Optimize the Whole

When we think in parts, we improve in parts. Most of the business improvement is the game of ‘sub-optimization’. You optimize pieces without looking at the whole.

When a customer reports problem with your software, you do an incidental root cause analysis and address the code quality problem. You deploy tools, introduce new processes, measure constantly and yet – a few months later, you encounter a similar problem.

But when you look at the whole system, you might figure out that the real root cause is in something which is immeasurable yet important – may be, collaboration with other teams or how you sell. May be, inefficiencies rooted in how you support your customers after product is delivered.

We optimize the silos and the whole misses our radar. If ‘customer centricity’ is one of your key values, you should consider optimizing the whole customer journey with your organization – not just your development processes.

Often, we also optimize that which is measured. If your metrics are narrow, you will never be able to focus on systemic metrics that may really help your business and the customer.

Here are a few important things to consider when you optimize the whole:

We need to cultivate “a discipline to see the wholes, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots

  • Focus on Value Stream. Value for customer is created in a series of interactions between various processes that starts right from first contact with the customer. Value stream mapping is a lean tool to identify a series of events right from conception to delivery of product or service.
  • Define what “complete” system means. Too often, we think of complete product as a set of completed features. For customers though, complete product is an experience they receive through each interaction with the organization. It helps to define what ‘complete’ means.
  • Measure Right. When you have narrow functional metrics, people in each function will work  hard to achieve their goals and yet, organization will not realize benefits of having such metrics. However, if you have more systemic metrics (and rewards) where people win only when the system wins, it aligns everyone to the same set of goals to ensure that ultimately, customer wins too.

Sub-optimization in organizations is a thinking problem. When you fail to see the whole, you undermine your capabilities as an organization.

And this may be the precise thing that holds you back from delivering a superior performance to your customers.

On Simplifying Through Subtraction

I am on a mission to minimize. It started with this website which went minimal a few months back. It was hard to give up on all those fancy pages, content and images that I had created before. I kept adding more pages to this website till it started feeling like a burden. Now that clutter is gone, it feels so much better. I am now extending the same fundamentals in other areas of work and life.

Outside of mathematics, it is easy to add but far more difficult to subtract.

Adding more stuff at the home, more thoughts in the mind, more pages on the website, more services in business, more features in the product, more property assets, more tasks in the day and more everything else. That’s easy.

Try eliminating what you accumulated and it is way more harder. In a world that is getting more and more complex, we seek more and more simplicity. It seems to me that subtraction is at the heart of simplicity and hence effectiveness. Lao Tzu really got it when he said,

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day”

This may sound paradoxical but the act of subtraction is actually the act of addition in some other form. When I eliminated graphics, I added focus to the content. When we stop doing many things at a time, we create a room for more effort/focus on a few important things.

Methodologies like Kanban promote the idea of limiting the work-in-progress items. When you limit the “stuff on your plate”, you decrease distractions and increase the possibility of finishing what you started without compromising on quality.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

This applies in almost every aspect of business and life. I have seen senior leaders spending days (and nights) doing meetings to frame a grand strategy when it is really the small and basic things that they are really missing. What would happen if they trade grandeur of strategy with simplicity?

Further, what would happen if we simplify the meeting agendas and subtract the number of meetings from our work day? If we reduce the slack in each and every process to get the work done? If we stop trying to load up our teams for doing more work in less time and set them up to focus more on less number of active tasks?

These are all possibilities. To realize these possibilities, we have to actively pursue simplicity through subtraction.

You can’t juggle too many balls for long. What balls are you ready to drop? What will you subtract?


Note: I have learned a great deal about simplicity and subtraction from Matthew E. May’s blog and his book “The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything” is definitely on my reading list.

Measuring Right Things: Utilization Versus Efficiency

In manufacturing world, there is a direct correlation between how much machines are utilized and how much they produce. This works because machines do the work that is non-linear and there is very little variation in producing exactly same unit of work. Utilization is the extent to which installed capacity performs actual work. Less idle time means more utilization.

Knowledge work – where people find optimal ways to apply their knowledge to a given context in such a way that it produces the best possible business result – is very different. In this world of work, more utilization does NOT always equate with more productivity and efficiency. With re-usability, someone can churn a great deal of work in a short time whereas a tiny piece of work/defect may take up days to solve. Being busy, in this world, does not mean progress and when people seem to be sitting idle, it does not necessarily mean they are not working.

In HBR article “Six Myths of Product Development”, authors Stefan Thomke and Donald Reinertsen say –

Processes with high variability behave very differently. As utilization increases, delays lengthen dramatically. Add 5% more work, and completing it may take 100% longer. But few people understand this effect.

