Sunday, July 29, 2012

What's Your Countermeasure?

Creating a lean culture requires a good deal of clarity and consistency from leaders.  Since lean is not normal for most people, there will be a continual pull within the organization to return to old ways.  Because of this, it is important to take advantage of every opportunity to transform the way people think and operate.

One valuable coaching opportunity occurs in the recurring meetings that take place within the organization.  The closer the meeting is to the daily operation, the more problems that will be highlighted because it is much easier to see the issues that affect us today than three or six months from now.  Whenever a problem is identified in a meeting like this, it is critical for leaders to ask, “what’s your countermeasure?”

Never Accept a Quick Fix

Remember that a countermeasure is not a quick fix that only addresses the symptoms of a problem.  To be effective, countermeasures must be developed and proven through the PDCA process where an issue’s root cause is determined, ideas are developed and tested, and actions are implemented to, not only address the current situation, but help prevent the problem from occurring again in the future.

In order for the kaizen process to work on a daily basis, people have to learn to move through the PDCA cycle quickly and frequently.  Because of this, expecting problems to be permanently fixed is unrealistic.  What is realistic, though, is to expect processes to improve and people to get better and more proactive at addressing problems.

It’s All About Expectations

The more leaders ask for countermeasures in team meetings, the more people will understand the importance of addressing problems when they happen instead of hoping they go away by themselves.  A clear message will be sent that it is never acceptable to let problems continue without addressing them through the kaizen process.

At first, the question of countermeasures will be met with strange looks and panic.  Over time, however, people will come to meetings prepared to talk about how problems have been addressed and what is being done to keep the problem from affecting the operation in the future.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Performance Improvement or Performer Improvement?

To truly reap the benefits of continual improvement, what should be the focus of a kaizen process?  Should efforts be focused on improving business performance or improving people through learning and development?

Obviously every company wants to continually improve performance, but wanting to do it and knowing how to do it over the long-term are two different things.  It comes down to a question of cause and effect – or what needs to happen to cause improvements to occur on a continual basis?

When a person or team comes up with an idea to improve a process, there are two possible outcomes: the idea will work or it won’t.   You can never guarantee that an idea will result in improvement.  What you can do, though, is design the process so that people learn about the areas in which they work by testing ideas, and learn about the kaizen process by participating in improvement activities.

When an improvement process is only about business performance, team members will not necessarily develop kaizen skills.  And in this situation, the organization misses out on the opportunity to grow kaizen activity because the number of people who are able to facilitate improvement projects remains static.

In most cases, the direct financial benefit from an individual kaizen will be relatively small.  True measurable benefits from a kaizen process will result only when improvements occur frequently.  This can only happen when a large number of people understand the process and are actively involved in improvement activities.

To grow the process and change the culture, leaders must emphasize the importance of developing problem-solving skills with each kaizen project.  Whenever the results of an improvement effort are presented, it is critical to inquire about the learning that occurred.  Too much focus on the business result can drastically stunt the growth of the process and keep the organization from reaching the type of success that few have ever experienced.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Letting Up Is Not An Option

After winning at Wimbledon, Roger Federer is once again the number one tennis player in the world.  Now that he has made it to the top, can he expect to take it easy and hope to remain there?  Will his practice sessions and workouts be easier now that he has only to sustain the level of performance that got him to number one?  And since he has obviously mastered the sport, he is no longer in need of a coach, right?

When talking about competing in a highly competitive environment like tennis, the obvious answer to these questions is, "no."  Yet in a highly competitive business environment, it is fairly common to let up when performance improves as if the gains will hold and things will continue to advance without the type of focus it took to get there.  In some organizations, the effort actually loses support because of the feeling that further improvement is not worth the investment.

Once You think You've Won, You Lost

People in organizations where lean thinking has taken hold understand that continual improvement requires continual effort. This means never letting up on the drive to develop people and assure continued learning.  As with an athlete mastering a sport, there is no such thing as maintaining a certain level of performance.  There is either improvement or deterioration - and as you get better, improvement becomes more difficult to maintain.

It's interesting that people use the term "continuous improvement" while deep down believing that there is a point where things are good enough and not worth the effort to continue.  I referred to this in an earlier post as the we-can-always-improve-but syndrome.   If we're striving for perfection, improvement is always needed.  Changes in people, technology, customer tastes, and many other aspects of the environment invalidate any notion of sustaining the gains.  The only way to sustain a given level of performance is to continue to improve.

Performance Improves . . . And It’s Fun

Those who buy into the continual improvement philosophy find working in a lean thinking environment very satisfying.  They understand the link between their efforts and the company’s performance and are energized by the ability to participate in improving processes.  For those in leadership positions, however, it can be exhausting to continually fight against the barriers that interfere with improvement.  And since these barriers naturally occur within organizations, the effort to remove them will never end.

