Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Review: The Recipe for Simple Business Improvement

I'm sort of taking an break during the holidays. I'll be back with a new post on January 4th. Meanwhile, I recommend checking out my reading list on Linked-In and catching up on your holiday reading. Here's a review of a book I recently finished.

I recently finished reading a book that the American Society of Quality gave me for free because I've been a long-time member, so I thought I'd give it a review. The book is The Recipe for Simple Business Improvement by David W. Till.

I was looking forward to reading it to see if it gave a different perspective from my background in Six Sigma and Lean. I was hoping for some insights that might help me with deployments that I lead or help others lead. Mr. Till started off with a high level overview of Continuous Improvement Programs over the years, then launched into a discussion about chemical reactions and how CI programs are like chemical reactions. The key message in this chapter was that CI requires a catalyst to occur; it won't just happen on its own. I understand why that needs to be said, but its very Mom & Apple Pie. Everybody understands it.

I really liked the section of the book (Chapter 2) that identifies differences between leaders and managers. Mr. Till's descriptions ring true with my experiences of both leaders and managers and create a very clear mental picture of why we should all strive to be leaders more and managers less. I agree with the placement of this subject matter in the book, assuming Mr. Till intended to point out that Leadership Commitment is the first priority. My experiences with virtually every culture change program I have grown indicate that without commitment from the leadership, you're sunk. Since I particularly liked this section of the book, I'm going to list the characteristics of a leader that Mr. Till described, then those of a manager. I'm sure you'll notice the difference:

1. Setting Strategic Direction: Setting the mission and vision that will guide the organization.
2. Aligning the People: Communicating the strategic direction and getting commitment.
3. Motivating and Inspiring: Initiating and gaining momentum to moving the organization forward and overcome barriers.
4. Producing Change: Initiating change the make the organization better.

1. Planning & Budgeting: Setting goals, targets, and timetables for the organization.
2. Organizing and Staffing: Develop the organization structure, positions, and roles to meet the budget.
3. Controlling and Problem Solving: Monitoring compliance to the plan and intervening when needed to keep the plan on track.
4. Maintaining predictability: Keeping the ship as steady as possible and preventing change in those areas where it is not beneficial.

I like the STOP process that the author advocates. I have used this method once so far with some people that I work with and it does help to identify things that we should stop doing. I will say, however, that if you're already doing very valuable things, this process is likely to leave you frustrated if you can not identify some significant chunks of time to free up to use on the improvement projects. Still, I like the process and plan to use it periodically to screen out the things that I do. Here's the example that the author used to explain the power of the STOP process.

"A good example of what I later found to be a wasteful task was the monthly report I prepared while working as Head of Quality in a major chemical company. I began to notice questions being asked of me in management staff meetings that indicated people had either not recieved or had not read my monthly report. I checked to make sure they were receiving it, and they were. In the next report, about halfway down the fifth page, I put the following sentence: 'Congratulations on reading so far in this report-you may have won $10. Call Dave Till at 555-5555 and he'll be happy to pay the first caller.' I sent out the report as usual and waited, telling myself that, in the future, I would send the report to only those people who called. After three months of not sending the report to anyone, I got a call from my boss's secretary, who asked where my monthly reports were. When questioned how she had noticed, she replied that there was a hole appearing in the file cabinet where she had kept them."

One part of the book that I had some trouble with was Chapter 4 where Mr. Till lays out his recommendations for a Plan of Action. In particular, Mr Till recommends a 90-day timeline for improvement projects. While I have no trouble with the concept of completing a project in 90 days or less, Mr. Till oversimplifies this complex problem by basically assigning responsibility for speed to the sponsor. His two part premise is that project teams that take a long time to complete their work do so because they don't have an organized plan of action, and two, that leaders aren't pulling for results and completion.

I was familliar with many of the steps that Mr. Till recommends in his simple business improvement process as they are the same steps of the DMAIC method, just rearranged a little: nothing really new there.

My main complaint with this book is that the author attempts to break everything down into a series of steps. Everything from deciding what work to stop doing, to how to be a good sponsor for an improvement team. I felt like the author was attempting to turn leadership commitment into a step by step procedure, when real commitment is much more than just items on a checklist. One other observation is that many of the steps of his improvement process are similar to those found in Six Sigma, just ordered a little differently.

