Jumpstarting Process Improvement in Your Organization: The Top 10 Essentials (Part 9 of 10) – Methodology

Essential #9:  An established process improvement methodology.  There is a raging debate among process improvement nerds as to the best improvement methodology.  The danger in becoming married to a methodology is the perception by the staff that process improvement itself is merely the latest management fad.  On the flip side, homegrown or generic process improvement models often lack the tools and structure required to solve complex problems.  I have gone to great lengths in this series to talk about process improvement rather than espousing any particular framework. But, at the end of the day, an organization must choose a set of tools and use them effectively.   Here are four considerations when selecting a process improvement tool kit.

  1. Availability of training and support.  Choosing an off-the-wall framework can result in lack support, online resources, training, and templates.  Choosing a well-known model (Lean, Six Sigma, PDCA, for example) will allow your team to access a wide variety of support material, user forums, quick reference guides, and industry-specific standards.  Other, lesser-known methods might work fine in a short-term context, but may be somewhat limiting in the long run.
  2. Established terminology.  A clear sign that the process improvement effort is going well is when frontline staff begin to adopt the principles of process improvement.  Outward evidence their acceptance is their usage of the terminology.  A standard process improvement model supports an on-going and sustainable culture and language.  Imprecise language, lack of standardization, and inconsistent messaging will definitely confuse workforce, frustrate the managers, and work against the goal of sustainability.
  3. Consistency across the organization.  In large organizations or those in multiple geographical locations, it becomes very difficult to internally develop a sustainable process improvement model.  Each location will feel the need to tweak or re-engineer the methodology.  However, a standard, well-known model tend to withstand bastardization and can be used just as effectively in Kansas, Canada, or Caracas.  Tying in the aspects of training and terminology, a common approach allows for local, language-specific training almost anywhere in the world.
  4. Consistency across multiple specialists.  Hopefully, but unlikely, your company will be able to retain its process improvement specialists over many years.  As your experts come and go, adopting an established methodology allows your company maintain momentum.  A standard will also allow you to hire from a wider pool of trained professionals.  If you choose to adopt a lesser-known framework, it might require additional investment in salary, training, or time to bring new hires up to speed.

There is a real temptation on the part of organizations to save money by foregoing the adoption of an established process improvement model.  It is likely cheaper in the short term to Google a few terms, throw together a couple of PowerPoint slides, and call it “Process Improvement 101.”  However, for the reasons outlined, here, it’s just not sustainable.  Process improvement done right will save your company 10-40% of costs.  Why not just spend the money and use what has been proven to work?

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Jumpstarting Process Improvement in Your Organization: The Top 10 Essentials (Part 8 of 10) – Communicate with the entire organization

Essential #8:  Methods for communicating with the entire organization.  “Lack of communication” is often cited as the number one reason employees are dissatisfied with their job.  There are two simple reasons for this.  First, we really don’t communicate effectively.  Second, “lack of communication” is an indication that employees feel disconnected from the company’s vision.  Applying this thought to process improvement efforts, the organization must have a way to reach and connect all employees in order to achieve meaningful gains.  Communication is critical because the best ideas for improvement come from the people doing the job.  If we as the leaders can’t figure out a way to exchange ideas, then the process improvement effort will struggle.  Here are three ideas for communicating with employees.

  1. Management by walking – This concept was popularized in the 1980’s.  Walking with purpose and meeting the workforce is a good way to garner good will and generate conversation.  This art was lost as our businesses became more virtual and shop floor reporting became more transparent and automated.  Somewhere, we lost touch with people.   A recent emerging thought combines the politicking of “walking around” with reinforcing a culture of accountability.  This model facilitates a give-and-take between the front line staff and the leader.  There are 12 questions (or a version thereof) every leader should ask while walking around and those questions can be found here.
  2. Employee suggestion programs are overrated.  Yes, they are somewhat useful.  Yes, there is a place for them.  No, I’m not recommending you eliminate yours.  There are two common problems with employee suggestions programs.  First, lack of participation.  Employee suggestion programs do not engage otherwise unengaged employees.  So, if your employees aren’t already a part of the continuous improvement effort, a wooden lock box and a stack of postcards will not do the trick.  The second common problem is that suggestions are rarely actionable.  Either we receive too many suggestions to manage or the ones we receive are more along the lines of complaints.  I’ve never really seen a game-changing suggestion come through the employee suggestion box.  I have seen on numerous occasions profoundly innovative ideas come from employees when simply asked, “How would you fix this problem?”
  3. Social media – Keep your employees linked in through social media.  If Facebook were an independent country, it would be the third largest in the world behind China and India.  Everyone is connected to something.  There are a number of ways to connect your workforce via social media.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, and vlongs are examples.  These tools were invented for no other purpose than to facilitate a conversation.  And, conversation with our employees is what we want – both physically (management by walking) and virtually (social media).

We have more communication tools now than ever before.  Yet, seemingly we communicate less and less.  The goal is not to communicate for the sake of communication.  The goal is to use communication as a tool for collaboration, which brings about change.  Process improvement is all about changing, improving, and succeeding.  Making sure you have the proper communication tools in place will dramatically improve your level of process improvement success.

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.