Category Archives: Continuous Improvement

Why Pursuing Big Ideas is Killing Your Culture

The best indicator of successfully developing a continuous improvement culture is your ability to engage people. Because “engagement is all about participation,” according to communications consultant David Sibbet, it is critical that you create a way for people to consistently participate in improvement activities. Creating an annual kaizen event calendar and rotating people on and off improvement teams won’t cut it. You must design a process for individuals to embed change as part of their daily work.

What works best are employee-driven idea systems that focus on small ideas but cultivate them every day in a visual, public way. Not because the ideas themselves are earth-shattering, but because the ability to get them done quickly and demonstrate continued progress is key to motivating people to think big, take risks, and work together to create positive change.

Unfortunately, most leaders have a difficult time believing that thousands of small “unmeasurable ideas” will have any meaningful effect on key financial metrics. As a result, most idea systems quickly die on the vine as leaders create layers of bureaucracy to manage the ideas, and complex return on investment (ROI) criteria to rank each idea in the search of the illusive “game-changing suggestion.” However, when leaders set a clear objective and challenge teams to rapidly implement any idea important to accomplishing their goal, then the true power of creativity and collective energy can be released.

Take an example from the University of Washington. The Grants and Contracts Accounting Group is a 25-member team responsible for the setup, invoicing, reporting, and closing of more than $1.15 billion in annual research grants. When I started working with the team, complex grants could take upwards of 673 days to finalize the outstanding invoices, complete the reporting, and close out the grant in compliance with sponsor requirements. In addition, due to the 228-percent growth in research grants and budget cuts, a backlog of 5,478 grants had developed.

Faced with no new resources and the audacious challenge to eliminate the backlog and cut the time to close to 120 days, we engaged the team and installed a system of daily process improvement. Driven by the goal to identify and solve problems in real time, the team used workflow leveling, pacing, visual controls, and idea pads to capture every roadblock the team encountered. At the end of each day, problems were reviewed and analyzed, and improvements were made so the impact of the change could be viewed the next day. While some of the ideas took multiple days to investigate and implement, the vast majority of the ideas were small, seemingly insignificant changes that could be completed by the next day.

The result? At the end of eight months, the team had eliminated 82 percent of the backlog and increased the number of budgets closed per week by 733 percent. By using a simple daily process to identify and implement small ideas, the team has averaged 4.4 new ideas per person per month and implemented 78 percent of them. It has done this without running kaizen events and without the assistance of internal lean specialists. In fact, change is happening so rapidly that documenting the effect of the ideas has become the enviable problem the team is working to address (at the request of the University).

So why do thousands of small ideas beat a few big ideas every time? Here are a few of the unseen benefits of embracing a “smaller is better” approach to process improvement:

Motivation. Seeing progress is one of the single greatest sources of intrinsic motivation. By documenting and allowing people to see the ideas they have suggested and implemented, and how their ideas have contributed to the larger organizational goals, you give them a simple, consistent, and visual mechanism to see their progress.

Development. By documenting all the small ideas, you create “teachable moments” where you can use actual ideas suggested and implemented to teach others what constitutes good ideas as well as what making progress toward goals each day looks like.

Recognition. By making your idea system visual, it allows you to create a very public method of recognizing all the incremental improvements people are suggesting and implementing. As peer-to-peer recognition is one of the most powerful motivators, the visual element allows teams to celebrate one another and each member’s contribution to their team and the organization.

Sharing. Simple visual idea systems encourage frequent yokoten(knowledge sharing) as each idea is captured, discussed, implemented, and recognized. Unexpected benefits occur during this process as each team member is exposed to the ideas of others and challenged to find opportunities where improvements can be applied in other areas.

Creating an engaged culture isn’t about challenging people to identify and implement ideas that revolutionize the organization. As soon as leaders start thinking the key to change is big ideas, they create systems that seek to identify the best ideas and kill those which do not provide a sufficient ROI. Rather than engage teams, these systems serve as a filter to curb people’s creativity and puts blinders on their “improvement eyes.” More important, by conditioning people to filter their ideas, leaders limit the organization’s ability to tap into the motivational engine that lies within in every team member.

The key to creating a world-class idea system is spending less time asking the question, “Is this a good idea?” and more time building a system where progress is measured by the implementation of thousands of seemingly inconsequential ideas. Leaders’ primary mission is to create an environment that allows all team members to make progress every day and gives them a way to see the progress they are making. Only then will people fully engage and be motivated to change the organization, one idea at a time.