My overall impression of the book is that it lives up to the title The Recipe for Simple Business Improvement but that it is simplicity bordering on naivete. Mr. Till addresses this book to "turn around" types of problems with simple relationships between the problems and root causes. I would recommend The Recipe for Simple Business Improvement to those in small single-location companies where the data that represents the problem(s) is easily created and simple linear relationships exist.

The Recipe for Simple Business Improvement by David W. Till. 2004, American Society for Quality, Quality Press

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Slight Diversion-But Still in the Spirit of Excellence

Please forgive the diversion. Normally this blog is about business stuff, continuous improvement, quality management, six sigma, lean, etc... Today's post is about excellence of another kind. Yesterday my oldest son was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Boy Scouts. Here is the speech I made at his ceremony. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I remember taking him to the sign up meeting for Cub Scouts, trying to read his face for any signs of excitement, interest, distaste. I don’t really remember what I got, but we decided to plow ahead and go into Cub Scouts. I was in Cub Scouts, and so I wanted my son(s) to be in Cub Scouts because I had some fond memories and I thought that what scouts taught was worth learning, and that it was fun. I remember his first Pinewood Derby car project. I remember feeling like I lost five years off my life while trying to NOT help him too much. He didn't grasp the concept of applying pressure to the saw to help it cut faster. He believed that gravity would do the job for him. Eventually it did. Fast forward a few years and its time to pick a troop. He chose Troop 111, not because he knew anyone here, not because any of his fellow den mates decided to come here (they didn’t), but for what in our estimation, was the most right reason of all, because he liked this troop over any of the other troops he visited. We settled into the period where all of his den mates tried to pressure him to change his mind, he held firm and in the end, all of the other six boys in his den went to the same troop, then three promptly dropped out of scouting.

We came to Troop 111, and boy scouting was new for all of us, so we embarked on the adventure together and while we have had our ups and our downs, in the end, I wouldn’t trade the experience for any in the world. Scouting has given us the opportunity to do things together that we probably wouldn’t otherwise have done. The opportunities have been too numerous to mention here. Through it all, I have gotten to watch and help him get over the rough parts and celebrate the good parts and grow into the fine young man he is today.

We are proud of our son. I suppose that is obvious, but it goes deeper than the obvious things. While we are proud because he has achieved the highest rank in scouting, that’s not all. While we are proud because he planned and executed a project that required leadership beyond his years, that’s not all.

A parents wish for their child is that they will teach the right lessons, apply the right pressure, push just enough but not too much, and that the child will, in the end, become a responsible, productive, contributing citizen, with a job, a place of their own, and have built for themselves, a good and happy and fulfilling life. While some of these wishes are still in the future, we are proud of oldest son for the person he has become, and we know that, as he sets out on the next journey of life, he has the skills, values, and compass to be successful in life.

One of the things that I admire most in you is your sticktoitedness. You never quit, you hang in there when others throw in the towel. It does not escape me that we are here today to celebrate your achievement of the top rank in Boy Scouts, an achievement that only 4% of all boy scouts reach. The reason that is on my mind is because, as I mentioned at the beginning, I was never a Boy Scout, let alone an Eagle Scout. When I was your age, I could not have done what you have done. I didn’t have it in here. The credit for your achievements that we celebrate today are yours, but you didn't get here all on your own. I am grateful for whatever small part I may have played in helping you along the path to Eagle, but I am most proud of the person you have become. We love you. Congratulations.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Six Sigma-Innovation Killer NOT!

I'm reading a new book that everyone should go out and buy. Its called The Brain Advantage, Become a More Effective Business Leader using the Latest Brain Research. A friend of mine is a co-author so I got a copy from him to read through. I'm only through Chapter 3 but already I've made several connections to my past experiences in leadership.

I'm going to share one of them with you here, then you go right out and buy the book.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a brief post about myths regarding Six Sigma. See the original post here. One myth that I addressed in that post was that Six Sigma is an Innovation Killer. This is the widely held conventional wisdom in publications such as Business Week that resulted from the withdrawl of Six Sigma from places like 3M in the recent past.

