Can a digital continuous improvement platform really work?
Never mind how effective is it, what is a digital continuous improvement platform really? No, I mean, really!!
Traditional Continuous Improvement platform
Well to explain that let's start with what a more traditional continuous improvement system looks like. At some point most organizations will, in their history, have put into place a suggestion scheme. Now that may have started off with humble beginnings as box at the employee entrance of a building with a printed label on it saying, “Suggestion Box”. Such original naming was somewhat redundant as the initiator and deployer of the box may as well have put a sign on it saying, “Anyone putting anything in this box is wasting their time and sticking out like a sore thumb!”.
Why a waste of time? Because they were fraught with issues ranging from having been put into place as a symbolic gesture by senior management with no intention of every doing anything with it, too, no one had ever been asked their opinions before, ever and so now when a suggestion went in it was so ‘big’ it could almost rival “we want world peace and an end to poverty”.
In many organizations, the suggestion box has evolved into a far more organized and tactile system whereby departments (predominantly on the shop floor), have a board and meeting area where key performance indicators, output, issues and ideas are reviewed and actions put into place to go and tackle those needed improvements. However this area and setup is still fraught with the same pitfalls as its predecessor of buy-in at the highest levels of the organization and making sure that the staff are engaged and can see evidence that their inputs and efforts are taken seriously. Generally, what is done within these systems and their results a mostly hidden from the rest of the organization and this detail is only visible by those who know where to look and what to look for.
Now the difference with a digital platform, and this does depend on which platform you wish to use to ‘host’ the continuous improvement system, is that it can offer a level of connectivity, visibility and analysis that it can offer and that this can be done at speed. Now at Unleash we have favoured the Microsoft Teams platform and have helped organizations develop digital continuous improvement systems in that environment. What a platform such as Microsoft Teams has allowed us to mimic the features of the more traditional continuous improvement board, but with all of the benefits of digital functionality.
In practice, what we can now do for clients is create an organizational team environment, with each team being made up of departmental channels. These channels can now have continuous improvement boards built into the tabs of the channel with the use of, in this case, Microsoft planner. Further development of the channel can be done by the department to suit its own requirements and culture, but the important thing is that the planner board is developed to capture new ideas from team members, just like the more traditional, paper-driven continuous improvement boards did.
However, the real power of the digital system, when compared to its traditional predecessor is that the department could be in one location, multiple national or international locations, different time zones, office based or field based, or both, working from home in the ‘new normal’ or social distancing in an office environment. Yes, a digital continuous improvement platform has now just negated the effects and constraints of COVID-19 pandemic and resultant social distancing requirements and inherent risks of not following the guidance.
We would argue that using a digital platform for continuous improvement as we have helped customers do, puts them in the front seat to manage and mitigate the real life economic effects and challenges that all companies now face trying to come out of lockdown. No matter where or how your workforce is required to work, they can all be connected real-time and still be driving continuous improvement in the business.
And one last point on the platform and its operation, any department that has team members that do not have access to a PC or mobile device in their daily operations, can easily set up a collaboration zone on the shop floor for example. This can be adjusted to allow for social distancing and still ensure that all can participate.
Who is responsible for what?
Important point now. Clearly communicating the levels of responsibility in any continuous improvement system is crucial and will have a massive impact on buy-in and user adoption. The reality is that this doesn’t have to be a complicated RAPID set-up. Simply allocate responsibility for ensuring sensible outputs are authorized, time allocated to continuous improvement, support and decision making when required and the platform is operational is the responsibility of the manager.
Team leaders and supervisors have a vital responsibility of helping generate buy-in within the teams that they are a part of. They will have a higher level of credibility with the team than managers and senior managers as they are in the trenches with the teams a lot more and have a better understanding of the day to day challenges the team faces. Their responsibility therefore is to encourage and entice inputs and feedback from staff, constantly asking them for their suggestions.
Staff should be given one responsibility only ... “tell us what needs to improve and help us to make it happen.” That's it! This will ensure that they are not paralyzed by fear or uncertainty of how to manage these systems and will concentrate of just saying it is it is.
Shape and structure
How should the continuous improvement board be structured? Six words is all it takes to provide the structure of the boards!
- Ideas – This is the slot for all new ideas and suggestions that are raised
- Hold – This slot is for all the ideas that have been agreed to take forward, but current bandwidth in the department means that they can be started just yet.
- Plan – This slot is where all new ideas that have been agreed to proceed with and not being held, then have to be planned according to what the problem is and how you are going to go about tackling it.
- Do – This slot is where once the route to correct the problem or implement a new idea has been developed, you put it into place. Test it, try it, give it a go!
- Check – This slot is where the plan has been put into action and tried and now you must analyze how it went, how did the result or numbers compare to the original situation or data. Compare and decide, did it work or not?
- Act - The last slot is where an idea has gone the course and worked and now it is time to lock it in. Embed it into the systems and processes and make sure that it becomes the norm to get the full benefit of the continuous improvement process.
Now you see it...
One powerful aspect of the more traditional systems, that is possible to lose with the digital variants, is that everyone can see it! The regular complaint from those organisations who have struggled to implement a continuous improvement culture, is that all our ideas disappear into the ether! And it is of course this situation that the hugely visible board addresses, with all ideas, and their progress in full view.
The good news is that technology have provided us with a modern solution for this issue, as the cost of large screens is now such that they are not beyond the reach of the average business, and by making them fully accessible to employees, either via a PC or having touch-screen options, mean that they can be accessed and viewed as effectively as their manual predecessors.
The Triangle of Love or Pain
Three things now stand between you and your digital continuous improvement platform driving phenomenal organizational performance and … not so much!
Momentum, momentum, momentum
All continuous improvement systems need momentum to ensure that they do not stagnate, and that staff always see real-time benefits and outcomes. If this momentum is not maintained the entire system fails. Digital platforms give you the ability to quickly see aggregated data on all your improvement projects, their status and priority levels, mean points of failure in tasks being assigned and how many projects are on hold and/or overdue. Watch this like a hawk! And it the senior manager/manager’s responsibility to ask, “where can I help?”.
Capturing the gains and making a fuss about them
Really important this one! Make sure that you capture all the gains that have been made as a result of your digital system, and generally this will be in the form of time saved and money saved or generated. Track it in your projects and then make smart and interesting graphs to visualize these gains and show your teams! Platforms such as MS Teams can integrate applications such as Power BI for capturing and visualizing data. We have used it in Unleash it is fantastic to see the fruits of your labour … real motivator!
Beware filtering, expose it and dispose of it!
Last and by no means least, beware filtering! Filtering is what we at Unleash refer to when you have someone in your leadership structure, who would say all the right things to the person who is driving this continuous improvement culture. However, the message they then give to their next level of reports if different. It is negative and tainted with “Management want us to do this, but they don’t get how busy we are....”. Filtering!! It will kill your continuous improvement system and you culture. So be on the lookout for it and when you find it, do what you need to in order to put an end to it.
Our experience has shown that continuous improvement systems and platforms are amazing mechanisms an organization can develop and deploy to have immensely positive impacts in both performance and culture. We have seen that digital platforms can magnify this effect as speed and in-terms of reach, and in the ‘new normal’ that we all must face, this impact is even more pronounced!
If you are committed to achieving business excellence, and found this article enjoyable and thought provoking, and if you’d like all future copies sent straight to your inbox or if you would like to join our Unleash Collaboration Zone on Microsoft Teams where you can share your experiences and thoughts in light of the current challenging situation, then please contact us.
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