Would you like instant results in your improvement efforts?

Instant results for your continuous improvement efforts

These days people look for instant results. They want something, and they want it now! Some people have the same expectation for continuous improvement (CI).  Although they never say it out loud, they believe that CI will get them instant results.

Continuous improvement is a way of life.  It is a different way to think and do things.  Therefore, it comprises challenging prevailing ideas and learning new ones.  Reshaping your entire belief system for process improvement and problem-solving is not an easy task.  As a result, it cannot be quick or instant.

Instant Results and Continuous Improvement

I visualize continuous improvement as a marathon.  Through the CI system, you are looking to change people’s minds and hearts.  Lean or CI cannot be considered a tool or a short-term strategy to accomplish some goals.  It is a long-term commitment to which leadership focuses on developing people and create a team of problem-solvers.

Two heads are better than one

Two heads are better than one.  That is to say that it is easier for two people who help each other to solve a problem than it is for one person.  In a traditional setting, the manager and supervisors are fire-fighting all the time.  They take care of putting off a fire and run to the next one without learning about why it happened or how to fix it for good.  

Learning proper problem-solving and root cause analysis techniques is the best way to get out of that vicious cycle.  Better yet, grasp the new methods and teach your team how to do it.  Create a team of problem-solvers by empowering your people. Allow them to solve their daily problems while you coach and guide them. Let them be the source for most ideas and take ownership of the improvement process.

Permanent results, not instant ones, is what changes the culture

Continuous improvement is not a sprint race but a never-ending race. Change the mindset and culture takes time. Learning how to test new ideas and reflect on the results takes time as well.  Continuous improvement or kaizen is the daily practice of creating small changes.  It is possible to get big results with small changes. The time invested in using the scientific method to learn and reflect on the results guarantees a thoughtful process.  This thought process makes those results likely to be permanent, but it takes time and patience. 

In the time and age of clicking a button for instant purchases, a culture change is perceived as a big undertaking.  Well, it is a big undertaking.  There is no way to make this instant or fast while keeping the permanent aspect.  Create new habits and change our thinking process is slow rather than fast.  However, the practice of CI, everywhere, by everybody, every day will keep the momentum going and the changes sustainable.

Self-Reflection and continuous improvement

One of the biggest differences between continuous improvement or lean and other business models or systems is that it recognizes the need for reflection.  Toyota recognizes that even if a task is completed successfully, there is a need to reflect on the results.  It is a structured way to look at the results with the purpose of learning from the experience.

Daily Self-reflection

It takes time to get used to the idea of reflecting on our actions as part of our daily work.  That is why reflection is part of the leaders’ standard work.  It is challenging to do it because nobody wants to think about what went wrong or failures.  The objective of this exercise is not to criticize the person or team, is to learn from mistakes to avoid future repetition.  Through reflection, you can create better plans for the future. 

Continuous improvement is about learning, experimenting, and using the lessons learned to change and adapt.  We will find a million reasons not to take the time to reflect, but self-reflection or team reflection is the vehicle that will drive us full circle in our learning journey.  It is not until we take the time to ask what went well and what didn’t that we learn through our honest answers.  While learning from what we did well is good, learning from our mistakes is better.  The answer to what you would do differently next time is where you will learn the most.  

Continuous Improvement through Reflection

Reflection is one of the elements of the Kaizen spirit.  The act or adapt step of the PDCA cycle is a reflection of what we intended to do.  Did we accomplish the goal?  Why not?  How can we fix the problem?  By getting into the habit of answering these questions, you keep yourself grounded to lean thinking.

Reflection is an important part of a learning organization.  Learning from mistakes is what helps us to prevent repeating them, and the process of recognizing that even if something is good, can be better is what keeps the continuous improvement process alive and kicking!

Basic concepts to support the improvements

Three basic concepts that leaders need to learn

To successfully overcome each challenge presented to us, we need to know certain basic concepts. For continuous improvement, there are three concepts that management should learn and teach to their team. They are, put quality first, the next process is the customer, and speak with data.

The basic concepts and the Customer

The CI goal is to deliver the customer the highest product or service quality, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest lead time.  Therefore, the focus of all our decisions is quality, cost, and delivery.  

How do you keep the focus? How can you guide others to keep the focus? There are several changes in how we work as managers that have to change. None of them represents a new management style. However, many entrepreneurs keep doing the same thing since they learn the ropes of the trade and ignore these three ideas.

