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3 Guaranteed Ways To Make Your Continuous Improvement Efforts More Successful

I was recently reviewing a list of potential projects with a team of corporate continuous improvement professionals. I quickly identified a few projects as having a low probability of success. My skepticism was soon met with criticism from the team, “How can you make that assessment with so little information?” I quickly pointed to my lack of hair and the flat spot on my forehead I received from my learning experiences leading continuous improvement efforts in corporate America. No matter whether you call it a Six Sigma project, rapid process improvement, a kaizen event, or whatever language your organization uses, there are some key factors which strongly influence your probability of success; I’ll give you my top 3:

  1. Make sure the project is overtly important to the business. Your boss and your boss’s boss should really care about the problem. There should be some plainly obvious objective evidence i.e. data and metrics, which indicates there is a problem, the problem magnitude, and its relative importance to other issues your organization may be facing. Otherwise, resources, prioritization, data collection, and overall functional engagement will be suspect going forward. Regardless whether you are a functional owner or in a continuous improvement support role, senior leadership should clearly be communicating the organization’s direction and goals; it’s your role as a leader to determine how far away you are from those goals, plot a course for success, and execute with the leadership’s support.
  2. Ensure the improvement effort is being led by the functional owners. Many organizations employ full-time continuous improvement associates who are tasked with “fixing” someone else’s process. Usually, what are produced are some detailed and documented work standards, a pretty process or value stream map, and a lot of good intentions. Unless there is a functional person (not just an executive sponsor) leading the charge (or at a bare minimum, right next to you), implementation and ultimately sustainability are much more difficult than necessary. If done correctly, the functional owners should be pulling heavily on the support staff resources i.e. Manufacturing Engineering, Lean Six Sigma resources, etc., not the other way around as I’ve seen in so many organizations.
  3. Tightly scope your efforts; think incremental and immediate. I cringe when I see project statements that begin with the following: “Increase product gross margin…”, “Increase business-wide product on-time delivery…”, “Improve overall product quality…”, etc. Those usually aren’t projects, but large-scale efforts. I recommend you dive multiple levels into the symptom, to determine where to start; many time referred to a scoping project. Example: Instead of launching a project to reduce warranty costs, identify a product line, a specific defect which you wish to reduce, and type of failure i.e. out-of-the-box; begin your project based efforts here. Using data in a Pareto chart format is highly effective at communicating what you need to fix and the order of magnitude of the problem to fix, in order to drive high level impact. Additionally, don’t assume you need to execute a project or run an event. Smaller, incremental improvements not necessarily done in a project type format are usually the keys to success in terms of overall functional acceptance and sustainability. The larger (scope) and longer (time) the project, the higher the probability for failure. If you are in “project mode”, bite off enough to get done in about 4-6 weeks; that’s roughly 9-12 solid improvements in the process per year.

I am not implying you can’t “get it done” without initially addressing these factors. Rather, my experience indicates your efforts will require more elbow grease and yield less result, unless you identify and immediately resolve these issues.

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