And when companies focus solely on measuring and improving utilization alone, people will respond to that expectation accordingly. People will seemingly remain (or report) busy all the day when nothing real is accomplished. More utilization without visible gain in efficiency is a waste.

Instead of focusing on utilization, we should focus on efficiency – how much real work gets shipped and how well. Efficiency encourages people to work smart, focus on quality and find best possible route to achieve the desired business results.

For this, we should focus on building a system where efficiency is more likely to happen. We need to engage our people to the purpose of our product/organization. We need to give them autonomy and promote self-organization. We need to share feedback early and often. Most importantly, we need to trust them.

And we need to monitor real progress instead of simply trying to occupy people for 8 hours everyday!

Book Announcement: Implementing Lean Six Sigma in 30 Days

I am so glad to announce that my next book is just released. It is an actionable guide titled “Implementing Lean Six Sigma in 30 Days” that aims to help readers in understanding the Lean Six Sigma methodology and solve problems that undermine quality and inhibit efficiency.

This book is for business owners, quality improvement professionals and anyone in general who is driven by the desire to improve their team performance.

I co-authored this book with my colleague and friend Gopal Ranjan (to whom I am so grateful) and this book is published by ImPackt Publishing, UK.

As also written in the book introduction,

How can we improve? This is one of the most fundamental, but challenging, questions an organization can ask itself. It is never easy, but the ability to drive significant change that can bring positive results is immensely important for a business that wants to be successful in a rapidly growing market. Lean Six Sigma offers a way of answering this question, combining the approaches of both Lean and Six Sigma in a way that offers an opportunity for exponential improvement in a way that is manageable, flexible and sustainable. Spanning a month’s implementation process, this book will take you on a Lean Six Sigma journey, where you will gain a clear understanding of the fundamental principles, and develop a clear perspective of the process as it unfolds. From defining the problems to be tackled, to their measurement and analysis, this book leads you towards the stage of innovation where you can take steps that ensure and sustain improvements.

So, if you are a quality professional or an improvement consultant, you can use this book to guide your clients/organizations through their Lean Six Sigma journey.

Available on: Amazon and PacktPub Website

And yes, when you guide your customers through improvement journey, do not forget to align the content (the concept and implementation method) to your client/organization’s unique business context.

Because in the end, any methodology or best practice only delivers results when content intersects with context. It is this intersection where meaning is created.


Stay tuned to QAspire Blog: Subscribe via RSS or Email, Join our Facebook community or Follow us on Twitter.

Consulting, Content and Context: A Fable

contentcontext

It was the first day of his job as a consultant with this large consulting house. The consultant entered the office and walked across the corridor confidently, armed with his knowledge about methodologies, tools and best practices.

In next few weeks of his induction, the challenge was to apply his knowledge on several simulated situations that consultants usually face during their real assignments. He provided solutions that were in tune with some or the other best practice but impractical to implement in a given situation.

The boss was observing this from a distance since a few weeks and his disappointment grew with each passing day.

It is said that when only thing you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Consultant was trying to nail the problems with the only hammer he had – the best practices .

Knowing that things were not heading in a right direction, boss called the consultant for a counseling session over a cup of coffee.

It was clear that the consultant was loaded with content but did not do enough to understand the context of the problem – the culture, people, business model, root causes of problems and specific situations.

The boss explained, “Unless you put your lessons in a frame of reference, those lessons mean a little. You can endlessly talk about your knowledge, but unless mapped to a context, it has no meaning.”

The consultant was curious to know more about the context.

The boss continued, “Context is a powerful thing. It is a perspective you form based on a situation. A freedom fighter of one country may be considered as a terrorist by the other. One man and two different ways to look at him based on the context he is into.”

He explained further, “Your success as a consultant (and professional) is less about knowledge of best practices and more about your ability to map them to a specific business context. Context provides meaning to content. If you think of your knowledge content as water, context is the glass that holds it, gives it a shape; an identity. Our knowledge is static and defined whereas situations are dynamic and uncertain.”

As the wisdom unfolded, consultant felt as if he was beginning a new chapter in his consulting career. He realized that context always trumps content.

The lessons he learned from this short counseling session would stay with him throughout his career!

– – – – –

Stay Tuned! Subscribe via RSS, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter. You can also subscribe to updates via email using the section at the bottom of the page.

– – – – –

BONUS: I recently had an interesting Twitter conversation on Quality, Process and Culture in a Complex Business World with Tom Peters, Mark Graban, John Kordyback, Sunil Malhotra, Jatin Jhala and others. Read the storified version of the conversation here.

Hansei and 6 Pitfalls to Avoid in Reflective Exercises

As individuals, teams and organizations, how much we learn from our past is critical for our improvement and future success.