In the end, if you want teams to engage in change, be accountable for their actions, and take ownership of the outcomes, they need to feel good about themselves and the contribution they are making in the organization. Only when team members are clear about the objectives and able to confidently say, “I am better today than I was yesterday” will the organization begin to tap into their limitless ability to help make themselves, their team, and their process great.

 

Learning Change from a LunaTik

Scott Wilson is the founder of MINIMAL (MNML), a hybrid design studio with a growing blue chip client roster, numerous self-manufactured products and joint ventures in development.  An accomplished designer and former Global Creative Director at Nike, his work has received wide recognition around the globe and collected over 40 international design awards in the past 7 years.

Scott and his team are on the cusp of launching TikTok and LunaTik, a new line of products which turn Apple’s iPod nano into a cool multi-touch watch.  While both products are cool in and of themselves, Scott’s unconventional approach to the design and launch of his products provide valuable lessons for anyone building a culture of continuous improvement.

Build on the ideas of others – Watch makers have been trying to figure out how to design a touch watch for years.  Instead of doing all the heavy lifting and trying to create their own watch, Scott spent his time designing products which leveraged the work already done at Apple.  The result is new beautifully engineered watch bands which integrate the existing technology of the Nano.

Details matter – To design a product worthy the Nano, Scott and his team considered every detail when it came to the look, feel and functionality.  Made from aerospace-grade aluminum and built to easily integrate headphones and plug-ins, the LunaTik is a great example of designing with the user experience in mind.

Selling your idea is critical – No matter how good your idea is, if you want it to be adopted and implemented, you need to sell it to others.  To sell their idea and connect potential consumers with their product and design process, Scott created a brilliant short video which became a virtual sensation, spreading his message like wildfire.

Follow your own path – rather than take a conventional route to funding, Scott used the Kickstarter network to introduce his products and take pre-orders to fund the development and launch.  Unlike other funding mechanisms, Kickstarter allows the creators to keep 100% ownership and control over the work and offers products for pledges in an all or nothing format.  If a project reaches its funding goal before time runs out, it proceeds…if not, no money changes hands.  Scott hoped to raise $15,000.  However, armed with a great idea, elegant designs and a video that went viral, MNML broke all previous Kickstarter launch records by raising $941,718 from 13,512 people in a matter of weeks.

So what can a LunaTik teach you about leading change?

First, you don’t always have to be the one with a revolutionary idea to develop great ideas.  It is often more productive to build on the ideas of others than reinvent the wheel in an attempt to be brilliant.  As improv actors will tell you, the secret to developing great scenes is to “accept all offers” and build on the brilliance of others.  Second, when designing a system of continuous improvement, details matter.  While experimentation is a must and mistakes are steps in the learning process, it is still important to consider how both the improvement process you create and the management system you install to support it will work together to drive team member engagement and aligned implementation.  Finally, in the words of Robert Frost “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  When it comes to change, don’t be afraid to reject convention and blaze your own path.  If you are connected to your customer and engage your people, there are many ways to get to a productive end.

Learning Systems Design from Dead Poets

“Why do I stand up here?  I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  You see the world looks very different up here … Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way.  Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.” – Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

Getting teams to look at processes in a different way can be both one of the biggest challenges and fruitful exercises a leader can undertake.  Merely enabling people to see their job from a fresh perspective can lead to new insights and generate a rush of improvement ideas.  Taichii Ohno (founder of the Toyota Production System) was famous for requiring leaders to spend hours standing in a circle on the shop floor and observing a process until the waste “revealed itself.”  The problem with getting people to look at their process and see the opportunities for improvement is that our brains are hardwired to see the world the way we want to see it rather than the way it is.  So in order to get teams to see their process differently, you often need to force a change in scenery.

That being said, the following are two simple techniques we use when redesigning systems that challenge teams to look at their process from a new perspective and expose problems in real time:

Break the work – “artificially” breaking up the work can be very effective way to increase collaboration by adding immediate feedback loops.  As teams redistribute work and struggle to meet their goals, the increased interactions generate insightful questions regarding individual behaviors, standard work requirements, and single points of failure in the system.

Rotate the work – frequently rotating the work can be helpful in two ways.  First, changing roles in a process allows the team to systematically and frequently “bring in a fresh set of eyes.”  Second, forcing the team to break down the job into its simplest elements and cross train helps drive innovation as they must question every detail and look for ways to translate and train the work more effectively.

