Continuous improvement: how easily focus is lost

In an industrial environment improvement opportunities are literally infinite, especially if nothing has been done so far about improvement and maturity, about industrial best practices and considering methodologies like Lean, Theory of Constraints (ToC) or Six Sigma was nearly nonexistent.

When starting to improve, it happens quite often: committed people get lost and lose focus. Instead of concentrating on the core issue to achieving the Goal,  they dilute efforts on lesser important subjects, secondary objectives or even unimportant things.

As a consequence real improvements are delayed or even won’t happen.

How to prevent this from happening? Here are three things that will help:

  • Choose proper KPIs
  • Have a sponsor keeping some distance
  • Start with a Goal Tree

Choose proper KPIs

Measurement is the first improvement step. Choose the (few) KPI(s) that really reflect the achievement of the assigned key objectives and assess the effects of improvement efforts with these figures.

Assigned key objectives points to a Goal set by the organization’s owner or the delegate executives. Bottom-up chosen improvement targets lead most often to local optimization which is scarcely contributing to the overall system improvement, hence the reservation about point kaizen or kaizen blitz workshops focused on local improvements/problem solving.

Expected improvement is generally about productivity, quality, timely deliveries or any combination of them. Outcome should be measured in physical units, e. g. widgets per hour, right first time rate or on time in full (OTIF) deliveries.

Pitfall to avoid with KPIs is to choose activity-related instead of outcome-related ones, like the number of kaizen events held in the week rather than additional widgets made ready for shipping.

Teams may get some scolding for not delivering the expected results even though they were convinced to have worked hard and gotten nice results. They are just not aligned with top management’s expectations.

Back-standing sponsor

Having someone higher ranking / legit, keeping some distance from details and looking at the project with a broader perspective is a good way to prevent shop floor teams to get pulled down into details and away from their objective.

The sponsor should have authority to both help the team to overcome some difficulties, when decisions are to be made with other stakeholders and authority to demand regular reports and direct the team when necessary.

Regular reports and expectation of results are powerful incentives for the team not to lose themselves during their improvement journey.

Having a back-standing manager is common practice in the consulting business where a manager will follow, support and coach the consultants shop floor team, making sure focus is kept on the right objective and progress is consistent.
Some customers can’t understand the importance of this management they consider costs added, not value-added, an easy way to charge more (Yes this may happen, but let’s assume the consultants we’re considering are good ones with real care about delivering value and some ethics).

Well, the cost of meaningless efforts, wasted time and resources on ill-chosen or defined objectives is often much higher than the cost of the back-standing manager.

When the Goal is defined at the top-level and the objectives assigned to the teams, the project governance is usually defined as well, with someone high-ranking taking the sponsor / jury role. Bottom-up initiatives do not always have it.

Start with a Goal Tree

My regular followers are used to read my posts promoting this fantastic tool: the Goal Tree. Many of you readers may not yet be familiar with Goal Trees, and I strongly recommend you to learn more about them and evaluate the potential benefits using them.

At the beginning of a project, building a Goal Tree is a smart investment worth the couple of hours required: a well-built Goal Tree will give guidance toward the assigned or chosen Goal as well as the associated few Critical Success Factors to achieve and the list of Necessary Conditions to fulfill.

The Goal Tree is built upon necessity logic (in order to achieve… we must…) and thus prevents to get lost in nice-to-haves or irrelevant “improvements”.

From the moment I used a Goal Tree from the start myself, I kept focused, consistent and more efficient for myself or the teams I worked with. Conversely, when I thought I could save the effort starting with a Goal Tree it went not that brilliantly, with some deviations, drifting and the like.

These unpleasant experiences were powerful reminders, especially when the back-standing manager legitimately “kicked the a**”.


Chris HOHMANN

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