Hansei (meaning self-reflection) is an important part of Japanese culture – an exercise undertaken to look at past mistakes, outline the lessons and pledge to act on those lessons. According to Wikipedia, “Han" means to change, turn over, or turn upside down. "Sei" means to look back upon, review, and examine oneself. This may sound like common-sense but how many organizations/teams really do Hansei effectively? By effectively, I mean not just identifying lessons and feeling good about it, but putting those lessons into actions the next time.

Here are some common pitfalls that should be avoided in any form of reflective exercise:

No Actions, No Results: In many other methodologies and cultures, Hansei is termed differently, like retrospectives in Scrum and After Action Reviews in American Culture (developed by US Army). But the essence remains the same – unless you act on your lessons learned, no improvement can happen. In such meetings, people often end up providing views, cite examples from the past, outline the lessons learned. All this is only helpful when it results into a meaningful change. Kaizen complements Hansei and ensures that lessons are executed.

Not Focusing on Emotion: True reflection is not about looking outwards but about looking inwards. It is not just an intellectual exercise but also an emotional one. It is only when our emotions are channeled that real improvement and meaningful change takes place.

Not Starting with You: As a leader, it all starts with one’s own willingness to look at shortcomings objectively. You can never expect people around you to be more willing to improve than you are.

Non-participation: Reflection is a highly collaborative sport. Most people and departments know what practices are required to improve. As a facilitator of a reflective exercise, help them outline solutions by asking open-ended questions. If people keep waiting for senior leaders to drive every single change, their wait will be way longer.

Reflecting only at the end: There is little advantage if you only reflect when all damage is done. Hansei is an attitude, a way of working. If you embed reflection as a part of how your team operates, early learning will help them adapt quickly. Reflection can also be done on events and milestones.

Isolating Events: Every event has a larger impact on other interconnected parts. If people only reflect on their part without considering the whole, isolated improvement may happen. When on a team, our contributions are interwoven, so are results.

Conducting reflection without addressing these common pitfalls will mean a waste of time. It will be a feel-good exercise and nothing else. I would like to conclude with a quote from Margaret Wheatley:

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”

– – – – –

Stay Tuned: Subscribe via RSS, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter. You can also subscribe to updates via email using the section at the bottom of the page.

– – – – –

Also Read: Using Kaizen for Employee Engagement and Improvement

– – – – –

Photograph By: Tanmay Vora

What We Need: Compassionate Compliance

Compliance stems from our need to ensure certainty, reduce variability and adhere to a certain structure or model. Compliance may be explicit (e.g. to a certain process model like ISO) or it may be implicit (e.g. to a certain specific belief system, way of working or ideology). Focusing on compliance means that you have a direction to follow and it should allow you to focus on the nuances of work without worrying about the basics. Compliance is good because it helps us stay creative, allows us to be a part of community and gives us a direction.

The problem stems when focus is only on compliance. A friend who is a senior leader in IT organization narrated his recent experience. In his quest to fix a nagging problem on a project that he had just taken over, he ended up forcing compliance to a certain process without taking time to understand the real root cause. People initially raised their concerns but then succumbed to the force. They complied dispassionately, morale went southwards and quality dropped. It took him a lot of effort and time to get things back on track, though not as great as it was before.

He made a mistake that I like to call as “Compliance without Compassion”.

To be compassionate is to understand that every problem has many facets and every situation has a context attached to it. That people will only follow rules if those rules really help them in adding value. That people need to be understood first. That sometimes, you have to look at purpose more than how a task is performed. That it is important to be cruel to be kind – being tough for a greater good.That effective solutions are the ones that consider all the facets of the problem –the context behind it. To be compassionate is to tune the process or ideology such  that it yields maximum value with minimum waste. To be open to new possibilities and appreciate that others may be seeing things differently. To evolve and improve.

Compliance is always an external force. Compassion stems from within – from our desire to add value without compromising on human aspect of work.

Bottom line:

We don’t need plain compliance. Compassion alone may not help. What we need is compassionate compliance.

– – – – –

Stay Tuned: Subscribe via RSS, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter. You can also subscribe to updates via email using the section at the bottom of the page.

– – – – –

Photo Courtesy: Sendai Eyes’ Flickr Photostream

In 100 Words: Improvement and Tending a Garden

Improvement is never a destination, but a journey that is organic, constant and never-ending. Consider this story from Subroto Bagchi’s book “The High Performance Entrepreneur

A monk was tending to a Japanese garden and meticulously, for hours on end, he was removing dry twigs from the immaculately maintained flowering bushes.

A passer-by, who was fascinated by the complete concentration and care of the monk at work, could no longer hold himself. He asked the monk, “O holy one, when will your work be done?”

Without looking up, the monk replied, “When the last dry twig is removed from the garden.”