Just as Roger Federer needs to continue to improve to remain number one, an organization must continually push harder, learn faster, and get stronger in order to remain relevant.  Failing to do this can pretty much guarantee membership in the growing group of companies that, at one time appeared invincible, but have since disappeared because of arrogance or apathy toward improvement.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Making the Workplace Speak

Do your processes speak or are they too shy to bring problems to your attention?  When it comes to the workplace, you want processes to be as loud and obnoxious as possible when something isn’t running exactly as planned.

Moving toward lean thinking often requires transformation. This means a significant shift in thinking, leading, systems, and general approach to operating the business. Although there are elements that are common to most transformation efforts, organizational differences make it difficult to single out one or two that apply in all circumstances.  One of the most common but often overlooked elements involves making the workplace speak.

Processes must be designed so they sing out when problems occur enabling issues to be identified and addressed quickly.  Without the ability to speak, a process can hide problems until they become such a normal part of the operation that they are no longer recognized as problems.  When this happens, the process moves further away from the ideal state and countermeasures, when applied, consist of throwing money at symptoms.  Examples include increasing inventory, lot sizes, and inspection – all of which increase costs while giving a false sense of security that a problem is effectively addressed.

Clarifying Objectives

Clarity of objectives is the foundation for encouraging processes to speak. When objectives are clear, it becomes much easier to create signals that communicate problems immediately when something puts an objective in jeopardy.  Examples include takt time, inventory levels, and problem boards.

Takt Time
If we can identify the optimal pace for a process and focus attention on maintaining that pace, setting up a signal that identifies when a problem occurs should be fairly easy. This can consist of a takt board or dashboard that shows when a process step is unable to keep up with the rest of the process.

Inventory Levels
Setting up visual cues regarding inventory levels can make it obvious when a process is overproducing.  As an example, installing a bin system between two processes that only holds a maximum or minimum number of parts will signal when the prior process is producing faster or slower than the following process.  Whether the problem lies with one area overproducing or another failing to keep pace will not necessarily be known, but it will be clear that something is wrong.

Problem Boards
Making the process speak can be done as easily as setting up a board in the workplace where problems can be recorded as they occur.  Parts that don’t fit properly, instructions that aren’t clear, or equipment breakdowns can be easily recorded using a checksheet, free text, or both to bring problems to the attention of those who are able to address them.  Without an easy way to record these types of issues, however, they can continue to occur due to a lack of visibility.

A common signal used in assembly lines is the andon cord, which is pulled by workers whenever something interferes with doing their work as planned.  Even without an assembly line, however, the andon concept can be used by providing people with the ability to signal when a problem occurs.  Whether it's an audible alarm in the factory, a signal light that goes off in an office, or a text message that is automatically transmitted to those who need to know, the andon can be a valuable way for the process to speak.

Make the Workplace Scream

Very few of us like to work with people who are loud and obnoxious, yet these are the exact traits we should desire in our processes.  Processes should be designed in a way that they scream so loudly when a problem occurs that we never feel it is acceptable to let them go on for very long.  The workplace should be quiet only when things are running smoothly and all objectives are being met.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Success With Kaizen Requires Thinking Small

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I read a whitepaper recently that touted the benefits of a kaizen process. The paper presented an example from a British company where an improvement project resulted in an annual savings to the organization of £1.2 million.  The point of the paper was to demonstrate the type of improvement that companies could achieve with an effective improvement process.

The unfortunate part of a story like this is that it creates the expectation that implementing a kaizen process will lead to million dollar improvements.  This is not the essence of a kaizen process and often leads to skepticism or disappointment and eventual abandonment of the effort.

Small Improvements by Everyone, Everyday

To be successful and sustaining, an objective of a kaizen process must be to get everyone involved in identifying and attacking waste. This means focusing on - and celebrating - the small improvements that result from the effort. Daily improvement will not happen, however, if the company's leaders are expecting and driving for the million dollar improvements.  People will not invest the time or effort necessary to implement a small improvement when it is not considered important by the company's leaders.

Will you ever get a million dollar improvement from a kaizen process?  Maybe, but it will be the result of a culture that enable ideas to flow and improvements to occur.  Keeping the process alive long enough to reap the benefits, though, requires celebrating the small improvements as much as the large ones.

In reality, a million one dollar ideas are much more likely to occur than a single one million dollar idea.  Because of this, the focus needs to be on coaching people to identify problems, address root causes, test countermeasures, and change standard work at a rapid pace.  Leaders need to be kaizen experts in this type of environment, and able to effectively coach team members in the improvement process.

Practice is the Best Training

As more improvements are made, people get better at solving problems.  The pace quickens, ideas get better, and morale improves.  When the focus is on large improvements versus the small ones, there are fewer projects and fewer opportunities to teach people how to solve problems.  The culture does not change because learning, if it does occur, it is at too slow of a pace to make much of a difference.

Small improvements are generally made very quickly, and tend to cost very little – if anything – to implement.  Large improvements, on the other hand, can take weeks or months, cost significantly more, and are riskier because of the difficulty to test before adopting.   So while you’re waiting for that million dollar improvement to occur, think about the number of small improvements that could have been implemented and the benefits that were lost during the wait.