Put Quality First

Quality should be the highest priority over cost and delivery but, that is not common practice. Throughout my career, I have seen plenty of examples where quality is put to second or third place while making decisions.  The worst part is that the reason cited to do so was to give the customer what they want at the time they wanted it.  Really?  Is that the reason or that production planning does not want to fall behind on their attainment metrics?  Or to avoid the inspection cost?  Or maybe to evade having a difficult conversation with the customer?

Practicing quality first requires commitment from management.  Alignment within the organization is critical to ensure that the customer receives a high product or service quality.  When the entire management team makes decisions based on this and model this behavior all the time, the employees will understand that quality is more important than quantity or delivery and will act accordingly.

Quality is not only for the product, information, or service the external customer will receive.  It also applies to the quality of the internal processes.  With CI you are seeking to improve the processes with small daily changes, everywhere by everybody.  You go see the process, walk the process, and understand the process to identify ways to improve it and minimize all types of waste.  After improvements, you either change or create standard work for that particular process.  In other words, your focus to improving process quality is the process itself, not the results of the process.

The Next Process is the Customer

Although we all know that every process has a supplier and a customer, every time we talk about customers most people’s mind goes immediately to external customers.  Every member of the team should know two things, what is their role in providing the customer the value they expected and that the next process is their immediate customer.  It is management responsibility to provide this information to their team.

Knowing their role within the company strategies, including customer and quality give them the understanding of how their actions affect the value stream.  It is also a way to present them why their work is important.  How they contribute to ensure that the company achieves its goals, by producing a good quality job or service to the next process, which is their customer.

Speak with Data

While many people like to use their experience or gut feelings to make decisions, within a CI environment you speak with data.  Tools like huddle meetings, war rooms, 5S and visual management use data to tell what is going on.  Visual data presented clearly and simply is important for clear and effective communication as well as alignment with company goals.

Continuous improvement uses PDCA as a structured way to solve problems.  If you recall, the first step, Plan requires to define the problem or situation you want to fix.  To define it you need to collect all pertinent data, no gut feelings or believes but clear, accurate data.

Summary

To support your continuous improvement journey, three basic thoughts should be part of your daily though process, put quality first, the next process is the customer and speak with data.  For some people, these thoughts require a mindset change, and for others just a little tweak.  A continuous improvement culture is about exploring new ways to do what we do, learn, and adjust or change.  These concepts are another step on your CI journey.

Where should be the focus of continuous improvement?

While transforming the company culture from traditional to continuous improvement, where should be the focus?

The most common errors while implementing continuous improvement is to focus on one small area. Do it in such a way, you are impacting only a portion of your business and not the entire enterprise. It is common to focus on the most visible parts. For example, start with areas with labor-intensive processes or warehousing, where most of the inventory resides. There is nothing wrong with using one problematic zone as the initial focal point. This way, you can earn a big win and use it to promote the initiative. But, focusing on one area should not a permanent strategy.

Focus on one area only affects the impact of the transformation

Your goal is to deliver to your customer the highest quality, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest possible time.  To achieve this goal, you need to focus on your customer needs, ensure flow through the value stream, and create quality products or services.  You need the help of all the different components or teams to make this happen.

Focusing on one area, regardless of how problematic it may be, have the immediate effect of perpetuating the silos mentality.  You want to promote collaboration and to have people from different departments working together to achieve common goals.  Impacting only one department does not improve collaboration, not even when you have a cross-discipline group.

Focusing on anything less than the entire enterprise is missing the opportunity to achieve real changes in flow, quality, and costs that would position your business in a better place than most of your competitors.  Let’s face it everybody is happier when the company’s financials are better, and a big impact on those numbers only happens with the participation of all departments.

A narrow focus does not change the culture

If you want to have a permanent change in how things are done and create a new business model, you need to change the culture.  This type of change, by definition, has to impact everybody.  If you recall, Culture change, lean thinking & people’s development are some of the key elements for a successful lean implementation.

While focusing on one department only, most probably, you are picking a couple of tools or principles only, ignoring those that will help to develop your team.  Lean is not about tools; it is about the people.  Using new tools for process improvement to obtain quick results is not right.  You need to be in the look for people’s development, including your own.  When you focus on the team, provides the right environment to learn, explore new ways to do things, and communicate without hesitation, the improvements will come along.  

The team needs a common purpose

Knowing how their work connects to the value the company provides to the customer gives your employees clarity to connect their actions with the final results.  The new culture will create a team of problem-solvers, people that think differently and are motivated to create.      

Conclusion

Continuous improvement as a strategy to improve quality, lead-time, or minimize cost will give you additional benefits when it is implemented in the right way.  Other benefits include an increase in customer satisfaction and employee engagement and flexibility to face an unexpected crisis. Implementing this strategy across the house leads to better results.