– – – – –

Stay Tuned: Subscribe via RSS, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter. You can also subscribe to updates via email using the section at the bottom of the page.

– – – – –

Also Read: Other 100 Word Parables

– – – – –

Don’t Miss: Nicholas Bate’s Life Tips 101

Using Kaizen for Employee Engagement and Improvement

Kaizen is a Japanese term that means continuous improvement. It all sounds good on the surface, but the reality is that very few companies fully embrace kaizen. They say, “But we’re improving all the time.” That may be true, but it’s the way in which companies make improvements that matters.

In companies that truly embrace kaizen, the bulk of improvement—from surfacing problems and opportunities, to designing, testing, and implementing countermeasures (a better word than “solutions”)—are done by the people who do the work. In most organizations, however, improvements are “mandated” by supervisors, managers, and senior leaders. This organizational behavior has several key consequences:

1) The people doing the work become numb order-takers versus engaged problem solvers.

2) The improvement is often merely a “change,” not true improvement.

3) The improvement is resisted because it’s being forced on people who had no involvement in designing it.

In my book, The Outstanding Organization, I show how kaizen is a highly effective means to boost employee engagement by meeting three basic human needs: 1) The need to connect, 2) the need to be creative, and 3) the need to be in control. This last one often scares leaders; they fear they’ll lose control and anarchy will occur. But, in properly executed kaizen, the frontlines are given control within clearly defined boundaries that leadership themselves set.

There are two ways to approach kaizen. Ultimately you want improvement being designed and implemented by everyone, every day, everywhere in an organization.This transformation requires both leadership development and a disciplined problem-solving and improvement process. Kaizen events, highly structured improvement activities that are an effective shaping tool, are a second way to shift culture and begin reaping the significant benefits from achieving both high levels of employee engagement and rapid results.

In both cases, employees have ample opportunities to connect with organization purpose, a specific problem or opportunity, and each other. They use their creative potential in highly fulfilling ways. And they are given the level of control that all human beings need and deserve. In a word: they become deeply ENGAGED.

The people who do the work are the experts, not leaders nor consultants. If you want employees to engage, you must create the conditions for engagement to occur. Creating a proper kaizen culture is the way to achieve this. Start today!

– – – – –

Today’s Guest Post comes from Karen Martin – author of The Outstanding Organization, which addresses the missing fundamentals that are key success factors in organizational transformation. Karen is the founder of Karen Martin & Associates and she is also the co-author of The Kaizen Event Planner: Achieving Rapid Improvement in Office, Service, and Technical Environments Guest Post   Words Matter: Why I Prefer PDSA over PDCA lean.

In Review: The Outstanding Organization by Karen Martin

In quest of excellence, an organization that grows has to deal with chaos. I recently read Karen Martin’s new book “The Outstanding Organization” that offers a simple yet effective model to create organizational conditions to combat this chaos and ensure better results out of improvement efforts.

What Problem Does This Book Address?

The book starts with a simple premise: Self-inflicted chaos (internal chaos) sabotages an organization’s ability to provide value to your customers, satisfy stakeholders, and offer a work environment that doesn’t break employees’ spirit. Self-inflicted chaos comes from constantly shifting (and often conflicting) priorities, excessive focus on hierarchy, unclear direction, unstable processes, unhappy customers and disengaged employees. To deal with this chaos that cracks the very foundation on which business results are based, Karen suggests essential strategies in four broad areas: Clarity, Focus, Discipline and Engagement.

What I liked the most

I loved the simplicity with which this book is written. It is a fine balance of narrative explanation, real life examples from the world of business and specific actionable ideas.

In the very beginning, Karen emphasizes that all improvement strategies are based on “respect for people.” Karen says,

“I have never seen an outstanding organization that believes that people are interchangeable, that they are simply parts in a machine to be used when needed and discarded when they are no longer convenient. I have never seen an outstanding organization that views people as a variable cost. Organizations are not machines – they are fundamentally and irreducibly made up of people.”

This book also touches upon applicability of essential lean concepts including Gemba and Kaizen in building a high performance organization. Not only that, the book has impressive research behind it and the research sources are very generously shared.

Selected Quotes from the Book

On Engagement and Creativity: “When the need to express their creativity is consistently thwarted – whether because it’s not safe, not encouraged, or not allowed – human beings stop giving of themselves – they know they will get nothing back. Organizational performance suffers as a result.”

On Priorities: “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority”

The bottom line

No single book can cover everything that is required to build a great organization. However, this book is a very good starting point for senior leaders within the organization to assess the current state and decide their way forward based on essential strategies outlined in the book. Every leader who is committed to excellence will find this book useful.

