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Continuous Improvement Programs Done Right – 4 Lessons Learned

August 29th, 2012 3 comments

continuous improvement playbookWe’ve recently had several discussions with companies who have dismantled their continuous improvement (CI) programs during the economic downturn and are now reviving them as their businesses stabilize.  It’s a pretty common theme of late.  As is natural, the tendency is to turn to the old playbook as a starting point. In almost every case, this is not a good idea.  We’ve learned a tremendous amount since those pre-crisis days.  Most of it was already in process and, as happens in every economic cycle, the downturn simply accelerated the learning cycle.

The old playbook and approaches for continuous improvement programs had some successes for sure but for most companies things are different now and approaches to continuous improvement need to align with the new reality.  Here are 4 simple things to keep in mind as you consider rolling out a new, or restarting an old, continuous improvement program:

      1. Alignment. More than ever, an initiative’s success depends on its activities link to the enterprise’s real priorities. This common sense notion always got lip service, but lip service isn’t enough these days.  Prioritize projects as a function of “if” and how much they move the needle on these priorities.  Make sure every single activity is linked, visibly. Don’t waste time, energy and resources on unaligned activities or your continuous improvement efforts will likely be short-lived.
      2. Business Focus. Drive the business and not the CI effort.  When you place the improving the business as the goal, it will pull the projects which, in turn, pull the knowledge needed to successfully solve problems. When you drive the CI program, you are building knowledge and capability simply for its own sake and trusting the demand to show up … a bad strategy.
      3. Right Fit, Right Now. Get everyone involved and give them right-fit knowledge and tools to improve their processes today.  Most people really do want to improve their workplace and the service or product they deliver their customer, so give individuals useful knowledge and tools, that they can use right now, not 6 months down the road. There is a massive body of methodologies, tools, knowledge, etc. you can push into the organization, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  Think “right-fit”, “useful now” ….
      4. Results, results, results.  Keep the organization focused and engaged by producing a positive return from the beginning.  Organizations need to see a return on the things they do.  Where they have a return, they invest more and do so with confidence and conviction.  Don’t expect organizations that are measured quarterly to think about CI in terms of multiple years.  It may be theoretically correct but it is unrealistic.

There are lots of things in the old playbook that violate these basic lessons.  The lessons had to be learned the hard way.  It’s why so many CI programs were dismantled during the crisis to begin with, instead of being part of what got organizations to the new world.  As we rebuild again, let’s apply what we learned right from the beginning.  CI programs did many good things pre-crisis. But we now have an even better opportunity to do improve and help our organizations drive forward.

As always, if you want to discuss any of this, feel free to contact me.

Foundation Process Skills and Tools – Spread the Word

June 21st, 2012 Comments off

Today’s post is a little different in that instead of just providing some insight or idea that we hope you find useful, I’m going to ask for your help. But first a little background.

In just a matter of days, we will celebrate the beginning of our fifteenth year as Six Sigma Qualtec. While we go back over 25 years as Qualtec Quality Services, we became Six Sigma Qualtec when we acquired Six Sigma capabilities in 1998.  Since then we were at the forefront of the development of enterprise deployment models with different belts for different demographic groups, industry specific curriculum, integration of lean and customization for service and transactional environments.  And a constant mission through it all has been the transfer of knowledge.

As we look forward, we are amazed by what was spawned by those early days in our small niche of the business community.  The most startling aspect is how it’s really not so small anymore.  There are now thousands upon thousands of disciples of the practices with which we began years ago.  Imagine there are over 5,000 subscribers like you to our blog!  Yet we are also cognizant of how much further it can go.

Basic, foundation skills in process management and problem solving are still in high demand. Companies continue to look for ways to drive this widely applicable skillset as broadly as possible,  in the hopes of improving customer’s experience and productivity.

We believe that is really the next frontier … to expand the foundation knowledge so it’s part of everyday work for everyone …  a way of thinking.  And we know we, as individual teachers, can’t reach that broadly visiting facility by facility.  Our contribution to this next phase is to contribute our approaches, materials, tools, and methodologies.  That’s already been the case for many years with our Master Black Belt programs, but the knowledge that needs to be in everyone’s hands isn’t of the depth and intricacy of a Master Black Belt.  It’s about the fundamentals, the things that can be used every day.

So it is to the broad distribution of fundamental knowledge, especially in the services industries where process thinking is in high demand and can have significant impact, to which we will devote ourselves as we enter our fifteenth year of operations.  Our mission will become increasingly about empowering and supporting your ability to spread the word and teach the discipline in an effective way.  So be on the lookout for how we will do this with new materials and tools as we rededicate ourselves to changing the way business is conducted to make our clients successful.

Tell us about your training/skills needs

We always try to provide something of value to our subscribers in every post we make, and will continue to do so.  Now, we’re asking for your input.  If you have specific ideas or see specific needs in your organization, please take a moment to tell us about it.  It will help us tailor our content to what you really need to make a difference in your organization.  Thank you in advance for your help!

Ziggy Stardust: The Ultimate Continuous Improvement Professional Managing Change

June 11th, 2012 Comments off

Time may trace me but I can’t trace time – Changes…released as a single in 1972.

