I am a continuous improvement practitioner and have been for many years. I believe that in most organizations and processes there is additional hidden potential that requires discovery. This may require the reinvention of the process, culture and thinking in order to bring it out to the fullest.
One such method to reinvent organizations and people is the Continuous Improvement thinking.
Continuous Improvement (CI) has been heavily popularized in the 80s through Toyota’s famous Lean practices (though Toyota Lean Manufacturing system goes back to the late 1940s) and Lean Six Sigma methodology to improve production quality and reduce waste. Today, CI programs go well beyond manufacturing and virtually any process can be transformed to bring additional value to life. However there are some basic components that must be present in order to separate those organizations that just talk about CI (but actually have no idea what real CI is) and those that benefit from CI programs and their potential daily.
What I am about to describe is not new, but you can consider this the Coles notes version of prerequisites you need to reinvent your organization through CI to achieve extra potential.
The storyteller and the evangelist
Any CI program needs a catalyst, a spark that ignites the reinvention fire. To a great extent I have never seen that spark to be a book, a theory or a tool; it has always started with a believer, who could sell the potential to others. This individual should be able to tell the story, bring everyone onboard, and make people and organizations believe as to what is possible. This is the single most important component of a CI program. Find the right person to carry the torch.
You have found the evangelist and she is amazing. You are sitting late at night by the campfire and listening to her battle stories and the great excavations of potential she has accomplished. But all is in vain if the organization which purports to engage in CI pays lip service to the philosophy of CI. I have seen this time and again where sales and marketing tout their organization is so great at CI, yet falls flat once you start scratching the surface and asking for evidence. In order for the spark to take flight and turn to flame you MUST have your senior leadership support and involvement. If the general of the army ends up hiding behind the bunker walls and shows no confidence nor conviction in winning the battle, how do you think your army will feel? Will they feel empowered and motivated or will they feel like they have no chance and the battle plans that have been drawn up are useless? I am sure that would generate more and more deserters until the initially-present potential turns into all-out risk of losing the battle or the war.
You got the CI evangelist. Now you need to bring your sponsor onboard who will be the biggest advocate for the army to see. We have the 51% of the work done.
Methodologies are plenty: from lean Six Sigma to Business Process Re-engineering, TQM, Kaizen, many can work in your circumstances. Some care must be taken to identify the methodology that fits the needs of the organization. It does not need to be complicated to be effective. I have personally been partial to using the Lean Management (deliver value from customer perspective, eliminate waste and continuously improve), which has plenty of market materials and the famous DMAIC cycle from Six Sigma provides a simple construct for running a CI program. Typically, your CI evangelist/champion/guru will bring a methodology with them and may make adjustments to fit the purpose of the organization.
Start with some magic!
My personal experience reinforces the fact that one of the best ways to turn non-believers into disciples is by performing some small miracles, also known as quick wins. Regardless of the reference, it is prudent to pick the first CI examples that may not yield the biggest improvements, but something that may have the biggest emotional and practical impact instantly. One good example that comes to my mind when I was standing the first time in front of a group of non-believers was around the concept of quality. I ventured out to claim that we could reduce the number of steps in the quality process while preserving the quality levels virtually intact and continue to meet customer expectations. (I should point out that the group I was trying to influence were very proud of their quality and were significantly over delivering on service levels, which could also be considered a waste if you use Lean thinking “over-production” term). So, after agreeing to do a trial, we picked several processes and:
We started with changing three processes and three weeks later, all three processes were measuring virtually no noticeable impact on quality while effort was significantly reduced. Non-believers were shocked, egos slightly shaken, but the facts were indisputable: CI works. Within the period of next 6 months, we changed the next 14 processes affected. The result: while maintaining happy customers, reduced costs up to 30% per process and even created happier employees (less repetitive work). Miracle? No, just turning method into wine.
Now that we have the actors (the spark, the sponsor and believers) and the methods along with a spectacular show of early quick wins, we start the program. Here, changing people’s minds is the most important aspect, because CI is all about a way of thinking. It is a new culture. It is a new religion. I found that making culture visible, installing own language, providing right incentives and recognition and making it appear extremely important is paramount. CI must be linked to organizations opportunities: strategy of the company, opportunity to make more benefits, more recognition and incentives for employees, satisfied customers. All of this is to be supported by marketing and communications that needs to be ever-present, calling for action, for ideas, for change.
In my daily work at SPS, I talk about CI at every opportunity I get. And so do my people. I have been able to create my CI disciples who have taken the CI program globally and are now preaching the good word of POTENTIAL to others within their organizations. It has become the way of live, it has mutated into our DNA. And when you have everyone so involved, it is impossible to prevent great things from happening. Just as a reference, in 2018 one of our operations has generated over 1,600 improvement ideas, leading to significant process, financial, workplace and employee satisfaction improvement benefits. I can proudly say we have changed the culture.
The last piece of the CI sustainability and longevity is the discipline. The discipline to continuously invest in the program, continuously support training, market and re-invigorate the methods. If left to its own devices, programs tent to fizzle out. Let’s take an example of organizations hiring consultants to recommend changes. While the consultant is there, there always seems to be some extra energy and motivation to perform. That may even last sometime after the consultants are gone. But inevitably, performance tends to go back to the old baseline because organizations are very poor at pushing themselves to set new targets and invest in higher performance. That is why consulting remains so popular, along with personal coaches and personal trainers. It takes the persistence and demand from the very top to ensure the CI program remains strong and is woven into the very strategy of the company, just as sales and operations are. Discipline is everything.
You may have other thoughts on CI and may agree or disagree on some of the points I make. I would love to hear your views on the topic. Yet proof is in the pudding: this philosophy has worked very well across continents, in a multitude of projects and organizations and has consistently delivered top results. I wish all CI practitioners great miracles and strong discipline!
I am a transformation and continuous improvement executive and relentless believer in potential. That potential in many cases just needs to be rediscovered. I work to reinvent old methods into new opportunities and re-enable potential to shine.
It’s in there. Let’s go get it.