– – – – –

Find out more about the book at Karen Martin’s website: http://www.ksmartin.com/

The Promise of Gemba

In an organization, work flows horizontally but organizations are structured vertically in hierarchies. With seniority and promotions up the order, a person tends to drift away from the place where real business value is created; the place where real action happens; where problems are clearly visible. They end up expecting results without caring about the process and its purpose.

That’s where the promise of “Gemba” kicks in. “Gemba” is a Japanese word which means ‘the real place’. If senior leaders demonstrate understanding of how work is actually done by going to Gemba regularly, engaging people and noticing things, a lot of business inefficiencies can be identified and improved. Tom Peters defined this as “Management by Wandering Around”. Gemba allows leaders and improvement managers to appreciate what people really do on the floor and more importantly, how they do it.

You cannot take any meaningful decisions about work unless you know how the work is actually performed. 

We talk endlessly about engaging our teams and the starting point of engaging others is to engage yourself with the real. When people see you interested in how value is created, they start engaging actively too. You build trust that is vital for building a high performance organization. You may be surprised by how much potential your people have to contribute.

We have fallen in trap of meetings. In face of crisis or problems, things like meetings and brainstorming can be comforting, but unless you go to the floor, you will never understand the context of the problem. Going to Gemba also requires leaders to give up on their ego.

W. Edwards Deming said,

“If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Bottom line: Spending some time every day to see the action with the intention of learning is invaluable for a business leader. So, go out there and see the real.

– – – –

Stay tuned to QAspire Blog: Subscribe via RSS or Email, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter.

– – – –

Also download:The Quality Manifesto – Getting the Basics of Quality Right in a Knowledge World” [PDF]

– – – – –

Check out the collection of great leadership posts in November 2012 Edition of Carnival of Leadership Development at Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership Blog.

Agility in Process Improvement Initiatives

The pace of change is accelerating and business leaders who are responsible for improvements need keep up with the pace. While plan-do-check-act methodology has been around for long, the time it took was way longer.

For organizational improvements (and the personal ones), what do we need today? What would business expect from improvement initiatives? A few things I think:

  1. We need shorter iterations. We still need plan-do-check-act but the iterations are expected to be shorter. Pick an improvement area, create a plan, execute improvement, check the results and re-align the actions. The idea is to have a good enough plan, short execution cycle that enables you to learn and adapt faster. This is equally true for improvement we seek in our personal and professional lives.
  2. We need more retrospectives. Forums where we can take a stock of how your initiative is progressing and what can be tuned. Retrospectives are also a great way to collaborate.
  3. We need right areas to improve. Almost anything can be improved but the critical question is: Does it have a real impact? The famous 80:20 rule applies to process improvement initiative as well. 80% of improvement happens by focusing on continuous identification of 20% improvement areas. In my book #QUALITYtweet, I wrote:
  4. #QUALITYtweet The first step of your process improvement journey is to know what really needs improvement

  5. We need results to be visible. We need visible improvements in critical business functions. Bottom line impact of improvement initiative needs as much focus as its impact on organizational culture.
  6. We need collaboration. Improvements never happen in an isolated corner office. It happens when you collaborate with your team members, customers, business development folks and middle managers.

Bottom line: In an agile business environment where change is not only constant but rapid, we need agility in how we improve. We need to fail fast, learn fast and adapt quickly.

– – – – –

Subscribe via RSS, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter. You can also subscribe to updates via email using the section at the bottom of the page. Looking forward to the conversations!

– – – – –

Related Posts at QAspire:

Improvement: Show Them The Results
7 Steps For Customer Centric Process Improvement
The Secret Sauce of Process Improvement
Great Story: Improvement and Tending the Garden

9 (More) Ideas for Effective Trainings

Trainings are at the core of most knowledge-oriented organizations and often considered to be key driver of employee behaviors, and hence culture. It is a lot of hard work, a lot of time, effort and energy spent. It better be effective. Here are 9 (more) ideas to ensure that trainings are effective (related ideas in links below):

