Guest Blog: "Digital is still 2nd in a Human world (Implementing and sustaining CI)"

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In this special Guest Blog, one of our key members, Gareth Dixon, a Continuous Improvement specialist, gives us insight into the best way companies can gain business results by implementing and using CI. Garreth is a qualified coach and mentor with multi-global and cultural working experiences leading kaizen events and improvement programs with 20+ years experience as hands-on trainer in lean tools and strategies aligned to customer focus in manufacturing, operations, production, finance and back offices.

Many companies get excited about the modern capabilities and potential of technology in business. AI – IOT – 3D printing – Big Data – Factory Physics – Industry 4.0 (there are many concepts) The benefits are easy to sell, dreams are made of super efficiencies, increased productivity and hassle-free trading. 

However, the cost of investment can be high, implementation can be difficult, time consuming and the current workers ideas and contributions ignored. Isn’t it funny how the workers can be the last to know and hear about the new company technology or strategy coming in to ‘take us to the next level’. 

The purpose of this article  is to describe how to successfully increase business results by building a strong continuous improvement (CI) foundation utilising people. Relationships are key, it’s a human world and hopefully always will be, so get people on board before technology – lean 1st digital 2nd. 

So, lets start by understanding our two main stakeholders; the business and the workers. We know what the business wants; Increased profits (ideally from more sales at reduced costs), reliable products/services that give value to customers (so they come back often), growth in shareholder value and market size, ROI and obviously business progression. For the workers its slightly different, they want; job security, job satisfaction, good pay and conditions and career progression. The perfect blend is to achieve the magic ‘culture of CI’ driving success for all. CI culture can be described as ‘the sum of all behaviours within a business that are aligned to both business and worker progression’. Leadership is key but egos can be burdens! Leaders have pressure on them to be successful, to have all the answers, they aspire towards gaining credit for success. It can be very difficult and feel unnatural to let go and allow others to win. 

This is challenge #1 – we must train our leaders to help others succeed, they must use their power and influence to encourage and engage their managers in continuous improvement activities every day. 

Challenge #2 is to build a strong foundation of basics around trust, total worker relationships, teamwork, shared vision, aligned strategies and great communication. Lets really focus on our customers (don’t just say you do!) talk to them often, listen to what they want and show them that you are in alignment with their needs by achieving their goals. CI projects should have objectives that align to customer needs, they should be driven and supported by leaders that engage and involve cross-functional teams. All staff should be guided towards thinking with a proactive problem-solving mind-set. Make a war-room available to allow for cross-functional worker interactions when problems arise. Daily stand-ups in production areas should communicate issues with clear focus, and effort made to solve problems quickly. For offices the stand-ups can be weekly with the leaders present to support and show genuine interest. The key is for all staff to actively engage in their work whilst including thoughts for improvement. From the top, the vision must be shared, the strategy must be clear and aligned with all levels of management having total buy-in. On a day-to-day basis all workers treat others and are treated with respect and integrity, the working environment is a happy place and teamwork is evident everywhere. Its crucial to measure results from CI project work to share feedback and lessons learned. Make sure the lessons are noted down, changes made to improve where necessary and errors are not repeated at a later stage (which unfortunately is common!). We must reward the right behaviours and its important to ensure that KPI’s are set appropriately to drive towards improved performance. You will notice that I have not mentioned lean six sigma tools yet. That’s because the tools work, most have been proven (many times over) globally for the last 30 years. 

The challenge lies with people: attitudes, personal agendas, egos, beliefs, work history and knowledge. Leadership cannot fool the workforce (although many often try), they cannot say one thing, do another and expect staff not to notice. Respect must be given first, credibility must be earned by deeds. Relationships at work are key - remember, it’s still a human world so get people on board before technology. 

Sometimes the leader is onboard with CI, recognising its importance and value to growth. However middle management can be difficult to persuade, it’s not that they don’t want to adjust or change but because traditionally middle managers were hired for being good at their jobs and not necessarily because they were good managers (or indeed had any management training!). Some (not all) middle managers are limited to being good at their previous job. Driving innovation, change and continuous improvement can lead them outside their comfort zones. Successful companies help these important staff members to change their views, change their mind-sets and drive towards the future. ‘Let them win’ in driving change throughout the organisation. For employee engagement a classic hurdle is booking hours to non-productive work. ‘I cannot do the lean six sigma training or CI project work unless I have a booking number’. This is effectively saying to your staff – don’t spend your time getting better, spend it on doing the work that we still have problems with’ this is obviously crazy, but it happens in many companies! We must invest in improving processes and workers skills to achieve improved business results. Most businesses face problems each week, we are used to fire fighting, some technical workers even thrive on being the go-to person for solving difficult problems. In reality: How many of our problems are predictable and preventable? Don’t wait to fire-fight, pre-solve your problems by applying effort into future thinking – you will be amazed how this concept can benefit your business flexibility and agility. A great book on the subject is called ‘The Anticipatory Organisation’ by Daniel Burrus.

To be clear, technology is wonderful, many of the capabilities awesome and our world is a better place for it. However, I have seen and heard of too many occasions where people are left behind, not utilised, not involved and systems fall over with money lost. Much is made of implementing continuous improvement culture, but not enough focus is placed on the people, worker engagement and change of mind-sets. Too many marketing programs talk of customer service, customer is king etc - but the workers know otherwise. For sustained business growth, start with a strong foundation in the fundamentals of human strengths; trust, honesty, respect and integrity – these are true values that your people believe in, will follow and will work hard for. Then add appropriate lean six sigma tool/enablers to drive success.

Gareth Dixon

Continuous Improvement Specialist