When thinking about continuous process improvement it is easy to do so in terms of finding new methodologies or ways of doing things. However, we should be mindful that there is much to learn from what we do today.
An incident in the ‘Knight’ home came as a personal reminder to me that continuous improvement can be just as much about what we do each day and the importance of sharing best practice with one another as it is about finding different ways of doing things.
Learning from my daughter
My four year old daughter was having a crisis (in a way that only a four-year-old can) because she couldn’t get her left sock on straight when the right one had surrendered straight away.
Wanting to encourage her to do it herself, I suggested that she simply repeat what she had done when putting the first sock on. As my daughter’s “I can’t” responses steadily got louder it occurred to me that she may not be consciously aware of the key factors that made her first attempt successful. As is the case in many business situations and processes, we are often left scratching our heads at the variable results we achieve, feeling frustrated and generally powerless to do anything about it.
I decided to brave the resistance I would naturally receive for trying to help and sat down on the floor next to my daughter. “Just try one more time,” I asked, whilst observing her approach intently. I then proceeded to take my own sock off and put it back on, whilst trying to be very conscious of what I was doing as well. When I compared the two approaches I noticed that if she changed her leg position her foot would be at the same angle as the sock she was holding. I showed her this and then we practised several times – success!
Sharing best practice
Deep process knowledge and best practice is already commonplace within our organisations, the problem is it is often fragmented across many people and buried deep within subconscious habit. We may see glimpses of this in our ‘go to’ operators but for the main part, it is hidden in the noise of day to day performance.
Just think, if we could capture and combine all of this best practice and then adopt it wholeheartedly across our organisations, the resulting change in both level and consistency of performance could be huge. Yet, in a way we wouldn’t be doing anything new, we would be combining the best of what everyone already does!
So, in managing process improvement, our role is much more than simply asking people to find new ways. It is to encourage people to reacquaint themselves with what they do, share and learn from each other and of course try things out to see if they work in reality. When we do uncover good practice, we should seek out ways to help those concerned adopt the knowledge and skills easily so that everyone can do their best work, everywhere, every time. Forever.
So where do we start?
For the answer to this question, I am reminded of a Manufacturing Manager I had the pleasure of meeting around a year ago. His approach to continuous improvement is simple yet effective. He has set up a system where process operators are invited to video themselves whilst they work and then review it with their teammates. They highlight things they like, points of clarification and then discuss what they have learnt. Although difficult at first, perseverance created results that speak for themselves. Together they have developed a basic training manual for what was previously regarded as a black art, manual process where there were either ‘heroes or villains’. Now, all operators have access to the knowledge and skills they need to do their best work. By redesigning some of the basic equipment they use, they have also reduced the risk of repetitive stress injury issues as well.
What I have described here is the act of process standardisation, which when viewed firstly as a process of seeking out good practice, rather than making activities consistent, becomes the very foundation of continuous improvement.
So, the answers we are looking for may have been right in front of us all of the time!