Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Build Your Custom Continuous Process Improvement Program

Executive Summary:
Process improvement or continuous improvement programs are popular and powerful business tools and we have a variety to choose from, including Lean, Six Sigma, and Total Quality.  If one of these programs isn’t right for your organization, you can devise your own program.

The Rest of the Story:
Many businesses have adopted one or more of the popular process improvement or continuous improvement programs with varying success.  They are popular because the businesses in which they were developed demonstrated enviable performances through the methodologies they developed.  They have been structured into transferrable knowledge sets and other businesses have likewise succeeded with them.

However, if your business does not have vast production processes or customer interface processes, then the Lean methodology may not be a good fit.  Likewise, if your organization doesn’t perform repeatable processes all the time, Six Sigma may not be a good fit.  A consulting business, or a custom product business may be good examples of such. 

Even businesses that don’t match the models from which Lean or Six Sigma were germinated can make good use of process improvement or continuous improvement techniques, but where should one look for a methodology?  We can develop our own.  We just need a recipe or formula.

Think about it.  Lean and Six Sigma both began within businesses that needed a better way and developed one.  Why shouldn’t any business be able to do the same thing?

If we examine the programs of the day, we can find some common elements that they all share.  If we re-create those elements for our own program, we can also succeed.  I believe that there are a handful of structural elements that make up a good process improvement or continuous improvement program and a few leadership elements necessary to help the program take root.

First, let’s look at the structural elements needed to construct a program.  We will need the following.
  1. A standard problem-solving approach
  2. Skills and tools for problem definition and scope
  3. Organizational tools
  4. Analytical tools
  5. Skills and tools for developing solutions
  6. Planning and risk assessment skills and tools

If you take a moment to consider the list, chances are your organization and the people or functions within it already possess skills and tools in some or all of these categories.  My point is, you won’t need to go very far to put a functional program together.  Let’s look at the structural elements in detail.

1.  A standard problem-solving approach:
Some of us are natural problem solving talents.  Some of us aren’t.  As we’ll discuss further down, you need to have everyone in your organization versed in your methodology.  To that end, it makes it easy if everyone speaks the same language and follows the same basic step-by-step approach to solving a problem.

Deming gave us the Plan-Do-Check-Act approach and Six Sigma is built around a Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control process.  Use one of those, borrow another, build your own, it won’t matter in the end.  Use language that already fits your organization culture.

It is important to keep it simple.  Simple is easy to communicate and follow, and is versatile.  You don’t want to modify or alter your approach for different types of problems.  You want one approach that fits them all.

2.  Skills and tools for problem definition and scope:
One of the biggest roadblocks to engaging others in the pursuit of solving a problem is the ability to clearly communicate the problem.  Problems have a tendency to look different to different people.

Your method will need to include some training of skills around problem definition and scope.  In the beginning it may be very helpful to provide a template or worksheet to force a systematic problem definition and scope.  Eventually, as your organization gets the hang of it, you can probably relax that expectation.   Your people will be able to produce it on the fly with some experience.

3.  Organizational tools:
As your people begin to examine a problem and gather information, they will need some simple ways of organizing, categorizing, and clearly communicating that information.  In many programs, this tool set tends to get very large.  It isn’t necessary.  In my personal repertoire are a great many tools, but I tend to use only a very few.

Start your program with a few basic tools that most of your people already know or are easy to share with your teams.  Let your people modify and improve upon them.  Innovation is a healthy thing here.

By way of a recommendation, I suggest that you can go a long way with affinity diagrams, is/is-not tables, interrelationship diagraphs, and process maps.  You can find examples of these on the Internet or in off-the-shelf books quite easily.

4.  Analytical tools:
You will need some skills and tools to help your people determine the cause of the problem.  By all means, keep this element focused on precisely that; finding the cause.

The analytical tool box tends to get very large.  Six Sigma has a very extensive analytical tools set because the focus of the program is on understanding variation and a varied set of statistical tools is handy for doing so.  You do not need to go so far.  Some basic root-cause analysis tools should be plenty to get you started.

A complete list of available tools would be pages long.  Here are some tools that I recommend because I use them most.  Pick two.
  • Ask “why” 5 times [quick and dirty]
  • Fishbone diagram [good standby for any organization and very visual]
  • Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) [highly disciplined and structured]
  • Cause and effect matrix [more structured, less visual than the fishbone diagram]
  • Fault tree [great when 5-whys is to simple to attack a complex system of possibilities]

5.  Skills and tools for developing solutions
Creating solutions to problems is fundamentally a creative process.  Some organizations like to have a structured process for developing solutions; some prefer not to inhibit creativity with process.  You will need to decide what is right for your culture.

Something that often happens is a need to decide between more than one possible solution.  There are a number of decision-making matrixes out there to choose from, if you don’t already have practices for such inside your organization.  I recommend going with what you have.  If you need something more, my favorite is the Pugh Concept Selection technique.