Start by knowing your current status in detail.  What are those big-time issues that are affecting your bottom line the most?  Identify your business strengths and weaknesses.  Select three to five key objectives, establish a goal, and develop strategies to close the gap.  Choose them wisely, use your resources on the most pressing issues.  You can impact different areas like quality, cost, delivery, safety, or people development.  Break down the strategy into bite-sized plans.  Do not forget to include how to deploy the implementation throughout the entire business.

Using the right tools is key for lean transformation success

One of the key elements for a successful continuous improvement implementation is to use the right tools for the job.  Lean has a wide variety of tools to choose from. You do not have to use all of them, but you should know which ones are available. You should be able to choose the right one as per your needs. Identify which tools make sense for your operation is an early step in the continuous improvement implementation.  

What I am presenting below is a guide to know which tool is useful for each occasion.  Keep in mind that some of them are good for more than one scenario.  Also, it is possible to use more than one tool for a specific situation.

Tools for each job

Choose the right tools for you.

Choose the right tools for you

Design a toolbox with the tools you will need to support the lean implementation journey.  Learn how to use them, teach your team, and together use them to transform your operation.  While you do that, take in mind the following.

1.    The purpose of using these tools is not just to improve the operation.  The most important part is to create a learning environment where exploring new solutions in a control testing structure is a way to develop your team skills and allow them to use their creativity and expertise to improve their processes.

2.    Lean is a system and not a tools supermarket.  What makes it good is not the effectiveness of individual tools, but the synergy between them to achieve the goal.

Kaizen and Employee Involvement.

The three pillars of kaizen, standardization, 5S, and elimination of waste, are critical to achieving the goals. These activities are successful only if the foundation, employee involvement is robust. The employee involvement activities are teamwork, self-discipline, moral enhancement, improvement suggestions, and quality circles. From them, the last two provide information on how active employees are in continuous improvement activities.

Suggestion Programs to increase employee involvement

The purpose of this system is to motivate the employees to provide as many suggestions as possible.  One of the management’s responsibilities is to share with their teams the company goals. Another responsibility is to educate them on how their daily work connects to those goals.  If they accomplish those tasks, the team will understand how they can support those goals. Therefore, they will suggest things aligned with those objectives. 

The suggestion program should be easy to participate in, have clear rules and standards. Forms containing all the required information and acceptance criteria are an example. Also, other ways to facilitate participation are guidelines for prioritization and how to provide feedback. Other areas to cover with simple procedures are ways to motivate participation, decision-making, program promotion, and recognition.

Quality Circles

Quality circles are activities designed to address quality, safety, cost, and productivity issues. They are informal and formed by voluntary small-groups. You know your employees are engaged in continuous improvement when they suggest solutions. Another hint comes when they ask to meet with other teammates to work on an idea.

The idea can be part of the possible countermeasures of kaizen in progress. Another possibility is a simple checklist to minimize errors or to create visual marks to improve a process. Management support for these groups is vital. They can help to remove obstacles and facilitate resources and training. Also, they oversee what is going on to ensure meeting policies and critical criteria.

The temperature of employee involvement

These systems or activities are excellent ways to take the temperature of the continuous improvement effort.  The more participation, the more active and engage the employees are.  They are also excellent vehicles to boost the employee’s morale, which is another daily activity to ensure kaizen success.  It is very important to practice respect for the people, respect their ideas, and always provide feedback.  The main idea behind all these is to develop your people, to provide the environment to explore, learn, and change.

How to promote lean methods and tools? One of the leadership’s daily responsibilities to create a continuous improvement culture.

For a successful continuous improvement journey, there are five things that leaders have to do daily.

  1. Review job environment and satisfaction
  2. Develop our people first and motivate participation
  3. Demand leadership responsibility
  4. Develop new behavior patterns
  5. Promote lean thinking and insist on following the new methods and tools

I already discuss the first four, and today is the turn for the last one, Promote & Insist on Lean Methods/Tools. One of the leaderships’ responsibilities is to model the new behaviors, like the use of continuous improvement methods and tools.

We know that communication within a CI culture has to be clear, consistent, and collaborative.  The promotion of lean methods and tools need to have the same characteristics.  Leadership has to visit the value-creating area (gemba) every day, and while they are there, use the principles and tools that are appropriate for what they see.  One skill that lean practitioners learn over time is to identify and act upon those learning opportunities that present themselves while visiting the work areas.  Take advantage of every opportunity you can.  

