Monday, October 12, 2009

Creating an Organization-Wide Continuous Improvement Culture (Part 1)

Want to improve your business situation? Regardless of the reasons why, a recognized need to improve the performance of your business is all that is needed to get the ball rolling. Once the decision is made, however, several questions immediately come to mind. Which approach? How do we start? How many people will this take? What do I expect to get from this? In my experience, it really does not matter which approach you chose. You can chose Six Sigma, Lean, Baldrige, ISO, PDCA, or any of the other latest fads in continuous improvement methods. With the right attitude and commitment, any of these approaches can be successful.

There are proponents of each of the previously mentioned methods, true believers in Six Sigma abound. Fervent advocates of lean are also out there in force. Many companies in the US have used the Baldrige criteria to improve and achieve excellence. ISO requirements for improvement have been ingrained since the standards were developed. Go to a conference and you will find all of these adherents out in force, preaching the gospel of their particular flavor of Continuous Improvement and telling anyone who will listen that THEIR flavor, can save the world and what the shortcomings of all of the other approaches are. So, which to choose? Answering this question starts with another question. What is your organizations culture and what are its big problems? If your organization is already highly disciplined and the perceived problems are with efficiency, lean may be the way to go. If you’re organization is very entrepreneurial, with no appreciation for process discipline, maybe start with ISO or Baldrige requirements. If you’re organization has a basic process discipline appreciation, but product quality issues are killing you, six sigma is for you. By the way, you don’t have to choose just one method. The trend in recent years towards combined approaches (Lean Six Sigma) makes sense from the standpoint of wanting to get the most benefit possible.

Since which method is not the most important thing to consider, what is? There are two things that are of paramount importance to the success of a CI initiative; How committed are you, and what is the expected outcome? I can not overstate the importance of top management commitment to the program. Commitment comes in many forms, starting with agreement all the way up to active participation. Real, meaningful management commitment is towards the top end of that spectrum, but don’t worry, you don’t have to do a Black Belt project to demonstrate commitment. What you do have to do though is this; Commit high potential resources, I mean really commit them. Take people out of their current roles and dedicate them to making this culture change happen. Do not take a half step here, don’t create “Part-time” resources because part–time means no time. An important point here is the caliber of people that you commit to the effort. Don’t choose the people that you can “afford” to do without in their current roles. If, while having the resource discussion, a persons’ name comes up whom someone says they can’t live without, that’s the right person to put on the effort. This decision is a reflection back to managements’ commitment. If the people chosen to lead the effort are viewed as expendable, the organization will recognize very quickly that management is not really interested in this initiative and support will wither. The second thing to consider is what do you expect from the program? What’s the big hairy goal that focuses the organizations efforts on this program? Is it winning awards from your customers, is it reducing cost by 50%, is it growing the business significantly? What motivates top management to be interested in this program and the results it achieves? Once you know this you’re ready for the next phase.

Create a crisis. This statement is one way to say that you need to create a vision and a sense of urgency that everyone can easily recognize and understand, to make it easier for people to support and participate. So what is your crisis? Is it competition taking market share, customers firing you, significant product quality costs, significant overhead costs making you less competitive? Clearly define the crisis and communicate it broadly to the entire organization, repeatedly.

Once you have defined the vision, selected an approach or set of approaches to use, determined resources, and communicated the crisis, it time to get to work. Those resource decisions that you made earlier, its time to execute them. Actually take people from their old roles, reassign their old responsibilities to others, move them physically if possible. Now it’s time to think about training.

Next week, we’ll talk about planning for training and helping people to build a detailed vision and plan for culture change and linking that to the crisis. We'll also discuss creating momentum for the inititaive.

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