can lead to successful continuous process improvement?

Among the top suggestions:

  • Invest in the staff. It’s remarkable to me how little soft-skill training employees get, in areas such as communication, teamwork, project management, delegation, and more. It’s assumed that people already have these abilities, but this is not always true.
  • Invest in team development. Even if people possess the right skills individually, they may not know how to work together as a team.
  • Invest in preparing people for change. This includes getting people to look at change through a positive lens, and maintaining proper staffing on the development and support side post-delivery, allowing for quick iterations with real-time user feedback.
  • Invest in developing the right culture for the improvement journey. Invest in our people, educate them, and shape their behavior through rewards and recognition.
  • Invest in defining improvement and quantifying the opportunities. Three useful questions, answered is this sequence, help to produce a path to improvement.
    1. What are we trying to accomplish?
    2. How will we know that a change is an improvement?
    3. What changes can we make that will produce improvement?