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

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