Finally, in addition to designing systems which expose new opportunities, remember the power of setting a goal for ideas.  Paul Cook once noted that “To be an innovative organization, you have to ask for innovation.  You assemble a group of talented people who are eager to do new things and put them in an environment where innovation is expected.  It’s that simple…”  When Robin Williams challenges his students to think differently, he does not merely suggest everyone stand on the desk and look at the world from a different perspective…he makes everyone get out of their seat and physically stand on his desk.  The same is true for innovation.  Don’t beat around the bush with your goal for getting new ideas.  Contrary to what some leaders believe, setting challenging expectations for the number of new ideas generated and implemented can lead to increased motivation, fresh insights and improved business results.

 

Seeing What Makes Processes Tick

Daniel Weil is a partner of Pentagram and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.  Daniel has been working as an architect and designer since 1977 and his projects have included products, packaging, interiors and art direction for such companies as Swatch, Lego, and United Airlines.  Recently, Daniel was privately commissioned to create a gift for an architect.  The result was a one-of-a-kind clock that is both simple and complex and reflects his interest in investigating not only how objects look, but how they work.

“Objects like clocks are both prosaic and profound,” says Weil.  “Prosiac because of their ubiquity in everyday life, profound because of the mysterious nature of time itself. Time can be reduced to hours, minutes and seconds, just as a clock can be reduced to its component parts. This doesn’t explain time, but in a way simply exposes its mysterious essence.”

In addition to being a functional work of art, the clock represents a great example of the role visual management should play in process improvement.  While good visual systems don’t explain every detail of a process, they should allow a team see how a process works in real time and help “expose its mysterious essence.”  Further, by designing visual management systems which allow the team to see and easily interact with the inner workings of a process, it becomes easier to maintain, repair and improve the process as needed.

Like Weil’s clock, visuals should help explain, very simply, and elegantly, what make’s the process tick.  When done well, the blend of visual displays, visual controls and systems design give the team the opportunity to easily see the nuts and bolts of a process as they work the process.  Armed with the ability to “see” the process and its problems, teams are better able to both understand what impedes productivity as well as suggest ideas for improvement.

Contrary to the old saying, when it comes to visually management, I don’t just want to know what time it is…I want to know how to build the watch.

Redesigning an Industry Icon

Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally was a runaway winner of the 2010 MarketWatch CEO of the year, easily beating out Steve Jobs, Vikram Pandit, Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings.  Since the hiring of Mulally in 2006, Ford has been on a roll.  While Ford continued to post financial losses through 2008, the company turned the corner in 2009 and started to reap the benefits of Mulally’s turnaround strategy.  Sales and profits are up, the stock quadrupled in 2009 and doubled again in 2010 and the company has gained market share in back-to-back years for the first time since 1993.  The company even posted its best third quarter profit ($1.7 billion) in over 20 years.

So how did an old aerospace guy with no automotive experience turnaround a struggling industrial icon?  Let’s look at six elements of Mulally’s strategy that have enabled Ford to transform their financial and cultural picture in four short years:

Create a Simple and Compelling Message – By defining a simple, but powerful mission to build higher quality, more fuel efficient, safer cars, Mulally gave Ford’s employees something they craved: a message they could rally around and a vision of a company in which they could believe.  “The more each of us knows what we’re really contributing to, the more motivated and excited and inspired we are.”

Make it About the Long Term – Second, Mulally invested in a long-range plan to create a global design language he called “One Ford.”  The One Ford strategy meant selling off higher profile brands (Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Marton and Volvo), bringing back a completely redesigned Taurus, and designing cars on a global platform.

Exude Contagious Optimism – Mullally understands that his positive energy is contagious.  He exudes an optimism that is both inspiring and credible.  He has an unwavering belief in his team’s plan, balanced by relentless realism about current market conditions, and a willingness to make adjustments along the way.

Develop a Truth Telling Culture – Mulally has created a culture in which telling the truth is paramount and gets rewarded.  As an example, Mulally presides over a weekly “Business Plan Review” where the heads of Ford’s four profit centers and its 12 functional heads report on progress relative to their targets, share problems and collaborate on ideas for improvement.

Be Profitable on Lower Volumes – Under Mulally’s leadership Ford has reduced structural costs by more than $10 billion and will have reduced its production capacity by 40% by the end of next year.  In a drive to be right-sized, Ford now has fewer factories, each producing more vehicles, which has allowed the company to be profitable at near-record-low sales levels.

Create Intimate Customer Relationships – Led by Scott Monty and his talented social media team, Ford has created an extensive online presence committed to creating transparency during the turnaround.  In addition, Monty launched “The Ford Story,” a social media hub which builds intimate customer relationships through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other online communities.