  1. Training is not a silver bullet. Sometimes, business leaders over emphasize on trainings when other things are not working. One example: Providing a detailed training on roles and responsibilities to a team member may not work when the problem is how people are being managed.
  2. Often, we end up imparting detailed trainings on processes that are faulty. Even if people religiously follow the process, it may not yield desired business results. Before imparting training, ensure that your processes/content is accurate enough to yield desired business outcomes.
  3. Given our shrinking attention spans, long, detailed and tedious trainings will never help people. Good trainings that are poorly designed will also take a toll. Trainings are change agents and for that to happen, map training to real time actions. Show them how to do something, stir their imagination, raise important questions and then provide answers. Better yet, let them participate in finding answers and then reinforce lessons.
  4. Timing of the training is crucial. If you impart training on something which people may not use for next two months, the lessons will soon fade away. Impart training when it is most needed and can be used readily.
  5. Trainings that are done just because some external standard (like ISO) demands is a huge waste. Standards never tell us to conduct trainings at the cost of effectiveness.
  6. We don’t need trainers who speak like robots. We need humans, who bring their emotion to the training, share their personal stories, provide us perspectives and drive our imagination. If training is repetitive by nature, create a recorded version instead.
  7. The #1 job of a trainer is to focus on them – the participants. It’s not an opportunity to show how much you know about the subject, but how they can use that in their unique context.
  8. Manage the energy in room. People think training is about “flow” – continuity of ideas and speech. Yes, it is. In fact, it is also about "engaging change”. If a trainer speaks continuously for more than 5-7 minutes, the energy in the room loses to monotony. To add an element of change, throw up a question, show a video, share a story, ask audience to share their story, outline their challenges or let them do something. It re-aligns the energy in room.
  9. While you may not have a best sense of humor, it helps to lighten up things a bit during the training. Formal trainings have a bad reputation of being serious, and hence boring. If you (as a trainer) are not having fun, you cannot expect the audience to have it either!

Other Training Related Posts at QAspire Blog:

5 Ideas To Ensure That Trainings Effectively Deliver Value

Training: The Change Agent

Training Middle Managers On People Management Basics

Training and Development – A Holistic View

Improvement: Show Them The Results

A child develops confidence as she experiences things around her. We buy into products for which we perceive experience to be positive. We support causes that deliver positive results. In an organizational context, how can we then expect people to be totally committed to the improvement initiative at the start? People will never commit to anything that they have never experienced first hand.

As a manager, if you are trying to improve your work practices, remember this: Let your improvement initiative speak for itself through positive business results. Sell benefits of the process improvement, involve people in those initiatives, give them some control and build trust as you go. In a hurry to generate a buy-in for our shiny new initiative, we often fall in trap of excessively training and preaching people about processes. In extreme cases, improvement leaders start forcing people to comply with those methods. While people may comply dispassionately, the improvement initiative will not generate the desired/optimal results.

Here are a few practical lessons to let people experience benefits of your improvement initiative:

Clarify the need for improvement: People want to know how any improvement will resolve a real business problem. Establish the need for improvement and communicate the purpose. Alternately, also show them the consequences – the rewards for success and the pain of current situation. These two are compelling reasons for people to embrace change.

Set improvement goals: Once a reasonable buy-in for improvement exists, set goals on what needs to be achieved. Review and revise these targets as you go. Publish the progress and do not forget to be involved yourself. People judge importance of any initiative by the level of a leader’s involvement.

Involve them and set them free: Once broad goals are established, set people free. Allow them to exercise their knowledge and find out the best possible route to achieve results. Autonomy is a powerful driver of change.

Handhold and Facilitate: When people experiment, they will fail. Set up rituals and practices to provide help. Give them necessary training, facilitate them and handhold them as required. Eliminate barriers and ensure that team stays focused.

Communicate Results: Document success stories. Share them with a wider audience through internal mechanisms like blogs and wikis. Ensure that these results are talked about in employee meetings. Make those results tangible, understandable and relevant to business goals.

Goal is not 100% buy-in: Do all of this and you will still have a portion of your organization that would be skeptical about results. The goal of any improvement initiative is never to have a 100% buy-in, because it may not be possible. The idea is to have a majority buy-in and then convert skeptics into believers and doers by being persistent in the efforts.

– – – – –

Also Check Out: A great collection of leadership posts and insights in May 2012 Edition of Leadership Development Carnival over at Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership Blog.

– – – – –

Stay tuned to QAspire Blog: Subscribe via RSS or Email, Join our Facebook community or Follow us on Twitter.

Great Story: Improvement and Tending the Garden

Improvement is not a product. It is process. On the journey to improve constantly, you can never announce that you have arrived because there isn’t a destination. If you get certified against an external standard, that is a milestone which can provide a framework to improve further. Organizations often fall in trap of thinking about external certifications like ISO as a destination beyond which they lose the motivation to travel further.

This reminds me of a very interesting story that I read in Subroto Bagchi’s book “The High Performance Entrepreneur”:

A monk was tending to a Japanese garden and meticulously, for hours on end, he was removing dry twigs from the immaculately maintained flowering bushes. A passer-by, who was fascinated by the complete concentration and care of the monk at work, could no longer hold himself. He asked the monk, “O holy one, when will your work be done?”

Without looking up, the monk replied, “When the last dry twig is removed from the garden”.

Bagchi adds,

“An organization, like a garden, is a living thing, and the process of removing dry twigs never ends. So, like the monk, the top management can never say, the job is done.”

