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Continuous Improvement

The journey to Continuous Improvement – Part 2

In part 1, I talked about the three phases organisations typically go through on their journey to Continuous Improvement. Here, I want to talk a bit more about each of the phases and some further lessons learnt.

CI 3 phases

Phase 1: Put the fires out

The things you’d expect to see in the first phase include:

  • Senior managers select a small number of priority projects that will make a real difference to performance
  • Teams are selected and trained to work on these projects; team members need to be your “best people”
  • Projects are supported and facilitated so they can deliver improvement in 10-12 weeks (although implementation of solutions will no doubt take longer)
  • Intensive improvement workshops (“blitzes”) might be appropriate as a way of focussing and accelerating change
  • The most important tools for people to learn and apply are Problem Solving and basic Process Improvement
  • Performance measurements focus on “what’s important” for survival and to demonstrate to key stakeholders that the fires have indeed been put out

Phase 2: Stabilise performance

In phase 2 you have to “hold the gains” from phase 1 and build more widespread capability to improve.  The emphasis is on “infrastructure” and sustainability.  The things you’d expect to see in the second phase include:

  • Identification of a framework of business processes as a basis for “management of process”
  • Appointment of Process Owners and Process Managers, with responsibility for improving the capability of their processes with their teams (perhaps using a Process Maturity Model to plan and track progress)
  • Development of a balanced set of performance objectives and measurements (e.g. using the Balanced Scorecard) and a “single source of the truth” visible to all staff
  • Introduction of more “advanced” process and performance improvement tools and techniques once processes have become more defined and stable (e.g. Statistical Process Control, or Six Sigma)
  • Middle Managers engaging their teams in daily performance discussions and focussing on local continuous improvement

Phase 3: Embed Continuous Improvement

In phase 3 you have all the basics in place and begin to use these to leverage further performance advantages over competitors.  Key stakeholders and customers recognise the organisation for being able to demonstrate real value add and innovation.  The things you’d expect to see in the third phase include:

  • A transition to “management by process” and an extension of process management across the organisation into suppliers and partners
  • Regular process benchmarking and adoption of best practices from other industries
  • Performance measurements that demonstrate world class levels of performance (e.g. processes operating at 6 sigma levels of defects: 3.4 DPMO and with high Value-add Ratios)
  • Spontaneous improvement groups being initiated by staff, when they spot a need; not waiting for management to say there is a need

There is no “timescale” for phase 3; it’s probably going to take most organisations five years of sustained effort before they are anywhere near this level of performance.  Once you’re “there”, it’s forever!

Some lessons learnt

One of the main lessons is that there are no shortcuts in what has to be done to achieve a culture of continuous improvement; you have to go through each of the phases.  What you can do is improve your chances of success and potentially reduce the time taken to achieve success.

There’s very little point trying to implement an approach to Process Management if there are lots of performance issues and “fires burning” that need to be addressed first.  Pareto (the 80-20 rule) definitely applies: there will be a small number of problems to be solved that have the potential to make a big difference in the short-term.  It’s senior management’s job to identify those priorities and ensure improvement teams are given the time and resources to fix them.

A further significant lesson is that the leadership style and capability of senior and middle managers is a major determinant of success.  Command and control might work while you are in phase 1, but a more empowering style is needed in phases 2 and 3.  Recognise that some of your managers aren’t going to make the change; either they won’t want to, or won’t be able to.  You need to anticipate this and have a plan to deal with them humanely.

A final lesson is that you won’t achieve any of this by having teams of management consultants crawling over the organisation and “doing it to you, or for you”.  Most organisations already have plenty of really good people who simply need to be given the right skills and “unleashed” to make improvements happen.  A key role for consultants is in transferring skills to your people and helping to coach and facilitate key managers and teams in making improvements happen.  Consultants can also help you to identify, objectively, where you are on the journey and what you need to do to increase the pace of improvement.

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