I recommend refraining from requiring the use of a decision matrix.  If the answer is obvious, then the matrix is a waste of time.  A decision matrix or tool is useful only when the answer is not clear and it will reduce the time spent arguing.

6.  Planning and risk assessment skills and tools
Planning the execution of your solution should not be done without some risk assessment so I like to lump the two together.  You may or may not need to build a tool and skill set here.

If your organization is large and disciplined, then your process owners and project managers probably already possess the planning skills they need.  You probably already have some sort of risk assessment and management method you use.  Don’t reinvent one; use what you already have.

If yours is a small organization that must respond and act quickly, keep this skill set simple.  Don’t get carried away with fancy work breakdown structures, just teach a simple list and ordering of tasks.  Likewise, simple brainstorming of what can go wrong and how to prevent it might be the appropriate level of risk assessment and management.

In some cases your needs may vary by problem and solution.  Some may be very simple and will require no special tools or skills beyond common sense.  Others may be strategic and will need project plans and robust risk management.  Give your teams the tools they need, no more or less.

That sums up the structural elements common to the most successful process improvement or continuous improvement methodologies.  I hope that you perceive that you have the means within your organization to address each element already.  If not, the gaps should be simple to fill without engaging expensive consultants.  If you are stuck, give me a call and I’ll help you over the phone.

Once you have your program outlined, there will be some leadership needs for you to address to get your program successfully integrated.  I have seen both Lean and Six Sigma programs fail because the correct behaviors to support the programs were not instilled.  Avoid the same problem with your own.

There are four critical leadership elements that you will want to plan and execute to ensure the success of your program.
  • Empower your personnel
  • Everyone must be a disciple
  • Set goals
  • Communicate

Let’s briefly look at each leadership element.  They should also be things your are familiar with performing as a leader already.

a.  Empower your personnel:
Your people must be permitted and encouraged to identify and address problems or opportunities.  Establish some trust between process owners and improvers that enables continuous improvement to occur.

One great way to do this is to train your process users and owners in your improvement methodology and set an expectation that they do their own continuous improvement on the process.  This means that you have to give them standing permission to experiment and tinker with their process.

If people need to ask for more than one approval to make a change, it won’t happen.  Put the responsibility and authority for improvement at the lowest possible level.

b.  Everyone must be a disciple:
Trust comes from understanding.  In order for managers, change agents, process owners, and process users to trust each other and allow changes and improvements to take place, they must understand each other and the methodology that will be used.  Accomplish this by making sure that everyone in your organization understands and uses the methodology.

This is an important point.  Make sure that everyone uses the methodology.  Don’t let you managers get trained and then delegate the method.  Make them use it on their own elements of responsibility.  As they involve their teams, they will learn together how to make the methodology work.  Likewise, don’t train your laborers and then refuse them the power to exercise the training.  Make them use it too.

A hint for helping your organization adopt your new methodology is this.  Involve as many people as you can in its development.  People will believe in a program that they had a hand in creating before they will accept one that is shoved on them blindly.  As a fringe benefit, you’ll get more ideas for the best tools and skills to incorporate.

c.  Set goals
The Six Sigma methodology dangles a nearly impossible goal of 3 defects in 1-million opportunities and challenges us to try and reach it.  Lean tends to promote the setting of small step goals after each improvement to encourage us to improve again.  Decide upon an approach that is right for your organization.

Goals compel us to participate and give us a measure of success when they are achieved.  Make everyone commit to a goal and hold them accountable to it.  When goals are met, set new ones.  It keeps your organization motivated to continuously improve, not just do it when you are nagging them.

d.  Communicate
Relentlessly, communicate your goals and your achievements.  You want the language of your continuous improvement program to be the language of your business.  Accomplish this by talking about it every day.  If no one is communicating, people will perceive that no one is paying attention.  Everyday communication equates to every day importance.

Something else that everyday communication solves is the challenge of empowerment discussed above.  Much of the time and effort that goes into making changes is spent explaining the problem and the solution and asking permission.  If everyone is talking about it every day, the need to explain things tends to go away and your improvements occur more rapidly.

That’s it.  Six structural elements and four leadership elements are all you really need to address in order to develop your own continuous process improvement methodology, custom tailored to your organization’s needs and culture.  You might very well spend more time trying to decide what to call it than you will outlining it and kicking off its integration.

A final piece of advice is to engage as much of your organization as you can in its development and to keep your structure and toolbox simple.  The more people you involve, the more insight you will get and the easier it will be to roll out.  Simple is easier to communicate and is generally more versatile.

Build an outline from the thoughts above and discuss it with your team.  I’ll bet that you quickly start brainstorming ideas and get a fair amount of your methodology sketched out in your very first meeting. 

You don’t have to shoehorn another business’ methodology into your own and pay expensive consultants a fortune to help you do it.  You can build your own, with the help of your own personnel, and lead it’s integration.  Start with the guidelines above.

Stay wise, friends.

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