Improvement was traditionally associated with growth, that if you constantly improve, you grow and prosper. As competition grew more global and fierce, constant and often dramatic improvements have become essential for mere survival.

For business leaders, it helps to adopt a mindset of Zen gardener and build a culture that strives to improve, before competition forces them to do so.

Related Reading at QAspire Blog

A Story on Importance of Processes: From Subroto Bagchi
Great Quotes: Gems from Subroto Bagchi on Leadership

The Secret Sauce of Process Improvement

A colleague from a different department recently asked me, “When does this process improvement stop?”. In my response, I explained that improvement is not a destination, but a journey. It is a way for business to tune and align the operations to ongoing changes in the business.

“If that is the case, how do you sustain the improvement effort? What is the secret sauce of continuous improvement?”, he further inquired. I thought about the recipe of this sauce and a few ingredients immediately came to my mind.

First was commitment and rigor with which top management sponsors and pursues improvement effort. Commitment is often related with assigning budgets, providing resources and setting the right precedence through words and actions. Rigor is important too. Pace of improvement, simplification of operations and its subsequent impact on business needs a constant monitoring, follow-up and alignment. Leaders have to set this direction to build a culture where people are motivated to find optimal ways to deliver value to the customers.

Second ingredient in this sauce is involvement of practitioners in defining and implementing improvements/processes. While job of improvement task force is to facilitate improvements, the real improvements should come from people who execute processes – your team members, middle managers, client facing teams and support groups. If they are the ones who drive improvements, implementation and subsequent buy-in comes in easily.

Third and final ingredient is empathy when implementing process improvements. Processes are tools that make people effective. People are at the core. However, many a times, improvement leaders announce a “zero-tolerance” policy towards process compliance. They ignore the contextual (and human) aspect of implementation and end up demonstrating a complete lack of empathy when processes become an overhead, a necessary evil.

I think these are the core ingredients. There would be many more supplements and spices that makes this sauce more delicious. But unless core ingredients are not addressed completely, all spices and supplements will fail to cook a great sauce that your business would love to have on its dish!

Quality: Setting Right Goals

Most improvement initiatives are heavily focused on internal goals – increasing productivity/efficiency, eliminating waste, reducing defects/costs and so on. Processes around these goals are written and implemented. People are trained, tools are implemented, energies are directed and everyone starts working hard to meet these goals. Some improvement is seen, some re-alignment is done and it seems to be working fine, till…the customer starts complaining again.

This happens often because of the “internal orientation” of goals. When you establish your processes, pay enough attention to what customers are looking for. Customer A may be looking for impeccable technical quality (features) of deliverable while Customer B may be very sensitive to the quality of communication. Customer C cares a lot about user-friendliness of the product while Customer D is looking for an overall quality of experience delivered. Each one of these customers carry a different perception of quality based on their specific business needs and experiences. The fact that these expectations are fluid and ever-changing adds to the challenge.

If processes are a way to meet business objectives, it pays to identify the right objectives that finely balance internal and customer oriented goals. Internal goals are about continuity of pursuit to remain efficient. External objectives ensure that organization remains absolutely focused on what customer perceives as “value” and ways to deliver that value. With this balance, the focus on customer needs and wants is as much as focus on tools, systems, internal learning and processes. These objectives (and its constant reinforcement) drive people to look for ways to ensure that system is flexible to handle variation in customer demands.

Bottom line:

When defining your processes, do not forget to include the customer. A lot of waste from your practices can be eliminated if you constantly focus on how those practices help you achieve internal and external business objectives.

Gentle Reminder: Don’t forget to focus on your internal customers – your people.

Related Posts at QAspire:

7 Steps For Customer Centric Process Improvement

Metrics: Are They Mapped With Your Business Objectives?

Purpose Precedes Process

If process is a vehicle, purpose is the compass. Purpose gives a definite direction to processes. People (and their expertise) are the drivers. Technology acts as an accelerator.

Most system implementation or change initiatives focus enough on the P-P-T – People, process and technology and somewhere along the lines, the focus on purpose blurs. I have seen improvement experts who are always on the quest to find the next new thing, a fancy template or a complex matrix document that they can include in their ‘kitty’ of best practices. Being “process oriented” is definitely an asset, unless that is the only thing you are focusing on.

If you constantly teach/propagate processes to your people, they would comply at the least. But if you sell them a compelling purpose, a powerful “why” and then show them “how” a particular process element would help them meet that purpose, process buy-in comes naturally.

Focus on purpose is also a great tool to identify waste in your system. Constant alignment with a purpose helps you focus on what is absolutely essential, what can be simplified and what is not needed at all. In a constantly changing external environment, businesses can stay on top of their game with a strong commitment to purpose.