Lean thinking is for every day, every time, in every department, by everybody.  This statement is true even when things are not going as expected.  During those times that things got worse instead of improving is critical to insist on using the CI principles and tools.  Why?  Because that is the moment that the non-believers and road-blockers are waiting for, the time when things are unacceptable and you, back-up from the new culture behavior.

The integrated use of tools like 5s, visual management, gemba walks, huddle meetings, and problem-solving using PDCA is the perfect vehicle to convey the clarity of purpose, transparency, and collaboration needed for a successful implementation.  They also promote standardization, focus on shared goals, effective communication, visualization of current vs. standard, learning, motivation, and engagement.  The best way to promote lean thinking is to accomplish your responsibilities as a leader.  Learning, teaching, and modeling the new behavior day in and day out is how you will do it.  Nobody is perfect, admitting that you don’t know and that you make mistakes is a way to show respect to your team and be a good leader. Show what to do and how to do it. Telling without showing will not be enough.

How is Communication in a Continuous Improvement Culture?

how communication is in continuous improvement

Have you ever wonder how communication is in continuous improvement? Poor communication affects productivity, quality, customer experience, and costs money.  David Grossman reported in his article The Cost of Poor Communications, that the total estimated cost of employee misunderstanding is $37 billion.  This was among 400 surveyed corporations in the United States and the United Kingdom. On top of that, many companies spend a good chunk of money every year on communication training.   

Poor communication is critical for the successful operation of any business. Can you imagine how critical it is when you are trying to change the culture?  Let’s see how communication is in continuous improvement.

Communication in continuous improvement is clear and transparent

Clarity of purpose and transparency are critical elements of the lean culture. Effective communication is imperative to convey a shared vision of the future that the company wants to build using continuous improvement. To inspire people with that vision, you need clarity of purpose. For instance, everybody needs to know and understand how their daily work supports the company’s strategic vision. Moreover, to achieve the dramatic change from a traditional to a continuous improvement culture, people need to trust. Trust grows within the organization when transparency exists, and people receive the information they need.

As a leader, your job is to communicate. For instance, 80% of the time you are communicating instructions, expectations, policies, news, standards, and others.  A leader in a continuous improvement culture is expected to be a role model and a teacher. These two tasks are forms of communication.

Many sources offer advice to achieve effective communication. For me, one thing is clear, you need to know when and where or how to communicate. Also, I learned that you need to follow the three C’s of effective communication.

Know your audience

One of the best ways to quickly improve the effectiveness of your communication is to adapt your communication style to match your team member’s styles. You need to know his or her communication style. How do they like to receive the information? Also, how much detail do they like? Adapt your vocabulary and examples to the receiver. Remember that not everybody understands the same kind of jargon.

Choose the best time to start your conversation.  Do not try to discuss something with a person who is in the middle of an important task.  Show respect, ask for a good time to talk.  Besides, where and how the communication takes place is also influential. You don’t need a meeting for everything, sometimes a short conversation over a coffee is more than enough.  However, other times an email is ok. But always remember that face to face communication is better.  If you choose to send a written communication schedule a follow-up conversation to ensure the message gets through as intended.

The three C’s of effective communication

All types of communication need to have at least these three basic characteristics, clarity, collaboration, and consistency.  

Communication has to be clear and simple, avoid fancy words if they are not critical to convey the message.  It has to be complete but concise to prevent misunderstanding and gives people the information they need.  

Effective communication is a collaborative process, in which two or more people contribute to the talking subject.  Communication is a two-way process where both parties send and receive information.  If you talk without expecting any interaction from the individual(s) you are talking with, you are making an announcement not communicating.  Don’t try to dominate the conversation, give other people a chance to express themselves.

Be consistent, commit to your message and act the same way always.  When your words and actions do not match, you lose trust, and credibility.  

Communication in continuous improvement

Continuous improvement and lean need effective communication for its success.  Lean is a people-centric system, which means that the way you treat and communicate with the people is critical for success.  In continuous improvement, we want to make the standards and the deviation from them, visible.  We want to communicate the standards and performance against them.  5S, visual management, visual displays, kanban, and others are forms of communication.  They are tools to ensure transparency and keep the clarity of purpose by making the information and standards visible.  

What is Big Company Disease? How do you cure that disease?

While business is small, you can see all the way from suppliers to customers.  It is easier to stay in contact and collaborate with them to create innovation and mutual processes improvements and growth.  Once the company grows to a certain size, they are vulnerable to the Big Company Disease (BCD).

When the company grows big enough, it needs to create departments and systems to handle things that are handled previously by a few people.  With more employees within those departments, it comes more specialists.  These specialists are focus on one or two things and lose sight of everything else.  If each of those departments has different goals, the shared vision, alignment, and common focus will slightly disappear until they are gone, and silos are born.

Once the silos culture starts, it is hard to change.  Each team has its own set of priorities, and all their activities revolved around them.  Win or lose is defined by their performance around those priorities and goals, lacking alignment with other groups.  Each is pulling to their side, holding information, working with the knowledge of one side of the story only, and blaming others for their problems.  Providing value to their customers with the best quality at the lowest price is no longer a team goal.  

If you see these symptoms on the company you manage or own, it is already infected with BCD.

Silos

Focus on group efficiency and department goals.  The relationship between departments is complicated and full of drama.  Instead of working together to solve problems and improve the operation, there is an attitude of We vs. Them.  Pointing fingers and blaming is part of the culture, and it is common to hear things like “We do things different” or “They never understand”.   

Disengaging people

The energy, passion, and family feeling from the small business times are gone.  Without that energy and desire to be better, innovation and drive to try different and bold things are not there.  The employees don’t feel the same level of loyalty, and some are disengaged.  There is no team or group identity.  

Ineffective communication

Managers and supervisors are information hoarders, only share it when they are questions or specific instructions to do so by leadership.   However, excess emails and multiple lengthy meetings overwhelm people at all levels.  

Lack of alignment

The lack of companywide focus affects the relationship with customers.  Everybody is busy fighting their fires, which makes them lose touch with customers and suppliers.   There is no alignment on critical things for the operation success like communication style, visual standards, and work instructions formats, training, problem-solving methods, and way of thinking.  All these create a complex decision-making process, multiple rules, duplicated functions, and focus on the wrong things.

The cure for BCD is to apply the Lean Fundamentals.  

  1. Customer Value 
  2. Identify all the steps in the value stream and eliminate waste.
  3. Make the value-add steps flow.
  4. Let customers pull value from the next upstream activity.
  5. Pursuit for perfection through Continuous Improvement.

When the company applies the Lean Fundamentals, leadership learn, teach, and promote the basic principles every day. Every person, in every department, participates in daily continuous improvement activities, identifying and eliminating waste, and using PDCA for problem-solving.  Leadership identifies learning opportunities and never lose the chance to have people from different departments working together.  Everybody knows what value their work creates for the customer and how it affects the company’s overall business strategy.  They also know the collective goals and work with their peers from other departments towards its achievement.  Lean is about learning and experimenting together while the company grows and fights big company disease.  

How do you develop new behaviors while creating a continuous improvement culture?

As a business owner or top leader of a company, you are thinking about implementing continuous improvement.  This means that you will need a culture change.  To learn how leadership and the team will react to it, you need to understand a few things before.  You need to learn about the current culture and the company history regarding policies, salary systems, and politics, before planning the implementation.  That information will also help you to identify what needs to change and highlight the challenges to create a new culture.  Develop new behavior patterns, is the fourth action from the top leadership to-do list to achieve the elements of a successful CI implementation.  

Commonly, past collective experience is based on thoughts and behaviors that you need to change.  A culture based on disrespect, lack of appreciation, lack of clarity, dysfunctional competition, us versus them mentality, and values talk without action is no longer acceptable.

We need to guide people with a clear, inspiring, and shared vision of the future.  Continuous improvement is not easy, and although it has many sweet rewards, it also has disappointments and brings some failures as well.  Be honest about the challenges in front of them, answer their questions, and never back up from the objective.  Talk the talk, but most importantly, walk the talk, a voice without action will not do any good to gain the trust of your employees.

Leadership must become coaches who are communicating the idea of continuous improvement all the time.  Every leaders’ responsibility is to model the desired behaviors.  Learn and practice lean thinking and promote challenging the status quo.  Prove with actions that it is ok to try and fail as long as you never stop trying.  Show them how to test new ideas using a system like PDCA.  Get used to reflect upon every win, and every loss, share the lesson learned and use them to improve the improvement process.

Leaders should watch for stress reactions, such as threats, resignation, or illness.  They need to work with those affected to understand why and create an action plan.  It is normal to feel high levels of stress or fear because the team is still weighing if they can trust the new culture.  There are many uncertainties during the change, and for that reason, constant, honest, and effective communication is critical.

Set achievable milestones, prioritization, and practice positive feedback.  Develop a fair performance assessment program designed to develop people’s skills and not to punish them.  Avoid anything that can result in frustration or underutilization of individuals. 

As I said before, as long as leadership keeps fulfilling their continuous improvement responsibilities, implementation will keep going and slowly, but surely, the culture will change.