Regardless of your size, industry or business goals, Mulally’s vision and values are equally relevant to every leader responsible for aligning people and driving change.  If you want to dramatically increase your effectiveness and post unprecedented results, “stand for something beyond profit…rally your employees around a shared mission…practice realistic optimism…and tell the truth without fear.”

Visual Problem Solving

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the world’s leader in 2D & 3D design software.  He has brought several software applications to market, including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall, and Maya which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry.  Given Tom’s expertise with technology and software, some might find it surprising to learn that he is also a pioneer in the use of simple, interactive visuals to help teams solve problems.  Using images, sketches, and animations, Tom and his team make complex ideas understandable by making them visible and tangible.

So why should Tom’s work at Autodesk be of interest to you?  As I have written before, neuroscientists have discovered that we don’t actually “see the world as it is.”  Rather, our brain filters the information it receives based on past experiences to create the view of the world we have around us.  As Tom describes it, our brains conduct a “visual interrogation” of everything we see by asking a series of questions and creating a mental model based upon the answers.  The depth and variety of questions our brains ask (where, how, location, number, why, color, when, shape, size, what) is dictated by the richness of the images it encounters.  The richer and more diverse the images, the more of the brain’s three primary regions are utilized in processing the image to create meaning.

Since one of our goals as leaders is to improve the effectiveness of our organizational problem solving, Tom’s work provides us with a couple of interesting lessons:

First, make problem solving more visual.  Rather than merely using data points and words to describe, analyze and solve problems, use images.  Images help the brain clarify ideas, identify underlying patterns of logic, and create meaning.  As opposed to numbers and words, a good visual invites the eyes to dart around and engage the entire brain to create a visual logic and make sense of the information to which it is being exposed.  The more fully the brain is engaged in the act of analyzing and creating meaning, the richer the outcome of the problem solving activities will be.

Second, make your problem solving more interactive.  The act of creating a visual narrative of the problem solving process is critical to the team’s ownership of the problem as well as their engagement in finding a solution.  The more the team creates the visual logic used to tell the story of the problem and what caused it, the more vested they will be in the outcome.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement requires both engaging people in the process of identifying and solving problems as well as providing them with the tools to do so.  Most traditional approaches to problem solving fail to inspire people and generate creative solutions.  They lack both a visual component to kick the entire brain into action as well as a sufficient level of interactivity to create ownership between the team and the problem.  By challenging teams to use images to identify underlying patterns and create meaning, you just might be surprised at the improvement in both the quality of thought as well as improvement ideas.

Show Up and Start Anywhere

“If they had to wait for inspiration or a good idea, few scenes would ever begin.  Players step onto the stage because that is where things are happening.  They just show up.  Then the magic begins.” – Patricia Ryan Madson

We make change too complicated.  We seem to find endless reasons to talk more and do less; waiting for the perfect answer rather than experimenting to develop the right answer.  The secret to great results is focusing on a compelling vision, adapting to changing situations, and above all, taking action.  80% of the battle is just showing up and putting yourself in a position to succeed.

Improv actors understand this principle.  They live in a world of real time creation and creativity, where success depends on taking risk, being present and accepting all offers.  As opposed to most leaders, improv actors spend more time working on adapting to a fluid environment than trying to control their environment through better scripts.  They understand that in order to discover new lands you must be willing to loose site of the shore and embrace the unknown.  In the process however, improv actors also experience the joy of discovery and create unique works of art each time they step on stage.

So how can we apply the principles of improvisational theatre to our change process?

First, don’t wait for million dollar ideas.  There aren’t many million dollar ideas out there to be found and you will pass up millions of dollars in good ideas while you search in vain for the big one.  Second, don’t overanalyze the obvious.  Far too often we give ourselves analysis paralysis by making more out of the situation than is warranted.  Improving a process is not that complicated, so don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be.  “Sometimes a duck is just a duck.”  Finally, don’t worry too much about where to start .  When faced with the task of creating a culture of continuous improvement, trying to find the “right starting point” only wastes time.  Begin with the most obvious need and focus your energy on where you can take action now.  Once you take action and get your first improvements underway, you will have a more realistic perspective of both the problems and the possible solutions.

Above all, rather than worry about what might be, concentrate on what is and liberate yourself from the fear of the unknown.  Focus on developing your current ideas into great ideas through experimentation, rather than waiting to think of “great ideas.”  Once you take action and engage people through active participation, the path to creating the culture you want will begin to reveal itself.