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Change Management, Continuous Improvement, Leadership

Continuous Improvement: fools and their tools?

I was running a workshop on Continuous Improvement (CI) recently with a group of senior managers and we had an interesting discussion about the place of “tools”. I drew the diagram below to help position tools in a broader framework for CI. It describes three areas in which organisations need to develop their leaders and people in order to build internal capability for CI.

CI 3 circles

Tools are (just) one of the pre-requisites and I categorised these into six broad types of tool. No doubt there are many more ways to categorise the available tools, but I felt these 6 covered a good range of tools including “soft” tools (e.g. creative thinking tools, or soft systems tools) and “hard” tools (ranging from simple data collection checksheets through to more advanced statistical techniques).

Problem Solving, Process Improvement and Benchmarking are three of the core processes required for Continuous Improvement. Note these are not organisation-level processes, but are those often used to address specific performance issues. Organisation-level processes would include those such as EFQM Self-assessment.

In the workshop, we talked through the consequences of missing any one of the key areas:

Process and Tools, but inadequate Leadership: results in a lack of direction, motivation and commitment (typically, senior managers decide to “train everyone in a method and tools” and assume it’s not their job to lead improvement).

Process and Leadership, but no Tools (or inadequate tools): results in a frustrating lack of progress with improvement (this is a more uncommon scenario since most of the methodologies/processes have tools associated with them).

Leadership and Tools, but no process: results in random activity and a lack of viable improvements (typically, senior managers latch onto the latest tool and expect everyone to use it; cherry-picking something from the available toolkit, but with no process or context within which to apply it).

I’ve seen organisations where all three of these “missing factor” scenarios have occurred…

  • Managers (usually senior) going off on “Benchmarking visits” with no idea of what the Benchmarking process looks like; this is really just industrial tourism
  • Managers introducing visual control boards and holding regular visual management meetings with no root cause problem solving process to address issues
  • Organisations creating Improvement Toolkits and assuming staff will know why they should use them or what to work on

You need all three sets of enabler, otherwise don’t be surprised if your efforts to achieve sustainable Continuous Improvement don’t get very far!

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