Jumpstarting Process Improvement in Your Organization: The Top 10 Essentials (Part 7 of 10) – The Importance of Training

Essential #7:  A well-funded training budget.  The often-neglected secret to creating a culture of continuous improvement is establishing a common language.  This common language connects and unites top management to front line staff.  In the area of process improvement, a common language is a cornerstone for all future breakthroughs.  So, how does that language get collectively learned?  Training.  Here are three training ideas for your consideration.

  1. Make training mandatory for all employees.  Even if each employee only receives the one-hour overview training, it’s time and money well spent.  The topic of process improvement resonates with all levels of the organization.  Everyone wants to be a part of finding new and better ways of doing his or her job.  This type of overview training gives everyone permission to think outside of their box and begins to include them in the process improvement effort.
  2. Training the trainer is a good approach, but not optimal.  Many organizations opt for the “train the trainer” approach – formally train one person who then trains the rest of the organization.  This approach is good for communicating facts, but does not have the benefit of being able to relay the practical nuances that a professional trainer can deliver.  A better approach is to offer level-specific training throughout the organization.  For example, everyone gets the one-hour overview.  Executives may get a three-hour deployment overview.  Managers and directors get 8 to 16 hours of training.  This staged approach ensures the same message is being communicated appropriately and consistently throughout the organization.
  3. Continue to allow the specialist(s) to train.  Even experts need to be pushed and training pushes them.  It is very common for the specialist to become an expert and thereby become very comfortable in being an expert.  Once this happens, the specialist has lost some of his or her effectiveness.  Continuing education pushes the specialist into becoming more well-rounded, more highly-motivated, and more effective in leading the organization.

Unfortunately, training dollars are often the first to get cut.  In tough times, it is easy to sacrifice or delay training for the immediate needs of the organization.  I can’t argue with this logic entirely.   However, there are creative and innovative ways to continue process improvement related training within the organization for pennies on the dollar.  Internal training programs, state-sponsored workforce development offerings, or local community college instructors are often more affordable avenues to provide training to your employees.

Jumpstarting Process Improvement in Your Organization: The Top 10 Essentials (Part 6 of 10)

Essential #6:  Strategy for finding and retaining the best people.  As in any industry, subject matter experts often command salaries commensurate with the results they achieve.  So, when a process improvement specialist reproduces his or her salary anywhere from five to twenty times, their skills become highly sought after.  Below is a brief snapshot of best practices I have seen in hiring and retaining top-level process improvement specialists.

  1. Hiring – Hiring the right person is always a tough task.  Behavior-based interviewing reduces the risk of hiring “good talkers.” [“Good talkers” – people who say the right things, but have not actually delivered meaningful results.]  This style of interview requires the candidate to provide specific examples of past experiences (usually successes) and relate those experiences to the job qualifications.  A well-qualified candidate should do well in this type of interview as his or her expertise is in achieving and articulating results.
  2. Tool kit – The best process improvement specialists should not be tied to any one set of tools.  It is important that they be trained, certified, and qualified in at least 2 or 3 methods.  There are about half a dozen worthwhile methodologies.  However, any candidate overly loyal to just one method may lack the openness of thought to solve the variety of problems the job often requires. Here’s a few methodologies I’m familiar with: Six Sigma, Lean, Theory of Constraints, Project Management, Industrial Engineering, Process Engineering, and Failure Modes and Effects Analysis.
  3. Pay – The topic no one likes to talk about.  There are two sides to this issue.  First, the employer should attempt to maintain a fair and equitable salary structure among all employees.  However, process improvement specialists rarely fit into an established job description, especially in service industries.  Secondly, the candidate has already researched and calculated the fair market value of the skill set he or she brings to the table.  Granted, their expectation hedges on the high side, but in general, if they are worth what they are asking, they have done their homework.  It is therefore up to the employer to do the requisite amount of homework.  This will allow the employer to speak intelligently to the topic and to have realistic expectations going in.

Hiring the right person for any position is a difficult task. Finding the right person or people to anchor your process improvement initiative is doubly daunting.  First off, it’s a specialized field full of jargon, no universal licensure, and diversity of methods.  Secondly, there is an ocean full of academically qualified candidates lacking the communication skills and emotional intelligence required to lead meaningful projects in service-related industries.  Finally, finding the optimal person requires research, asking the right questions, and – most of all – patience.

Jumpstarting Process Improvement in Your Organization: The Top 10 Essentials (Part 5 of 10)

Essential #5: Dedicated process improvement specialist(s).  I touched on this in the previous post.  It is very difficult for anyone to do process improvement in addition to his or her primary job.  There are several reasons for this.

  1. A process improvement skill set is quite different from a line management skill set. Just because a person is good at their job does not necessarily make then uniquely qualified to do the in-depth analysis that process improvement requires.  Conversely, process improvement skills are not necessarily optimal for managing day-to-day activities.  Neither is more or less desirable – just different.
  2. “Highest and best use.” Piggy-backing off the thought above, each employee has a skill set.  Whether or not that skill set is useful to your business is up to you to determine.  So, in deciding how to best leverage an employee’s skill set, jobs must be divided up in a way that maximizes an employee’s talents.  Process improvement is such a broad term, directing an employee’s time to one specific area of need may be beneficial.  After 2 or 3 years when the gains have been realized in that area, it may be time to shuffle the deck and dedicate another person to work on process improvements in another area.
  3. Time to think.  A large part of process improvement is introspective.  Resource utilization, the flow of materials, or policy and procedure development are not split-second realizations.  Discovery and innovation require asking many questions, process mapping, data collection, and analysis.  Trying to fit this type of work in between operational tasks is difficult at best and self-defeating at worst.
  4. Conflict of interest.  As a line manager, I was once asked to spearhead process improvement efforts in my large and fast-paced environment.  I agreed, of course.  I soon realized that my what I needed to accomplish long-term (process improvement) conflicted with what I needed to do that day (hit my quota).  Structurally, I was in a position to do neither job particularly well.  As an organization, we worked through it, but the answer ended up requiring dedicated resources to work the process improvement effort and others to meet our daily requirements.

The Juran Institute estimates that between 10 and 40% of total costs are due to inefficient or ineffective processes depending on the level of continuous improvement maturity in the organization.  As a rule of thumb, an experienced process improvement specialist can return 15-20 times his or her salary in improvements.  A less experienced professional should be able to double or triple his or her salary.  If we can make some estimate of the waste percentage and the experience level of the specialist we need, we should be able to do a back-of-the-napkin calculation of the investment required to jump start the process improvement effort as shown below:

Sample Calculation

Sales

$1,200,000

% of Waste estimate

x

18%

Opportunity

$216,000

Savings to Salary multiple

÷

3

Salary Budget

$72,000

This small business could realistically hire a full-time person to work on process improvement activities provided the specialist could deliver a 3 times salary return.  As you already had guessed, this calculation assumes quite a bit.  However, this is a risk-reward decision for the business to make.