People first respond to purpose, and then need tools to achieve that purpose.

Bottom line? Sell the purpose and process will take care of itself.

Building an Adaptable Team: 6 Ideas

Ability to deal with rapid changes and uncertainties on the field is as critical a skill for organizations/teams as it is for the military troops. In military operations, lack of agility can have more serious and rapid consequences. In case of teams, individuals and organizations, the consequences may not be visible in a short term, but they eventually surface.

Organizations and teams that can adapt quickly not only just survive, but also uncover hidden opportunities. If you are a business owner, leader or an improvement manager, here are 6 essential strategies to build a team capabilities that help them remain agile and adaptable:

  1. Focus on the ‘customer’ and ‘value’: As a leader, your first job is to ensure that your team members understand your business, how it adds value to the customer and what differentiates the organization. Most of the processes should be modeled around the meeting the needs of customers and elevating your capacity to deliver the products/services. When you are ‘ears-open’ about customer’s unique needs and context, your team automatically responds accordingly. Once your team knows how to meet the expectations, they can then focus on adding value.
  2. See ‘Systems”: If your team understands your business broadly, it is also important for them to understand the elements of work, how they are inter-connected and what are the systemic implications of not doing something well.
  3. Balance “Structure” and “Chaos”: Companies that build repeatability of their success through hard wired processes and structure find it difficult to change directions when the external situation (economy/demand-supply etc.) changes. On the other extreme, companies that only thrive on chaos will not be able to scale up their operations. It is difficult to strike balance, but important as well.
  4. Strive to be ‘Lean’: Activities that do not any direct value to customer, or do not increase your capacity to deliver should be assessed very critically. Every unnecessary or redundant process step is a cost, that needs to be cut. “Improvement” does not only mean addition, but most significant improvements focus on elimination and simplification.
  5. Iterate: All big programs in your team/organization should be divided into smaller chunks and should be delivered iteratively. The idea is to collect feedback as early as possible. Lean start ups who build product first build the “minimum viable product (MVP)” and ship it to get feedback from the users. They do re-planning and incrementally develop the product, so as to incorporate changes effectively into their product.
  6. Collaborate: If your team knows how to pick clues by collaboration with industry experts, customers, end users and business and then act upon it, your organization/team will be able to closely understand the trends, foresee the changes and respond accordingly.

– – – – –

Join in the conversation: Have you been a part of an “adaptable team”? How did you ensure that your team effectively responded to changes? How did it go?

– – – – –

Update: Last Saturday (19-Nov-2011), I delivered a talk at “Sandhan” – a virtual classroom that is connected to over 900 colleges of Gujarat via VSAT. The topic was “Career A-Z: Essential Strategies For Building Expertise and Succeeding” where I laid out 26 ideas to build a career in knowledge oriented world. The talk received a very good feedback. Video/presentation will be posted soon.

The Importance of “Know Why”?

Knowledge industry, particularly software, is full of people who possess “know-how” – knowledge of how to get something done. Give them a task, and they will be able to apply their technical skills (read ‘know-how’) to accomplish it.

A lot of people possess a very sound “know-what” – knowledge of facts, figures and methods. Give them a topic and it is likely that they know the theory and facts. “Know-how” shines with “Know-what”.

Sales and marketing folks focus on “know-who” – people they know, have met and have a business relationship with.

There is a proliferation of know-how-what-who people, however, what we need more in businesses today is “know-why” people – those who possess knowledge of the purpose of doing something, insight into the meaning of work.

In lean terms, doing everything else without knowing the purpose and meaning is a “waste” – because everything that is done without understanding the purpose is a cost.

Understanding the purpose, context and meaning requires something more than simple “explicit knowledge”. It requires curiosity, implicit insight, ability to connect the dots, question our work, think about system and understand the invisible currents.

Purpose is powerful tool to keep people aligned, establish a vision (for team and organization), inspire team members and guide large scale strategic changes.

“Know-why” is at the core of excellence and is a pillar on which improvements are (and should be) done.

Given business priorities and rate of change, it is very easy to get carried away by tactical tasks, speed and progress. Corporate culture rewards speed, action and progress. But if you are running fast in the wrong direction, you are prone to accidents.

To avoid this, it is crucial that we know why we are doing what we are doing. Is it adding value? What problems are we solving? Is it really worth it? Why?

So, once in a while, it helps to slow down. Step back. Question our work, see the broader picture and flex our “know why” muscle.

“Know-why” empowers how, what and who. We surely need people who know how and what to do – but we need more and more people/leaders who combine what and how with a powerful why.

– – – – –

Join in the conversation: How can you instil a strong sense of “know-why” in your organization/team/self? Is there a dearth of “know-why” in business today? What can we do about it? Let your ideas flow in comments below.