Tag 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.

Changing How We See Ourselves

Meet Bill Strickland.  He is the President and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation and delivers educational and cultural opportunities to students and adults within a culture that fosters innovation, creativity, responsibility and integrity.  But perhaps more importantly, “Bill is a genius because he sees the inherent genius in everyone.” – Jeff Skoll (first president of eBay, Founder and Chairman, Skoll Foundation).  Bill uses his ability to spot genius in others and his belief in the power of a vision of hope to transform the lives of thousands of people.

So why am I introducing you to Bill?  In past posts, I have talked about the importance of simple, repeatable processes in creating a culture of continuous improvement.  And while I believe creating and implementing these processes is critical to your success, equal time needs to be spent on the role people play in creating and improving these processes.  Bill is world renown for his ability to inspire others to achieve more than they think is possible and become positive agents for change.  And while Bill’s primary goal is not to engage people in continuous improvement, we can learn a lot from his approach to motivating people to take action and accomplish lofty goals.

Based on Bill’s experience working in inner cities, “you have to change the way people see themselves before you can change their behavior.”  As long as people see themselves as victims of change or inconsequential to the change, they become disengaged and create barriers between themselves and the ideal environment they desperately need and want.  If you want people to break out of current habits, you must first create an expectation of positive results before you can motivate people to undertake the actions necessary to realize the results.  This is a subtle, but important point.  You have to change the way people think about themselves before you can hope to change the way they behave…and if you don’t change the way they behave, you can’t create a culture of continuous improvement.

So how can you start to change the way people think about themselves?

First, by realizing that each of us thinks in pictures and uses these pictures to tell ourselves stories about how the world works.  These stories form a narrative of how I think about my environment and more importantly, my ability to change it.  If you want to change the way people think, you need to change the stories people tell themselves by creating and reinforcing the right pictures in their head.  To help do this, find examples of people in your organization doing great work, creating innovative ideas and inspiring others.  Bring these examples to life with photos, testimonials, and public recognition.  The better you are at promoting these pockets of brilliance, the more successful you will be creating a new story for the organization to tell itself.

Our role as leaders is to create pictures of hope, confidence, purpose, inspiration, and action.  More importantly, our goal is to impart a picture of success and belief that each individual can positively affect their environment through the engagement of their hearts and minds in the process of continuous improvement.  There is nothing more powerful than a person who believes in their ability to influence the future, armed with the skills and tools necessary to do so.

The Golden Hour

“There is a golden hour between life and death. If you are critically injured you have less than 60 minutes to survive. You might not die right then; it may be three days or two weeks later, but something has happened in your body that is irreparable.” – Dr. R Adams Cowley

The R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center is a free standing trauma hospital in Baltimore, MD and is part of the University of Maryland Medical Center.  Founded by R Adams Cowley, it was the first facility in the world to treat shock and now admits over 7,500 critically injured patients per year.  More amazingly, while many of the patients are near death when arriving at the center, more 97% of the 7,700 patients seen last year survived.

At the core of the center’s success is the shared belief that they can save every patient.  This almost obsessive pursuit of an “impossible” goal connects the team to a larger purpose and creates a never give up attitude in each member of the staff.  However, a never give up attitude alone is not enough to generate the trauma center’s impressive results.  Many organizations create inspiring visions and believe they are capable of accomplishing great things.  What they lack is a work environment structured to allow each individual to translate the vision into actionable daily events through simple, repeatable processes.

The mechanism the trauma center uses to create of this type of environment is the concept of the “Golden Hour.”  The golden hour refers to the sixty minute window after people are critically injured when what happens will determine whether they survive and what the quality of their lives will be.  This concept drives everything the center does and has guided each decision about how the center will manage the flow of patients and information, what equipment and technology will be used, and the make up and training of the staff.

So what does the concept of the golden hour have to do with continuous improvement?  Everything.  At the heart of continuous improvement is creating an environment where each individual identifies and solves problems.  Like a patient, what happens in the first 60 minutes after a problem has occurred dictates whether the problem is effectively solved as well as the quality of the new process going forward.  Unlike the trauma center however, few organizations create daily processes to ensure that each problem is identified, understood and solved during this critical window.

To effectively create an environment with daily problem solving at its core, management should take away three lessons from the trauma center.  First, it is critical to set expectations for each process so that there is a shared understanding of what constitutes a problem.  Second, we need to create systems which allow everyone to see problems in real time.  Finally, through a combination of an inspiring vision and effective training, we must provide the motivation and skills to solve problems in real time.

Don’t Delay…Start Today

The Shingo Prize (www.shingoprize.com) is a non-profit organization committed to the education, assessment, and recognition of organizations achieving operational excellence.  The process of applying for and receiving recognition from the prize is extensive and recently, we helped an organization undertake the challenge.  The organization has been on the continuous improvement journey for a few years now, and while they have achieved some great results, they have also struggled to engage the entire workforce in the change process and create a culture of daily continuous improvement.  One of the issues has been the leadership team’s lack of commitment to consistently provide the vision, resources, and urgency necessary to drive rapid process improvement.

When challenging for the prize however, the leadership team stepped up their game and spared no expense in preparing the facility and staff for the examination.  They created a well thought out and orchestrated tour, aligned the shop floor and support groups with a narrative to share with the examiners, ensured everyone in the facility knew their role in achieving a successful outcome, and conducted a series of dry runs to get the team comfortable with what to expect during the site visit.  As part of the preparation, the organization also implemented a significant number of improvements to key processes, daily huddles, and visual controls.

After witnessing the preparation that went into challenging for the prize, I could not help but wonder where the organization would be if they focused a similar amount of resource and energy around driving daily improvements the last three years.  Rather than merely ramp up for the examination, if the leadership team had created a similar level of urgency, alignment and preparation in daily activities, the organization would not only have achieved a higher level of cultural transformation, but business results would be significantly better as well.

In the end, the lesson to be learned is; don’t wait for a special event to create an aligned vision for your organization and pursue improvements with intensity and commitment.  Don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today to create a culture of change and drive results.  World class organizations understand that continuous improvement is a daily activity embedded into the standard work of associates and managers.  They also understand that employees are hungry to buy into an “impossible” vision for the future, so there is no time like the present to start making the future a reality.