Is Your Idea Pool Polluted? by Kevin McManus
Most organizations have a backlog of improvements just waiting to be developed and implemented. Most managers cringe when someone suggests that we hold a meeting to collect ideas from ‘everyone in the plant.’ Too many managers and supervisors are not very skilled at project management.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed the above facts in all too many organizations. Fortunately, I have learned over the years what the root causes of poor idea flow rates in organizations are, what types of system changes can be made to reduce idea backlogs, and what mechanisms can be used to allow all team members to contribute their ideas for improvement.
I, like most facilitators, can go into any company, meet for an hour with a collection of their employees, and identify at least two or three years worth of work for someone. It is for this reason that I strongly dislike suggestion boxes as they are typically used in organizations. The typical suggestion box collects poorly described ideas from a limited group of people. Worse yet, these idea boxes are rarely supported by a sound project evaluation and development system. The idea pool quickly becomes polluted.
Expectations are raised when people think something is going to change, and then dashed when the organization fails to put their improvements in place. In most cases, people fill the box with problems that they are most familiar with - not those that may benefit the overall goals of the site the most. They don’t understand why the changes aren’t being made, and management takes a big credibility hit.
It is truly a vicious cycle. People won’t share ideas because management won’t listen, and management won’t listen because the people suggest things that really won’t make that much difference. As morale drops, supervisors spend more time dealing with gripes instead of working on projects that would help reduce the gripes. Then someone calls the consultant to fix morale, and he asks the people for their ideas about how to improve it. An additional dump into the already polluted pool is made. Is your idea pool polluted?
How Do You Pick Your Projects?
Like it or not, every person, team, location, and organization has a limit when it comes to project evaluation and implementation - there is only so much time and money to go around. In spite of these limits, organizations still waste time on ‘squeaky wheel’ or ‘pet’ projects instead of focusing their limited resources on those areas that would provide the greatest return on investment.
There are two ways to get more time for projects (other than hiring more people) - (1) take waste out of jobs and use the time savings for project work and (2) improve how your people use their project management skills. Unfortunately, system changes in the form of projects are needed to reduce the waste. Training and practice are needed to reduce project development cycles. Both take time.
The road to recovery requires (1) recognizing what your project time limits are and (2) ensuring that those limited resources are focused on the projects that provide the greatest ‘bang for the buck.’ While this seems like common sense, far too many organizations don’t use a formal decision making tool to pick their projects AND they overestimate how many projects can be completed in a given amount of time.
How Do You Plan to Succeed?
Most companies plan on an annual basis. A group of people go offsite, spend a day or two listing possible improvements and selecting their favorites from the list. Someone takes the pile of flip chart paper and creates a nice looking notebook. The notebooks are distributed and join their peers on the bookshelf - tombstones of good intentions collecting dust.
I admit that this particular perspective is a bit cynical. Some companies do a better job of planning than this. You have to judge for yourself where your own organization’s planning efforts lie on the spectrum between creating dust collectors and implementing innovative system changes. One key thing to note however is that the better sites use a formal planning process, review plan progress on at least a quarterly basis, and make efforts to improve this process each year.
I was lucky. I was able to spend five years with a company that did planning very well - they involved the whole plant, they focused their limited resources on those areas that needed them the most, they kept everyone informed about plan progress on a monthly basis, and they improved the process from year to year. Was everyone always happy? No, but in general, they were a lot more satisfied than other workforces I have seen.
You might notice that I speak more of annual planning versus strategic planning here. Well, that is intentional - strategic planning is both nice and necessary, but an effective annual planning effort is required if you ever want to make those multi-year strategic plan come to life. Otherwise, you will end up with lists of what you want to do and you will be left wondering how do we do this.
Effective planning is all about using your limited time and money resources wisely. The gap between your key results measures and their goals should tell you where improvement is needed. Employee input and root cause analysis should help provide you with the answers to the ‘how do we make the numbers better?’ question. Using a formal decision making tool that considers each project's potential resource impact will help you pick those improvement that will make the most difference.
For an example flow chart of an annual planning process, click here! If you would like to look over some additional tools and thoughts related to systems and planning, give the Working with Two Years of Ideas page on this site a try.
Would You Like Some Help?
Over the past 19 or so years, I have helped set up and manage planning systems in four different companies - both small and large - in the manufacturing and service arenas. This experience has helped me discover value added, simple ways to set up an effective planning system and to help you make simple systems improvements that will significantly increase your idea flow rate. Lack of time for projects and poor project managenment skills result in a poor idea flow rate - the primary power restrictor for this power system. These tools help you both eliminate that barrier and move forward more rapidly towards higher levels of performance.
If you are interested in the planning systems and tools that I have to offer, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better yet, give some thought to working further with me to help you improve your planning system through my interactive planning system improvement and project management workshop.
Keep improving! -- Kevin McManus, the Systems Guy
Would You Like to Learn More?
Click on one of the following links to learn even more about Great Systems! and the types of systems improvements I can help you make:
“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates