Innovation and continuous improvement

Some people think that continuous improvement or lean conflicts with innovation.  In other words, that lean kills innovation.  However, that is not true both go hand in hand.  Let’s see how.

The power of innovation within continuous improvement

One critic about continuous improvement that I heard often is that the structure does not allow creativity.  CI indeed organizes the thinking process and has some core elements that are not negotiable.  On the other hand, it promotes skills development as a way to show respect.  And it is there where the innovation power of lean or continuous improvement resides.

How it works

To be able to empower your team, you need to develop the skills they need.  Hand-on training to learn the tools is not enough to succeed.  Self-discipline to behave and think the continuous improvement way is critical.  The structure provided by tools like PDCA and 5S helps to build that discipline.   

For example, the traditional way to solve problems is by using past experiences to guess the best solution.  But with PDCA, you have to define the problem by going where the problem happens to see for yourself, ask questions, and gather data.  It also uses promotes a team approach.  Various minds working together enriches both the problem definition and countermeasures identification.  

The most important lesson of PDCA occurs at the end of the process.  During the last step, act or adapt, you verify if the actions taken solved the problem.  It also encourages you to reflect upon the results, what work, and what didn’t.  The discussion of the lessons learned opens the gates of innovation by opening minds to endless opportunities.

Reflection

Reflection generates learning by making us look at our actions and their consequences.  Doing this requires looking at assumptions and reactions while examining the lessons learned.   The act of reflecting upon our actions also help to develop creative thinking skills.  

Once your mind starts to question how things work or how you can do it better, you will keep looking for answers.  Curiosity is the source of invention.  Being curious about things keeps your mind sharp on what happens or not.  Being curious opens your eyes to new ideas.

Engagement and innovation 

Boredom is a leading indicator of engagement.  Doing the same thing every day is boring.  And boredom kills engagement and consequently innovation.  They have time to think about how much they don’t like their work and start looking for a new one.  On the other hand, if they feel that their skills are valued and can visualize themselves growing with the company, their engagement increases.

One tenet of continuous improvement is to respect the people.  One way to show respect is to provide the environment and opportunities to learn new skills.  Being able to contribute to the company’s future in a meaningful way is a great motivator.  It will not only improve their work performance but also their attitude towards life.  A team member that finishes the workday feeling good about it will arrive home with much better humor.  Therefore, family time will be as rewarding and positive as it should be.

A mind free of work concerns and frustration is a mind ready to create and innovate!

Conclusion

CI does not restrict thinking.  On the contrary, it provides a way to standardize routine tasks, allowing time and energy to use their talents and creativity.  When they have the power to change and improve their workplace, they will engage in finding ways to improve.  With self-discipline, they will pursue daily small improvement steps.  With each step, their curiosity will grow.  And with it, the appetite for asking why and getting answers with data will grow as well.  As a result, they will have breakthrough ideas, new concepts, and ways to do things.  Curiosity is the source of invention. It is not a matter of whether innovation will happen, but when.

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.

What to do before, during, and after the gemba walk

Gemba walks, like any other process, need a consistent structure or standard.  It helps to avoid confusion, clarify the purpose and intent, and provides general steps that facilitate customization for specific situations without losing the essence of what a gemba walk is.  

The walks have three stages, which happen before, during, and after the walk.  When you coach your team to be walkers with a purpose, you become more effective, learning by doing.  The more you practice, the better you become.

Preparation

When you plan to go out for a gemba walk, the first thing you need to know is the purpose of the walk and to what area you will go.  Each walk needs a purpose or objective, which can be coaching, learn about a specific situation within a process, or looking for improvement opportunities.  Show respect for the owners of the area you are going to visit by letting them know in advance what is the purpose of your visit and how they can help.  Be honest about your intentions and clear about your expectations.  Right before the walk, take five minutes to explain the purpose and expectations of the walk to the team walking with you.   Remember that two of the walk benefits are to develop your team and drive alignment within the organization.

During the Walk

While walking, you will go and see, show respect, and ask what, then why. Understand the purpose of work and performance expectations. During the walk, observe if there is any gap between what is supposed to happen and what is happening.  Use the scientific process (PDCA) to identify the reasons and find the root cause.  As a leader, focus on the process as the source of errors, not the people.  

Ask what first, what is the purpose, what are the steps, or what are you trying to accomplish?  Asking those questions requires being mindful of how you are asking, not only your tone but your body language as well.  You want to show respect, listen to their words, be empathic, and let them feel that you care about their needs and feelings.  Make your actions consistent with your words, and do what you said you would do, be trustworthy.  

Once you gain an understanding of the situation, you can ask why questions.  While trying to gain a deeper understanding, it is appropriate to use the 5 Why technique.  

After the Walk

After the walk, take another five minutes to get an understanding of its effectiveness.  Listen to the observations and discussion points from the walkers.  Clarify any doubts and capture all observation and improvement ideas.  Get agreement on what improvements the group will work with and combine them into one list. Create a follow-up plan, who will work with what, and preliminary timeline. 

Do your best to stay focused on the agreed purpose of the walk.  Lead the walk in such a way that walkers understand that it is more effective if everybody focused on one thing at a time.  Unless you see something that is urgent, like a safety situation, do not deviate from the purpose agreed during the preparation stage.  Remember, continuous improvement works because it is focused on small improvements at a time. 

How to achieve the key elements for continuous improvement success

how to achieve the key elements for continuous improvement success

How do you achieve the key elements for the CI transformation? First, get familiar with the elements to change the company culture from traditional to continuous improvement successfully. Those elements are the following.

  1. Leadership buy-in and support
  2. Culture change, lean thinking & people’s development
  3. Effective Communication every step of the way
  4. Use the right CI tools, create your own toolbox
  5. Continuous improvement everywhere, every day, by everybody

How to achieve the key elements for the transformation?

As the owner or top leader of your organization, you are responsible for the transformation execution. Therefore, the implementation is something that you should not delegate. It is ok if you don’t know how to do it. If you are not familiar with it, find a responsible coach to guide you through this journey.

The key elements for the success of the continuous improvement transformation are fundamental to achieve a change in behaviors. The change starts with the leadership buy-in and support. They drive the conversion communicating the why, and how. Also, they modeled the new behaviors. Moreover, they learn and teach their team the new way to think and how to use the new tools.

What are your responsibilities?

But which are your responsibilities as a top leader? There are a few steps or actions that you would need to follow while reconstructing the culture. The following actions make the transformation possible.

  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

The success of the new culture and CI implementation is based on communication and teamwork. Also, the alignment between objectives and actions, motivation, and training.  Regardless of how difficult the journey may be, always use Lean Thinking as your North.

Do you really want to go back to normal? Business as usual, will not going to cut it anymore.

These days you can hear the phrase when we go back to normal, dozens of times a day.  We all want to return to our normal lives, right?

As a lean practitioner, I believe that each event is a learning opportunity, the coronavirus pandemic is no different.  During these slower days, there is time to learn new things and plan for the future.  Lean is all about learning, experimenting, and adapting.  That is just what everybody needs to learn now.  Every day I read about how people are adapting to the new normal, and many are using lean or continuous improvement thinking without knowing it.  For me, at this moment, Lean style problem solving is the on-demand skill.

I am not the only one that thinks that way.  Last year, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD), published Indiana’s Employability Skills Benchmarks.  It describes a set of 18 workplace skills recommended for success in today’s competitive workforce.  One of the skills identified in the learning strategies category is problem-solving.  

The way each business adapts the operation to comply with the CDC guidelines is unique.   The solutions are not one-size-fits-all, and on top of that, those guidelines change as they gathered more information.   Learning how to use a systematic process like PDCA and apply lean thinking is critical to identify and implement the new operational guidelines for your business.  

This situation catches most people without the skills to learn and adapt, but it is never late to start.  You are on time to start using lean thinking to approach the current challenges.  With practice, you can build that muscle memory that will guide you through times like this.  The new normal then should be something better than before the coronavirus pandemic.  It is like when you create the future state value-stream-map, imagine a better and stronger business and plan how to make it happen!  Many will go back to business as usual, your competitive advantage will be your new way to do business.

Better Process Solutions can help you to start designing your new processes, get in touch!

How do you show your team that you care?

The heart of any business is the employees. Regardless of your experience and skills, you cannot be successful on your own. Your team determines your business success. The most prosperous companies recognize that and transform their operations to be people-centric. If your people will be the focus, how do you show your team that you care?

Your team, business goals, and you

We know that when you take care of your team, your team takes care of your customers. The only way to deliver the highest quality of service at the lowest cost is by taking care of the heart of your business. That is to say, that to achieve your business goals, you need to take care of your employees. What does it mean to take care of your people?

Before you show your team that you care, start caring about you

As a leader, one of your top responsibilities is your development and the development of your people. It is like the oxygen mask on the airplanes, you need to put yours first, and then you can help others. Similarly, you need to develop your leadership skills before teaching and mentoring your team.

How is it to be a good leader? Good leaders have excellent communication skills and listen without judging. Also, they are grateful to their team and help their people to be successful. They see not only the employee but the human being. Good leaders show respect and have open and honest conversations.

Show your team that you care

The best way to show respect is by treating people like human beings and not as machines. For instance, understand their needs and create an environment to help them succeed. Also, build high-trust relationships and drive out fear. Those actions set the stage for teamwork, learning, and participation in improvement activities. When people can change their work conditions by learning problem-solving and other techniques, they feel appreciated and respected.

Caring about your employees is not only to provide decent pay and benefits. It is about providing the opportunities and the environment to learn and grow. My favorite way is to make them feel that they are capable of making meaningful contributions. In times of coronavirus be a leader is more challenging than ever. But the focus is the same, always put the people first.