During a conference late last year an audience member asked us this question: “The cost of employing a whole team of people dedicated to continuous improvement can be really high. What would you suggest we do to avoid that cost?”
An excellent challenge, to which the glib answer would be that the true cost of not setting up a team is likely to be significantly more than the cost of setting one up.
However, is that actually true?
Well, not necessarily, because, like any other team, a focused, well-trained, well-supported and effective group will be worth a lot more to a company than a poor one and will yield a significantly greater return on investment (ROI). That being the case, it’s probably worth focusing on what provides these key factors.
Not all problems facing an organisation are equal. Some are large and complex, some are small and relatively simple, some give rise to significant losses, and some give rise to only a small degree of waste. The skill lies in determining what to work on.
An improvement team that has a clear picture of the relative value of resolving the various problems facing their organisation and addresses them in a systematic manner following a rigorous PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) approach will be much more cost-effective than one which attempts to firefight and solve the next burning issue for the manager who shouts loudest. A team that has a clear view of the link between potential areas for improvement and the strategic priorities of the organisation will be even more effective. The former can be achieved by the use of Pareto when a company speaks with data. The latter, is through strategy deployment processes such as Hoshin Planning.
Training – Who to train, how many and what in?
Always a difficult question.
One large multinational company I used to work for aimed for 10% of its entire workforce to be trained in operational excellence (OE) to some degree, whether that be problem-solving, Green Belt, or Black Belt training. This made for a massive number of problem solvers, and the team made very significant gains for a while, but also at a very significant cost.
The programme eventually declined because of two main factors:
There was no good process in place for the problem solvers to demonstrate they were working on the right issues
Leaders had not been trained in appropriate approaches to allow them to provide adequate support to the programme.
The most vital piece of the puzzle is knowing what to work on. This will also tell an organisation whether the best approach is, at one end of the scale, to train small shopfloor teams in a limited problem-solving toolset, or at the other end, to train a team of Six Sigma Black Belts to focus on complex issues that require Design of Experiment, Principal Components Analysis or similar arcane methodologies. It’s not about the size of the team, it’s about focus and quality.
Many organisations seem to believe that sending a few engineers off to train in the Six Sigma toolset and setting them loose back in their organisation will right all wrongs.
To be effective, these people need support, coaching, and mentoring otherwise, they risk losing the benefits gained from the training.
The technical aspects of this can be provided by the original OE training organisation or peers, but the vital alignment between what is to be worked on, coaching for success and recognition and communication of benefits and gains is the role of leaders within the organisation at many levels.
Effectiveness then, can be viewed as the sum of a few simple factors:
Effectiveness in OE = Focus + Training + Leadership Support