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Continuous Improvement? If only we had the time!

I know we should, but...

I’m pretty sure that you’ll be aware of the need to continue to improve the things you do to remain successful in today’s ever-more competitive business environment, and you’re probably also aware that the most effective way to do this is to involve your employees in the process... after all, they’re the experts in getting the things done that need to get done to get your products out of the door, or your services provided to your customers.

You’ve perhaps tried to this in the past, perhaps through training programmes, perhaps by engaging the services of expensive consultants and perhaps you’ve failed to get the results you were hoping for, or worse, perhaps your programmes have simply crashed and burned!

For all businesses this is a frustration, for some it is of greater concern, perhaps because their customers, or the sector in which they operate demand tangible improvements to be made... but for all businesses, regardless of your size, scale or sector, the failure to have the means to continually improve is putting your business at risk.

We’ve always done it that way

Perhaps the most frequently used excuse for failing to continuously improve is that statement "we’ve always done it that way"!

It hides a thousand worries, concerns and insecurities. It is trying to justify not changing on the grounds that in the past the things that are being done have been ‘just fine’. It has always resulted in a sufficient number of things being done, to an acceptable level of quality, and being executed in a satisfactory time frame to deliver a degree of business success.

And if it’s been alright up to now, why should we change?

My experience of this is that this is a hollow diversionary tactic, used by those who feel challenged by the thought of change, and who for a number of reasons may feel their authority or status may be threatened by allowing their people a voice in identifying where improvements could be made to improve or accelerate the things that they do.

By Hook or by Crook

Now I know there are many, many more impediments to introducing a genuinely beneficial continuous improvement programme in a business, that will manifest themselves at various stages, by differing groups of people, but here I am considering the one that will most often be used as the excuse for NOT moving forward... we simply haven’t got the time!

The belief is that we are already ‘maxed out’, with every minute of every day crammed full of activity, all of which culminates, one way or another, with us getting the right amount done to meet the needs of our customers.

This may be so, but at the end of the each cycle of activity, the workforce metaphorically slump into a chair, breathe a sigh of relief, and then gather themselves for the next onslaught of the problems, issues and frustrations that were experienced, repeat again to cause the same delays and frustrations. But once again, the business rolls up its sleeves, and fights the good fight once again, and does whatever it needs to do to ‘get the job done’.

Regrettably, not all these things will be good.

In the haste to get things done there will be scrap, re-work, inability to find things required, labour shortages, labour excesses, supplier issues, machine breakdowns... and so on. All the things that everyone is familiar with, and so has learned to accept as simply an inevitable part of ‘getting the job done’.

But should that be the case?

Improvement or Customer Satisfaction?

In response to this situation, many businesses try to implement a continuous improvement programme, which all-too-often leads to a stand-off that I have so often witnessed to be the death-knell of a business’s aspirations to implement the things that deep-down they KNOW they SHOULD be doing to safeguard the future of the business, which is involving their employees in activities that will lead to a leaner, more profitable organisation.

But you’re being told this can’t happen, often by your own management, who are adamant that any attempt to deploy labour in training for, or execution of improvement activities will result in letting customers down. It is the ultimate ‘gun to the head’, which is often presented in the classic "weeeell, it’s up to you" fashion, but always making the clear point that if the business wants people to be doing anything else that having their shoulder firmly to the wheel, then products won’t get delivered or services won’t be executed and so customers will be let down... and that will be your fault.

You’ll be told "You simply can’t have both!"

It is of course difficult for those who manage the processes that deliver product or service to the customer to see anything other than the short-term targets by which they live their lives, and by which they are ultimately judged, and so it is therefore no surprise at all that the initial reaction to the suggestion that their people, the very people who ‘get things done’ should stop doing that to get involved in something that might bring long-term benefits, isn’t always positive.

After all, for many people in that kind of authority, there is little opportunity for long-term thinking, as they need to perform and deliver TODAY!

The Square Wheels

I don’t think there’s a greater frustration than watching a business repeat this cycle again and again, in the vain hope that if they just keep putting in the effort then everything will become better next week or month or year... always at some indeterminate future date, when by changing absolutely nothing at all, things will be different.

