Wisdom and Flexibility Drive Superior Continuous Improvement Results
By Mike Raia Posted February 8, 2018
An effective continuous improvement initiative must balance the costs of change with the anticipated benefits of implementation.
Our earlier post about Kaizen and workflow provided insights into how the powerful combination of workflow automation and the Kaizen continuous improvement framework can provide substantial business benefits. Companies can achieve sought-after gains in efficiency and quality more quickly by automating and tracking the KPIs of improved business processes. They are seeing reductions in errors and waste more quickly and can intervene proactively to tweak processes that are not achieving desired metrics.
Technology and a methodology are not the only building blocks of success. Great results are not guaranteed by investing in workflow software or adopting a Kaizen or any continuous improvement methodology. Common sense, flexibility, and the fine-tuning of a culturally appropriate approach to adopting these tools are critical to obtaining real benefits.
An effective continuous improvement initiative must balance the costs of change with the anticipated benefits of implementation. Direct costs (e.g., new software, new supplies, training documentation) and indirect costs (e.g., delayed revenue, employee turnover due to change burnout, customer satisfaction impact) factor into both sides of the equation.
Continuous improvement initiatives harness insights and suggestions from those employees who play a role in performing the processes that need improvement. Success also requires a governing body (steering committee, change advisory board, etc.). Early in the Kaizen adoption cycle, employees may try to outdo each other in offering improvement ideas. The steering committee provides prudent oversight by considering the following types of questions before authorizing changes:
- What do we hope to gain in terms of reduced costs, reduced errors, reduced safety violations, and improved quality?
- How long will it take us to make this change?
- What will it cost?
- How can we measure the results of these changes to make sure we made a wise move?
- How will we communicate and sustain the change?
- As we look at the changes within a business process framework, have we evaluated it from the vantage point of all internal and external stakeholders?
- When was the last time we changed this particular process - can the workforce absorb another change so soon?
There are thornier questions that may arise. Consider the following scenarios and questions:
- If the change shifts work from one job role to another, is there a real business benefit – or are we being driven by the personal preferences of those in one job role vs. another?
- If we choose to automate this particular workflow, are the exceptions so diverse and numerous that we can't really define all the business rules around them? Workflow automation can always help layer in new business rules over time and allow for fast configuration updates to business rules to keep business response agile.
Beware of creating too much bureaucracy. The steering committee needs to hold the reins lightly. Don’t create a Kaizen improvement suggestion workflow that is so burdensome that it stifles suggestions. Don't allow internal politics to promote the ideas of a single faction while dismissing the ideas of those outside the inner circle. Review suggestions regularly and communicate approvals or disapprovals as soon as possible.
Flexibility Drives Results
Do your research: read case studies, talk to colleagues who have implemented Kaizen elsewhere and leverage the lessons they learned along the way. If Kaizen is adopted in a top-down rigid fashion. It may actually erode quality and efficiency.
- Standardization has its limits and may be inappropriate in certain business processes. With too much focus on standardization, you may stifle the type of innovation that leads to great suggestions for continuous improvement.
- Visual order may be helpful to speed up some workers but not others. Are the time and expense related to enhancing storage going to justify the results of maintaining daily visual order?
- Organization and cleanliness can become ends in themselves instead of a means to improve efficiency.
The key is using the elements of the Kaizen framework within reasonable limits to drive toward improvement goals. If Kaizen meetings and discussions are taking up too much time, is it worth the incremental improvement in efficiency of a relatively minor business process? Early in the Kaizen adoption effort, Kaizen itself will take up more time as people become accustomed to the approach. There may be an overall hit on productivity.
When companies first adopt Kaizen, enthusiasm runs high. Soon, there is a huge laundry list of problems that have bubbled up from all corners of the organization. The steering committee needs to prioritize and schedule this list based on whichever parameters are most important to the business:
- Do we need quick wins first or should we address a complicated issue that has a significant negative impact – even though it will take weeks or months of retooling, recoding, and training?
- Are there changes that must be put in place quickly because there are emerging market pressures or upcoming shifts in internal business strategy?
Are we taking up too much time from a single area of our business in order to plan and implement too many changes? Every department has its own level of change tolerance and periods of peak business demands.
Work within Your Existing Corporate Culture
Do you need face-to-face meetings or will your initiatives rely on electronic submission and discussion of change proposals? It's rare that you can stick with a single approach. You may need weekly face-to-face quality circle meetings for crosscutting processes while implementing smaller, less pervasive improvements without extensive discussion.
Effective Kaizen touches the whole company. You will face change management needs on two levels:
- Those who may resist the adoption of Kaizen as a change in corporate culture.
- Those who will resist changes to their daily routine.
Build a business case for Kaizen that threads the same messages through to different audiences within the business.
On both change management fronts, you need to determine the source of any reluctance or resistance and apply appropriate strategies. Peer to peer mentoring by those who support the changes enthusiastically, gamification, periodic celebrations, and similar positive reinforcement strategies are preferable to management pressure.
Consider the demographics of the workers who must change their tasks in the changing process. Some will need training and direct assistance; others can swiftly implement well-documented changes. Some people cutover in a single day to using new changes, others forget or revert to old processes and the use of offline crutches. Workflow software can cut through this because automated business rules make it impossible for reverting to the old process. The workflow solution should also provide you with individual metrics so you can determine which employees are struggling with the new changes.
Beware of Change Burnout
When employees are reeling from frequent process change, high-stress levels lead to burnout, employee illness, and even staff attrition. The impact on overall efficiency can be severe. Anticipated improvement metrics are seldom reached immediately. You should expect an initial period of chaos from any changes, and the needle will slowly start to move in the right direction to achieve anticipated efficiency and quality metrics over a period of days, weeks, or months depending on the magnitude of the change.
Sustain the Changes
Monitoring and auditing changes after implementation are part of the Kaizen framework. It's important to understand where you are on that change adoption curve, so make sure you are tracking metrics that will show you that you are driving towards the results you anticipated from the change. Clearly, workflow automation software that can give you real-time insight into how you are tracking toward these metrics will help you monitor change adoption and provide the insights that will point you toward new improvement opportunities.
Pulling it All Together
Kaizen doesn’t require heavy investment in technology to be effective, but most businesses will see increased benefits by coupling Kaizen with enhanced workflow automation capability. You don’t necessarily have to do a big bang Kaizen rollout across the whole business. If you can isolate and segment a department where you know you can harness employee insights to build quick wins, the word will spread and other departments will migrate toward the new continuous improvement culture more easily.