You can’t just wake up in the morning and “do” operational excellence. Attempting sustained continuous improvement should follow a structured process of deciding “what” and “how” to focus efforts on prioritized problems and opportunities and invest in training workers. Choosing methodology offers many choices. Like any process, deciding on an operational excellence methodology can follow a standard work process.
Selecting the structured process depends on many factors, including the current methodologies in place, the type of work to be managed, the maturity of the organization, and the organization’s specific functional strategy. Often more than one choice could be a good fit or a combination could be effective, but the organization does need to decide on the approach as part of its strategic deployment. Dabbling or flip-flopping between approaches can create more confusion and dysfunctional behavior than it will actual improvement.
How and when do you choose an improvement methodology?
A new organization may struggle with all the available choices for methodology. The simple approach might be to leverage the specific background of leaders in the organization or to hire a consultant to deliver a plug-and-play solution, complete with implementation strategy, training, and short-term problem-solving support.
Actually, a better choice is to deal with this question as an opportunity to apply a problem-solving approach: Understand the problem, analyze for the root cause, develop alternative solutions, and select the best-fit approach. If a small organization doesn’t have the expert resources to guide this process, an outside consultant can help.
An existing organization that has already attempted improvement methodologies can use the same systematic decision-making approach. In this case, historical information on what has worked and what didn’t work will also be part of the assessment data.
The organization may recognize the need to choose an improvement methodology under many situations, such as these:
- The leadership team is working on vision, strategy, and goals for the first time or as an annual process.
- Customer feedback indicates a need for improvement.
- Competitors are demonstrating superior performance in the marketplace.
- Industry benchmarking highlights great improvement success stories.
- The workforce is expanding or the workforce demographics are changing.
- New processes or products are planned or approaching launch.
- One or more members of the leadership team are inspired to introduce greater improvement focus into the culture.
- Whenever the need or opportunity is identified, a steering team can be identified and charged with defining and delivering the path forward for choosing an improvement methodology.
What to choose…what to choose
Many improvement methodologies are available and have been proven quite successful across varied organizations. Consider this subset of improvement strategies:
- Lean: Reduce waste and increase value to the customer.
- Six Sigma: Strive for perfection. Eliminate defects. Generally quite a data-driven process.
- Theory of Constraints: Find the bottleneck and eliminate it. Repeat. Repeat…
- Statistical Process Control (SPC): Utilize process data to reduce variability, thus improving product quality.
- ISO 9000, 14000 and others: Use industry standards to implement best practices within operations.
- Baldrige or Shingo: Use a framework of excellence or guiding principles to identify where an organization needs to improve.
There is no one right answer. Consider these scenarios:
A hospital has had numerous patient feedback surveys with complaints about long waiting times. The harried staff tries hard, but they all want to deliver the utmost in customer care and they feel that takes time. The hospital leader invites a consultant to spend several days observing operations. She creates a value stream map and shows many areas of opportunity, recommending a Lean approach.
The hospital hires a consultant to work with one specific area, the emergency room. They use spaghetti maps, 5S, SMED, standard work, and other Lean tools and see a reduction in average wait time from 5 hours to 45 minutes, earning a WOW from hospital leadership. A steering team researches best practices in health care improvement while attending an annual hospital conference and decides to continue on the Lean path. They identify multiple in-house facilitators, provide training, and work systematically through opportunities identified in an updated and expanded value stream map across multiple departments in the hospital.
A manufacturing organization with numerous repetitive and partially automated processes wants to address quality issues. The workforce consists of staff engineers and long-term operators very skilled in their assigned processes and committed to delivering high quality. The steering team decides to introduce Six Sigma.
They send several of the engineers for training as Black Belts, create an implementation plan for addressing prioritized problem areas, initiate training for operators in basic quality tools, and quickly achieve an early success by reducing variability on an existing process. Project teams continue, addressing tough quality issues on a Pareto basis. The workers appreciate being asked to use more brainpower in their jobs.
3. Small Businesses
A small winery operation was started by a retired engineer, who used SPC to establish processes with very low variability, yielding highly uniform wines, quite valued by wine connoisseurs. As volume has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, the owner has hired new staff, expanded operations, established a second site, and cross-trained employees for multiple jobs, although one-third of his staff is seasonal.
He’s looking for an improvement methodology that will help him quickly instill quality ownership and skills in his versatile team and have quick results from on-the-job training. He and his wife, who handles marketing, are the steering team. After assessing Six Sigma and other options, they decide to put the owner’s background in Lean to work. He starts with a 5S project in the packaging room to engage employees in workplace organization and introduces other Lean methods in varied application areas on an as-needed basis.
These examples show a common approach of assessing needs and capabilities and creating a deployment plan before jumping into major training and resource commitment. While every organization will have a different situation, they can all approach the decision process the same way: Plan, Do, Check, Act, the Deming Cycle.
Remember to answer “Why?”
One of the issues that arise when new methodologies are introduced is that employees may perceive the change as a “flavour of the month.” It may appear to them simply as a management folly that will pass. Rather than becoming enthusiastic about learning new methods and applying them to chronic problems, workers may adopt a wait-and-see attitude or even a passive-aggressive attack on the new approach.
For example, think of a high-performance workplace that has used a Lean approach very successfully to organize operations, shorten lead time, and reduce waste. However, progress has plateaued and a sticky intermittent quality issue is preventing taking further steps to drive toward even smoother flow performance. The steering team may see the need to introduce Six Sigma methods to find and fix the problem.
Without clear communications, however, employees may feel that their efforts are no longer appreciated, that Lean is being abandoned, and that they will need to leave their comfort zone and learn all new continuous improvement methods and even a new language.
One means to prevent this dysfunctional behaviour when introducing changes in the improvement methodology is by using a participative change management approach. Overcome resistance by explaining why the change is needed. Show what the current problems are, provide a vision of the future, and present manageable first steps:
- Engage employees in looking at the current situation and understanding the gap in performance.
- Provide information about alternative methods that have been considered to increase performance.
- Introduce new methods in small steps that will yield successful outcomes. At the same time, maintain relevant elements of the existing methodology.
- Reinforce acceptance and progress.