What’s Killing Your Improvement Efforts
By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems
Most organizations want to improve. For example, lean six sigma was recently, and may still be, the hot improvement topic. As time progresses, we will watch this improvement effort fade in popularity, This effort will be replaced by something that may sound new and improved. In reality, the replacement will probably be very similar in concept and design to what we’ve been spending time and money on, and relentlessly pursuing, over at least the last 35 years in our efforts to get better results. What barriers are holding back your efforts to improve?
How Effective are Your Improvement Strategies?
We are culturally consistent in the approaches we use to try to make a fad a reality. We read some books, hold some training sessions, ask people to change, form some teams, and try to use some new tools. The change just doesn’t seem to take hold however. What are we doing wrong? What’s killing our improvement efforts?For me, it started with Total Quality Management over thirty-five years ago. Over time, I saw this ‘fad’ be replaced by reengineering, lean management, and lean six sigma. If you know your improvement effort theories and history, you also know that these approaches are all mostly grounded on the tenets of the Toyota Production System. You will also know that the success of TPS, as captured in the NBC white paper ‘If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?’ that kicked off the whole TQM fad to begin with. Guess what country still hosts the leading car manufacturing company in the world?
I have never worked in a company that was not trying to put one type of improvement effort, or another, into place. As time progressed, I went from being a process implementation observer to a process improvement effort implementer. With each improvement effort, I learned something. With my last two efforts, I saw those organizations double their sales in five and three years respectively. We did this by taking care of the customer. We did not have to double the workforce to do so. Our successes came from designing our work systems to avoid the key barriers that I had seen kill so many other improvement efforts. What’s holding back your effort to improve?
Which Improvement Barriers are Holding You Back?
The seven barriers shown in the graphic are deeply entrenched in the cultures of most organizations. The degree to which they are rooted in our mental models and work systems depends on many factors. The age of the organization, the nature of the product or service being performed, the location of the facility itself, and the process that was used to hire the people that currently work there head this list. These changes are common and tough to change. Tough does not mean impossible however.
It is likely that you are quite familiar with these seven barriers. The positive thing is that they can be overcome. The systems you can install for minimizing their impact are relatively simple in design, easy to use, and not that hard to find. You only need to do two things. First, decide that your work systems need to be changed. Second, be willing to live with the short-term discomfort that comes from trying to shift your own mental models about how things are or should be.
The key is that you must change your work systems. Let’s explore these barriers, and the types of changes needed to overcome them, in a little more detail.
Provide little time for projects
Many people don’t have time built into their jobs for projects. People often expect certain levels of performance to be reached, even though the existing processes are not capable of performing consistently at those levels. Time is the fuel for high performance because it is required to improve process capability. There is a direct correlation between available project time in your jobs and your improvement rate. Where does this time come from?
For starters, consider using process improvement tools to minimize the substantial waste that exists in your meeting and e-mail / text processes. In most organizations, neither of these processes are measured, even though they often require 50% of a leader’s time each day. What are you doing to reduce meeting defects and optimize meeting cycle time? What are you doing to reduce non-value added e-mails and texts?
Allow leaders to behave badly
In many companies, leaders behave as they wish, at least up to a point. For example, they don’t communicate enough with their people. When they do, that communication is often negative. They may also act in ways that are inconsistent with the mission, vision, and values of the organization. Many leaders are not very good coaches, and their positive recognition and rule enforcement skills are often weak, if not non-existent.
How do we improve leadership behaviors on the job? For starters, consider using a portion of your annual climate survey to gauge leadership behavior consistency. FedEx has done this for over twenty years via their Survey-Feedback-Action process. Most Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence award recipients doing something similar.
DISCOVER MORE: Measuring Leadership Behavior Effectiveness
Ignore non-operations processes
Most improvement efforts focus on improving processes in the value stream. Processes that support, and often drive, that value stream, such as sales, marketing, human resources, and accounting, are rarely expected to improve. How often have you seen an accounting team talk about the efforts they are making to minimize the time required to close the books each month?
How do we get every team involved in the improvement effort? Structure is needed for starters. Jobs must be designed to include project time. Job descriptions for all staff must include process-based measures and quantitative improvement expectations. Most importantly, leaders at all levels must have such expectations built into their job descriptions and compensation plans.
Lay people off as processes are improved
Instead of being recognized in a positive manner for their improvement successes, people often see the jobs of their friends, or even their own jobs, being eliminated. On more than one occasion, I have seen people purposely, but not admittedly, slow down or even fight against efforts to improve to help avoid personal or peer job loss.
How do we save money if we can’t reduce headcount? This is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should be asking how can we grow the business through sales, marketing, and other customer satisfaction-based process refinements to make better use of the people we have on staff. We don’t have to replace people one-for-one as they retire or otherwise leave, but layoffs are the ‘kiss of death’ to an improvement effort. The real lean upside lies in improving processes so that they provide consistent, added value to every customer.
Fail to recognize improvement success
As we learned with the last barrier, laying people off as a reward for improving their processes is not an effective strategy. Enhanced job security should be viewed as a benefit of a process improvement effort, but many people want more than that. How should we recognize improvement success?
When it comes to recognizing employee improvement efforts, there are a lot of options to consider. Certificates, mugs, and other giveaways lose their motivational impact over time. Spot rewards and employee of the month recognition often discount the efforts of others who helped make the improvement happen. Providing a financial stake in the success of the business via profit sharing and possible stock ownership work the best, but many leaders are hesitant to take such a bold move.
Ignore process capability
This barrier is a close relative of the error we often make when setting performance goals. Systems will only give you what they are designed to give you. Another way of saying this is that you can only go so fast. Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much change in the short-term. Consistent, daily process measurement is required to understand any process.
Applying statistical process control techniques, such as measuring and analyzing process performance over time with a moving range control chart, will tell you what a given process is currently capable of giving you. This tool can also tell you the probability of achieving a given performance level. To go outside the lines and improve to a significant degree often requires creativity and innovative ideas, not just process tweaks.
Restrict information flows
All organizations have resource limitations in the form of time and money constraints. Strategic priorities exist as well. When leaders fail to teach their teams about such constraints, people often wonder why ideas are not getting implemented more quickly or why certain improvement options are being placed on hold or are dropped.
Getting the information out there is one of the key first steps in improving business literacy levels in any organization. The best way to fix this problem is to have senior leadership create and follow a formal communication plan. Such a plan defines the key communication vehicles used within the organization to communicate with the workforce. This plan also identifies frequency of use, the affected groups, and the type of information communicated as each vehicle is used.
Have you seen any of these barriers kill a performance improvement effort in your work lifetime? The overarching key to remember is that if you want to change a culture or get better results, you must change the systems that are producing the current culture and results. Proven best practices for doing this exist. What is needed is the courage to trust and use them.
If you like this post, you might also enjoy my book entitled “Pursuing Process Excellence – How to Sustain Your Improvement Efforts“. You can buy it in e-book or hardcopy from Amazon.com.