Monday, December 12, 2011

Continuous Improvement

Yesterday I posted one of Colin Powell's Leadership Lessons that talked about ego, but really it talked about continuous improvement. The old ways become obsolete, and if you can't change with the times, your skills become obsolete as well. Think about it the next time somebody argues that a process shouldn't be changed, because we've "always done it that way."

So, as a leader, how do you do it? You have established processes and procedures that work for you (or at least you think they do). Should you scrap everything and start over? No, because then all you would be doing is re-writing processes, and not getting any of your required work done. So what do you do?

First, you need to take a step back and look at your overall processes. Where are people spending the most time? Usually there is a bottleneck that can be identified and improved upon, because there is capacity available ahead of it, or behind it. If you can identify that bottleneck, you can either change to address the bottleneck, or you can plan your work based on that choke point.

Dr Eliyahu Goldratt wrote a book called The Goal, which is a novel designed to teach about his Theory of Constraints. Really it is about how to address bottlenecks, and the story talks about the turn-around of a manufacturing plant due to process improvement and proper planning. But what if you work in an office?

Well, bottleneck's exist there as well. An example from my life is a tool I created called the "Purchase Order Calculator (POC)." The reason I created the tool was that I identified a large time-suck in our office. The Project Managers and Order Managers were spending hours trying to determine the proper Purchase Order value. The complication was a company memo that specified the different PO values based off of what location was issuing the PO, what location the PO was going to, and in some cases the margin of the original sale of the item. Not only were hours lost on the math and research to figure out which rules applied, but invariably, the plants receiving the PO would argue the PO value, and a discussion would ensue to determine if the proper rule was used. Talk about wasted time!

Anyway, more can be found (here, here, here, and here; perhaps I should stop mentioning it?) about the POC. The point is that as a leader you need to look at where your people are spending time. If you find a process exists which takes significant time out of their schedule, and you think it should be a relatively quick process, then you have a prime candidate to look at for improvement.

Another thought would be to evaluate where your people spend the most time. Use the 80/20 rule. In this case the rule would mean 80% of your team's time is filled by 20% of the activities they should complete (how many versions of this rule are there?). That means the best place to look at for improvement is at those activities. Time is money, and hours can mean millions.

Once the process is identified, then you can build a group of subject matter experts and devise a plan to address the improvement. In some cases, it can be done quickly, but in others it will take time. I would suggest that you plan (as the leader) to improve one process a quarter (if it is a particularly big process, every 6 months). The first time or two, you should probably lead the group, however, these teams also provide a viable opportunity to develop the leaders within your organization. Identify the team, identify the issue, and place a leader in charge to address it. Just don't let it become an excuse to avoid the regular work that needs to be done.

In some cases, your existing process is the best solution. However, I am willing to bet in most cases there is a better way. And never let anyone end the discussion with the statement "because we've always done it that way."

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