Monthly Archives: November 2014

CI Boot Camp Beyond Tools and Techniques

(this is also featured at LinkedIn’s Pulse)

You’ve probably also noticed numerous discussions in the various communities that all ask the same basic question: why do our ______efforts fail? I took that to task in Earth to Big Thinkers a while ago, am targeting continuous improvement (CI) specifically here.

My formal CI training and practitioner experience goes back to the middle 90’s with SPC, early TQM and just-in-time, evolving more recently to leansigma, ISO and Baldrige management systems, performance excellence and engagement theory. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a good deal of hands-on systems design and implementation support via training, project team facilitation and follow-up.

To me there are essentials that are too often not considered, a layer underneath the mechanics, toolbox and techniques of continuous improvement: the human and organizational dynamics of CI. Please add your own to my short list of success factors that are too often forgotten:

  1. Deming’s public enemy number one was variation. Goal: consistency in process and outputs, but also in methods. In the spirit of standard work, the framework of a formal approach to continuous improvement is a necessity. People need to speak the same language;
  2. The most direct path to results starts at the ground level. Like anything, a strong foundation allows an enduring structure to be built. Informing and educating helps to achieve buy-in, making it much easier to involve the right people, give them the right tools, then facilitate their progress toward improving the way they do their work;
  3. Change management rules apply! The standard list of questions people have when faced with doing something new or different: what exactly is involved? Why do we have to change this? How does this affect me? Why should I care? What if I don’t want to do this differently? Have real and plausible answers ready ahead of time and make sure they are part of the foundational work;
  4. The same as 5-S, the first few steps are a cake walk compared standardizing and sustaining improvement. It’s human nature to backslide to the comfortable way of doing things when nobody is looking. People tend to hunker down in their foxholes, thinking “this too shall pass” if they keep their heads down. Controls and measures must be implemented and the improvements verified for effectiveness on an ongoing basis.
  5. Direct in-process communication, ongoing communication of project status and results and then follow-up from leadership with improvement teams provides encouragement along the way and reinforces the new way of doing things. Let people know “we’re really paying attention to what you’re doing, and we appreciate what you’ve done!”
  6. As noted in “Earth to Big Thinkers” simplicity must be the standard. An over-abundance of theories, tools and application methods makes it easy to over-complicate continuous improvement. It is what it is…CI experts are more highly valued the more formal certifications they possess, and their expert status is generally viewed more favorably by leaders the more technical and detail-intensive the reports and results are. But CI lives and dies at the non-expert level, in the hearts, heads and hands of the do-ers.

Hugging Trees Triggers High Engagement. Seriously!

I’m a “green” guy. I spent the last five years with a wind turbine blade manufacturing plant and learned quite a bit about environmental and energy issues. This started as a green piece then it took a hard right turn into what many feel is the most powerful driver of engagement, self included…having a higher Purpose, hearing “the calling” of your work.
Climate change. What a topic to be polarized and politicized. Is it or isn’t it man-made? Answer: yes, no, maybe, who cares?

Let’s look at a just few basic indisputables without getting all scientific, quantitative and other know-it-all tactics…first, we do know that fossil fuels produce greenhouse gas emissions, and we are fairly certain the stuff is not a good thing to spew into the atmosphere. We do know that greenhouse gases do something bad to the ecosystem. How much bad is irrelevant, bad is bad.

Indisputable two: fossil fuels are not limitless, they will run out. How soon is irrelevant. Is it OK to continue our addiction because there’s enough to last us through our lifetime? I’m at a point in life where I worry about my kids and grandkids. I can’t accept my generation staying selfishly addicted, passing the addiction on to them and letting them figure out how to go cold turkey.

One more indisputable, just because three is a good number…it’s not dwelled on much but traditional production of energy guzzles millions of gallons of water. Water is a finite resource, we’re seeing localized shortages already. And humans kind of need the stuff.

There’s another energy indisputable or two surrounding nuclear plants, but I won’t go there for now. We’ve seen disasters with long-term impacts, and fairly recently. Oh, and what about this “fracking” business for extracting natural gas from shale beds?

What it comes down to: if something is bad, if you have a choice you should consider doing less of it. If it’s good, do more of it.

It scares me more than a little that we feel entitled to take and do whatever gives us immediate pleasure and is most convenient. Native Americans and other early people got it-they understood that we are Earth Mother’s guests, and as stewards we have huge responsibilities.

As Forrest Gump said “and that’s all I have to say about that.” On to engagement and triggering higher levels of productivity, profit, retention and other highly coveted bottom line items.

Every study I’ve read (correct me if you’ve found a relevant exception!) reports that sense of purpose is a huge contributor to higher levels of engagement. If people feel they are making an impact on the greater good, that they are involved in something way more important than doing mindless stuff that earns a paycheck they are more committed, more tuned in, more emotionally attached, more satisfied. More productive. Give people good reason to care and to stick around, and they just may do both. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Gallup references “The Calling” and the UK’s Engage for Success movement highlights “Strategic Narrative”. If you’re interested, I pulled together links to these and more for another project, in References for Establishing Purpose. There are several valuable sources here—I hope you’ll indulge yourself. Also, here’s an earlier post of relevance: What’s the Purpose?

In my tenure with the wind turbine blade builder, one of my regular assignments was to spend two hours with new hires. We had a huge attrition problem, so the orientation sessions were very frequent. My slot was inherited from the plant GM—an introduction to the company, the plant, and most importantly the industry. I knew from studying engagement theory that “purpose” was an essential so I really dug into the pros and cons of alternative energy vs the fossils. Goal: help new hires understand the significance of what they were embarking on which I proposed was nothing less than a mission to make the world a better place for our and especially for future generations—MY grand kids and theirs. I was shameless, didn’t pull any punches…used pictures of my grand kids to make the point more real and it choked me up every time.

