I was recently watching an improvement team give a presentation about a project they completed that reduced the occurrence of a quality problem by about 35%. That 35% is saving them approximately 30 hours each month because they do not have to perform the rework to correct the problem. The team had worked on this project for over a year, much longer than they had intended – but they identified the critical issues and pushed through to resolve them. All of the team members had never been on an improvement team before and by their own admission, were “unsure about being on the team” and “convinced there was nothing they could do to make the situation better”. Now, as they stood in front of a room of their peers, co-workers, and managers, they were excited. I could see it on their faces and hear it in their voices. They had a close encounter with this thing called “improvement” and through their own efforts, fixed something they once knew to be unfix-able.
As I walked out of the room, I asked the person next to me what they thought of the presentation. Her response - “I’m not sure that improvement was worth all the effort.” She continued, “…14 meetings, six people, and they really only saved about $3500 a year.” Having been exposed to hundreds of improvement projects throughout the course of my career, facilitated by myself and others, I have heard that statement too many times.
Judging each individual improvement project on a cost benefit basis is a real quick and effective way to stall momentum. Teaching people to examine their work as a process is a different way of thinking for many, much the same as a child learning to walk. When a child takes its first steps, stumbles, and starts to tip the parents are there to encourage, applaud, catch them, and guide them toward taking the next steps. No parent that I have seen ever says, “yeah, I don’t know why little Billy is wasting his time trying to walk…he should just start running.” As ridiculous as that seems, I have seen numerous examples by management and executives acting the same way when they see the results of a performance improvement team, creating a culture where improvements are scrutinized, and not applauded.
Something I read in the book, The Toyota Way, really sticks with me - On the Toyota assembly line, employees are encouraged to make improvements every time they see an opportunity. This does not matter if it is the last car of a model that will never be made again, on the last operation; employees are enabled to make the improvement if the opportunity is there. This is because the executives at Toyota know that successful projects and long term improvement are an outcome of a continuous improvement mindset, something they are striving to build every day. The Toyota Way Fieldbook sums this topic up nicely, “Don’t outrun your headlights. It is crucial to focus on the depth of skill within your organization rather than on a short term dramatic push toward results. Rushing toward short-term gains will surely end in disaster.”
Make sure your words and behaviors are planting seeds each day to grow the culture of improvement to create a learning organization. When those seeds start to grow, you will see improvement like you never imagined possible.
Christopher M. Spranger, MBA, ASQ MBB
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