In The Brain Advantage I found an answer to why this myth persists and why Six Sigma may be perceived as an innovation killer. The answer is a simple as Right Brain vs Left Brain. In Chapter 1 and 3 of The Brain Advantage the authors discuss the commonly held misconception that Six Sigma is an innovation killer and research that indicates that innovation (literally the Eureka moments) are exclusively Right Brain activities, while process oriented scripts and routine tasks are the domain of the Left Brain. Further, the authors discuss how there is no bleed over in brain function between the right and left brain when it comes to innovation. Its as if the left side of our brains go to sleep while we think creatively exclusively in the right Anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus (ASTG).

We can apply this new learning to help overcome the bias against Six Sigma in innovation circles by intentionally setting the stage for innovation to occur within the steps of the Six Sigma method. So, follow the six sigma process to achieve a product or process design that meets or exceeds the customer need (Left Brain), but at the critical process steps where a innovative solution is needed, we must recognize that an intentional shift in focus is needed and that the environment for innovation has to be intentionally set that allows for the rules to be ignored, creativity to flow, and insights to occur (Right Brain). "Ok, great, how do we do that?" you might be saying. My advice to you is to contact the authors and ask them for some help, seems like their area of expertise to me.

Go buy the book, right now! You can find it here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Six Sigma or not to Six Sigma? That is the question.

I was having a conversation recently with a friend who runs an academic program at a major US university. She was telling me about solving a problem in her department and how the solution was obvious so she just did it. She then related how one of her collegues protested that she should have used some six sigma tools to really understand the process before making the change. The short story is that she rejected this suggestion and just did what she knew needed to be done. A strange coincidence occured last week when Leadership Change Agent and fellow blogger Brad Kolar posted on the very same topic here. It must be something about Thansgiving that makes people contemplate their "gut feel" for things.

Of course, I think she was exactly right. This discussion reveals one of the major issues facing continuous improvement initiatives today. Doesn't matter if its Lean, Six Sigma, 8D, TRIZ or whatever the latest fad in the workplace is. If you know what to do to solve a problem, why mess around with "discovering" it. Just get your backbone up and do what you know is right.

If that's the case, then why do so many "experts" advise going through the "process" to "discover" what to do? Two reasons. First, I have found that some practitioners of six sigma have a devotion to it that borders on religious fanaticism, insisting that everything be done with six sigma. The truth is that everything should not be done with six sigma, or lean or whatever your method du jour is. There's an old saying that I like. Not sure where it came from but here it is. "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail". What this means to me, is that we have to use different tools in our toolboxes intelligently to solve different problems appropriately. Instead of a nail, every problem is more like a snowflake, unique and different in some way from every other problem. Sure there are some common traits of certain problems, but a cookie cutter approach will only carry us so far. The second reason is really abuse of the CI method. A common misconception I hear frequently is that using the process, say six sigma, builds a solid case for management to use in decision making with all the data and statistics and stuff. The only problem is that you've spent 3-6 months to build a case to prove that you should do what you knew you should do in the beginning. The net effect is that the problem continued for 3-6 months while you deferred the decision that you knew you should make in the beginning. This is an abuse of six sigma, lean or any other CI method. It leads to criticisms of the method as slow, not innovative, or original. Abuse leads fence-sitters and non-believers to conclude that you really don't need six sigma or lean or whatever to make things better, since all six sigma does is confirm what we already knew.

So if we should not use a cookie cutter approach to problem solving, when is it appropriate to use or chose not to use a particular CI method? First, if the problem that needs to be solved has an obvious root cause and/or obvious solution, don't bother with any CI method, just summon the courage and go do it. You may need some tools to help figure out exactly what to do, but if you know, don't waste time, just go do it and start reaping the benefits sooner. If these conditions dont exist, then you really do need to consider some method to discover what is causing the problem and what should be done about it. In general, if its a variation type of problem, use six sigma, if its a waste type of problem, use lean, if its a design problem use Design for Six Sigma or TRIZ or something like that. If its a bottleneck constraint in the workflow, use Theory of Constraints(TOC). Finally, once you start to dive into the problem, don't adopt a rigid approach. Be open to use some lean to remove waste while reducing the main variation problem. If considering a waste problem, look for bottlenecks in the process and apply TOC to speed the flow throught the "factory". The bottom line is that problem solving calls for thoughtfulness, flexibility, and creativity. Above all, problem solving requires a good understanding of the different methods in the toolbox so that good decisions can be made about what to use in different situations.