As I pull the vinyl out of the attic box marked 1972, a year marked by Watergate, anti-war demonstrations and Mark Spitz’s gold medal run at a terrorist marred Olympics, I realize we are in a time of tremendous societal change.  In the world of commerce, businesses have posted incredible productivity gains during the last five years which should be followed by hiring.  Yet payrolls remain muted due to concern about what is next.  So companies are left to find new ways to produce goods and services, meet customer demand and still have a healthy workforce.

To successfully lead our organizations through that change, it is good to remind ourselves of change principles because it isn’t just technical skills that produce success.  In fact, anyone who has lead any initiative in an organization understands that without the elements of change, no amount of technical skills can get us to the promised land.

So, let’s think about the key principles of change –

  • First and foremost, authentic, committed leadership throughout the duration of the initiative is essential.
  • There must be compelling reasons to change, that resonate not just for the leadership team, but that will appeal to all stakeholders.
  • Leadership must articulate a clear and legitimate vision of the world after the change initiative.  The vision must be widely understood and shared.
  • With the foundation pieces in place, leverage the “early adopters” where there is low resistance and from whom to learn from mistakes with a forgiving partner.
  • Leverage early wins by taking what you learned with your early adopters to the broader organization.  Integrate with competing, initiatives.
  • Set benchmarks, measure progress and celebrate wins.
  • Identify the systems that influence the desired change and modify them support (and not fight) the desired change.

Remember that continuous improvement is about continuous change.  Facilitating the ability to change is critical.  Focusing on technical skills without addressing the foundational elements of change won’t yield any progress.  It’s not that it is only half right.  Technical and cultural capabilities work together and, if either is missing, progress isn’t possible.

If you’d like to discuss any of these topics, please feel free to contact me.

Change Management – Is it as Simple as Just Seeing Clearly?

September 29th, 2011 5 comments

Change management - Use VOC and VOB to objectively identify performance gaps that matter mostWe’ve been working with a number of customers of late that are trying to improve service delivery processes, and move into the differentiating realm of service innovation.  In these very large enterprises, it’s always a challenge to get organizations to change behavior.  Immediately, voices start rising, touting the need for change management.

This is another of those terms that can have a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people.  Wikipedia defines change management as a structured approach to transitioning individuals, teams, and organizations from a current state to a desired future state. If you google “change management”, you really enter the swamp.   Even if we narrow change management to the business / process improvement world that we at SSQ live in, there is still a lot of confusion.  How do you sort it all out?

Download Business Process Management (BPM) Overview

our BPM Overview presentation

In the CI world, companies want and need to markedly improve their value-generating processes (value stream), but the question becomes how do you get people to embrace the changes that come as part of improving?  How do we get them to embrace the overall effort to improve processes, and theoretically improve service delivery?  Do we really have to indoctrinate them into some new philosophy of change?

Personally, I don’t think so.  I think that many times change management becomes a problem because people don’t have a clear picture of 3 simple (not really) things:

  1. where they are now,
  2. where they need to be
  3. why they need to get there.

Most organizations have plenty of smart people (I know … there are exceptions!)  .  The fundamental trick to change management really boils down to getting all those smart people pulling in the same direction.   If you can get clarity around the 3 simple things above, you might be surprised to see that change management is not the big issue you thought it was.

I’ve used the term simple to describe these three things above, but getting there can be anything but.  With our engagements, we spend significant time on the front ending trying to get these answers, and I can assure you that it can be challenging.  But, we get there, and I firmly believe our success rates with business improvement efforts are better because of it.

There are other ways I’m sure, but we use a structured approach that attacks the problem by:

  1. Understanding, for both the customer (voice of the customer) and the business (voice of the business), what constitutes high-performance and turning that into clearly defined metrics (efficiency and effectiveness).  We are looking for gaps in these indicators, between current state and where we need to be.
  2. Understanding the top-level value stream from a process perspective (not function), the things that have to happen to deliver your services or products, and create customer and business value
  3. Identifying metrics at the process level (VOP), and making sure they are aligned with top level VOB and VOC (#1).  Like #1, we are looking for the gaps.
  4. Defining an objective prioritization scheme based on voice of the customer and voice of the business.
  5. Identifying improvement ideas from the gaps, and evaluating and prioritizing those ideas objectively based on #4.  A prioritized project pipeline.
  6. Turning high-value project ideas (business cases) into tightly scoped improvement projects that are clearly aligned with very visible objectives (#1)

Of course, this is over simplified. There’s a lot of work happening between the spaces, but think about it and ask … Is change management really as simple as being able to see clearly? As always, I welcome your thoughts on this.  Comment or contact me directly if you prefer.

Join Us on Twitter for Thoughts and Announcements

September 2nd, 2010 Comments off

First, we want to thank all of you that have subscribed to our blog. We have over 1,000 subscribers and the list grows every day, week and month. We hope we are providing you relevant information. If there is anything you’d like us to bring to you, let us know. If we don’t have the content, we’ll recruit guest bloggers that do.
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On another note, we began “tweeting” about a month ago and just were rated in the top half of Twitter profiles by Hubspots ranking tool. We have grown a nice group of friends who we follow and that follow us by regularly tweeting on key subjects as well as making announcments about our complimentary content offerings. We invite you to join us on twitter at @sixsigmaqualtec.

Thanks for your support and have a great Labor Day weekend. See you on the other side.