There were several instances of people on the floor even a year or two after they started, telling me that segment made a lasting impression on them. My gut says that 2-hour investment helped good people decide to stick around and maybe to put a little more effort into their work. Unfortunately, that two hour segment ended up being dropped by the powers that be.

Moral of the story: an opportunity to communicate one of the most powerful Purpose narratives around—making the world a better place—was squandered rather than emphasized.

Two take-aways I hope you’ll have:

  1. Understand the issues behind the environmental debate. There’s a lot at stake.
  2. Find your Purpose, personal and professional. Leaders, help others hear their calling. There’s a lot at stake.

What do you think?

Earth to Big Thinkers….Come In Big Thinkers

Systems Thinking World is a discussion forum for both experienced systems thinkers and those wanting to learn their way around systems thinking. I’m somewhere in between, and one of my current Big Thoughts is that there must be more awareness of system dynamics incorporated into employee engagement. So I’m in hot pursuit of understanding both concurrently. Most importantly, I’m studying how to communicate both in a way that sinks in.

This question was posed to the systems thinker community…why is six sigma so widely accepted, when systems thinking is not?  A great many responses followed, deep and scholarly assessments of the state of systems thinking, level of understanding and, more importantly, level of acceptance with the general public. Big concepts, big words…vast amounts of tasty thought morsels were offered by the systems thinking community. But not much in the way of resolution.

Engagement suffers from the same problem as systems thinking—no mainstream acceptability —very probably due to the same root cause. I played with this same thought some time ago, in Much Ado About Nothing.

thinker-doerExperts, a challenge: step back a few paces and read your field’s literature and discussions through the eyes of a novice sneaking a peek at your stuff for the first time. Systems thinking, engagement, even basic continuous improvement—this applies to all these disciplines. Most regular folks’ eyes glaze over in a hurry and survival mode kicks in when they take that cautious peek. Every now and then an innocent entry-level question is met with a deluge of scholarly responses that go nowhere with substance. Result: the neophyte is pushed even further away and the safer survival instinct is reinforced: don’t fight and ask questions, simply flee.

Hypothesis: experts have made systems thinking and engagement too complex, too theoretical, too “expert” to be accessible to the mainstream. The various community experts, especially in engagement and systems thinking, have pretty much earned their reputation as unapproachable purveyors of dark, scary practices. Too much high-level thinking and theoretical musing to be attractive to most, not enough doing and results to sell the do-ers and decision-makers.

Does this exchange sound familiar?

What do you do?
I’m an engagement specialist (or…I’m a systems thinker)
OK….(quizzical look)…come on man, what do you really do to earn your paycheck?!

  • A FEW TO-THINK-ABOUTS
    SixSigma has numerous tools that can be used within the DMAIC framework, but most practitioners and projects stick with only a handful of heavy lifters. Some sixsigma training still insists on reviewing the entire toolbox gamut. Impressive to few, confusing to most;
    A Microsoft Project power user produces a mind-blowing Gantt chart that the project’s worker bees can’t make sense of. Who benefits, what is accomplished?
    SixSigma is based on statistical formulas. While it is essential to understand variation, and what “sigma” means, is it really necessary for all the players to understand how sigma is calculated?
    The purpose of engagement is to maximize performance, but too often the stated emphasis is more like “our goal is to raise employee engagement levels”. A fuzzy target rather than tangible action and real results;
    SixSigma focuses on specific problem characteristics and generates tangible, measurable results using a specific process with specific tools. However,
    Systems Thinkers and engagement experts cruise at 50,000 feet where the air is simply too rare for most. Should the experts expect others to do without oxygen, or should we make a greater attempt to cruise at a lower, safer altitude, fill the seats and still get to where we need to go?

In a continuous improvement project the goal is to make something better, period. As facilitator or project manager I must be aware of systemic dynamics as they are critical and someone must be mindful of them. And there is always an opportunity to preach the gospel of engagement, as engagement practices will help standardize and sustain the initiative.

But those add-ons divert the improvement team’s focus away from the basic target: improve. It is much better to simply involve the right people, give them the right basic tools, and facilitate the improvement journey. Along the way, throw in an occasional guiding nudge of systems thinking or engagement theory as the opportunity comes up. Don’t force the issue.

With this casual drive-by approach it isn’t even necessary to reference systems thinking or engagement by name. Doing so only begs for further explanation. The message will be plenty meaningful if presented in the right context—accomplishing the task at hand. It does not and should not be center stage.

The same message would not be so easily received if delivered in a full-blown presentation on systems thinking and engagement theory. However, if the team or organization ever gets to the point that systems thinking or engagement officially takes center stage, these casual hands-on project touches are invaluable examples: “hey, this is nothing new. Remember when we….?”

One discussion respondent suggested that system thinkers “….design (or borrow) a meeting or process to move this valuable discussion out of the casual discussion stage and into the “let’s get serious about discovering a solution that works” stage.” In other words, find a concrete way to further systems thinking. A reply to that: “…contributors have provided a snapshot of a dynamic through their experiences…a hypothesis needs fully testing. Do you have a hypothesis?”

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Much ado about nothing. Thinkers exploring concepts is critical as it furthers our understanding. But when we need broader acceptance, maybe a separate application-only discussion group is called for:

  1. Describe the situation;
  2. What is the best action and desired outcome of that action? And,
  3. Very briefly, what is the theory or concept the action is based upon? (just for context, to placate the deep thinkers).

Would it work? Could we stave off the urge to confound the issue by burying it in complexity?

Is this idea just another Big Thinker Thought in disguise? The whole point of this post is…all this wonderful thinking is pointless if it doesn’t lead to stickiness and action / results. So, what next?