The words of Henry Ford explode that particular myth when he said: "if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got!".

This syndrome is rather like watching someone try to ride a bike with square wheels! They put in a huge amount of effort to make any progress at all, the journey is slow and painful, they are straining every sinew to get anywhere at all... but still they labour on. They are then offered the opportunity to stop for a while to change the inefficient square wheels for some round ones, which will make the journey smooth, efficient, comfortable, and fast. But rather than doing the obvious thing, they decline the offer and continue with their tortuous journey... why... because they haven’t got the time to stop to improve the situation.

This analogy highlights the fact that businesses who throw themselves into getting things done with inadequate systems and processes are apparently quite happy to spend time, money and effort remaking or reworking things they get wrong, but can never find the time to invest in the kind of improvement activities that would have prevented them being wrong in the first place!

The Whole Truth?

Whilst I know that some Managers and Supervisors genuinely feel it to be true that ‘there’s no time to improve’, I am convinced that in many cases this is simply a smoke-screen to try and deflect any attempt to allow their people to do anything other than the ‘day job’.

There are a myriad of reasons why people resist change, and more specifically why people in authority are uncomfortable if their own staff participate in continuous improvement activities, and of course the “there isn’t any time” card, particularly when played alongside the “we will let the customer down” card is a compelling argument... but what could it be hiding?

Well OK, if you say so!

Having delivered continuous improvement and Lean training to thousands of people across hundreds of businesses I have had the opportunity to observe up close how people react when I am asked to train their people. I’m not always met with open arms, in fact I’m often made well aware that I’m somewhat ‘in the way’, but because it’s a training programme sanctioned by the Senior Leadership Team then I’m at least tolerated, and in any event if there was to be any impact on output or service delivery because people were working with me rather than doing their everyday job, then at least it’s not the manager or supervisor’s fault.

After all, they’ve been told that they must release people for the training!

It’s a very different situation once the training programme is finished, and we move to the deployment of those people into improvement activities in a rather more routine way. Now the Manager has to authorize their involvement, and without the ‘safety net’ of top-level insistence, they become very reluctant to allow people to participate, because this time, if there is any failure to supply the correct level of parts or service….it’ll be down to them!

What’s wrong with the way we do it now?

Despite some skepticism, many managers and supervisors have participated in the continuous improvement training programmes with me, often alongside their people, and many of them have been very open-minded to the concept of change, either at the outset or sometimes as the training highlights the simplicity and purity of the intentions.

This can lead to a rush of enthusiasm where they are keen to allow people to come into the areas for which they have responsibility to try and identify improvements.

Which is often where the next impediment to continuous improvement manifests itself!

They really do mean it when they say “come into my department to see what you can see... it’ll be good to have some ‘fresh pairs of eyes’ looking at what we do”. However, as soon as some potential improvements are pointed out, the responsible manager’s mood changes, and they become frosty and defensive, and rapidly lose the enthusiasm for other people suggesting ‘improvements’.

Now, rather than feeling grateful for having opportunities for improvement shared with them, they feel criticized and threatened by the inputs, and begin to view them as suggestions that they have failed in their duties.

The ‘Rod of Iron’

This is where the Senior Leaders play a crucial part in the well-being of the entire Lean dream, because if these behaviors are allowed to continue, then the entire programme is doomed to failure.

Let me make that point clear, as I know it to be true, if the Senior Leadership team don’t reassure their management and supervisory staff that they WANT and EXPECT them to commit people to the continuous improvement processes once the training is complete, then it simply won’t happen, regardless of what systems and process are put in place to encourage it.

The ‘rod of iron’ refers to that communication being clear and consistent right down through the organisation, so that everyone in authority knows that if they commit people to continuous improvement activities it will be viewed positively by the people around the top table... and in fact it will be viewed dimly if they don’t!

This communication must include assurances that they will be supported should such involvement make it difficult to achieve production or service targets, and that any improvements identified will be viewed as exactly that, improvements, and definitely not in any way a criticism of what has gone before.

This is a crucial step in creating the right climate for the initiation of the kind of meaningful continuous improvement programmes that contribute to engaged employees and Lean organisations.


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Published at: 18-06-2020