A Tactical Approach for Improvement

Beau Groover

When planning your continuous improvement (CI) efforts, you must first determine what it is that you are going to improve. There are always thousands of things you need to do but only enough resources to really go after a few of them. So which ones do you go after? Which ones will impact your business the most? Which ones will impact the customers the most? Which ones will help you be more profitable?

My recommendation is to start with your customers. There are several ways of obtaining input from the customer. I don’t want to get into how to collect information in this article, as that would be fodder for a whole different series of articles. However, if you don’t currently have a mechanism, try this approach: Pick three to seven of your biggest and most influential customers and call them or invite them to visit you.

Ask them these questions or other questions like these:

  1. How can we serve you better?
  2. What do we do in our process/product that causes you issues, challenges and problems?
  3. What would make us your No. 1 preferred vendor of choice?

Be prepared for price and cost to come up and be a part of the discussion. You will have to choose how to respond to this question, and you and your team need to be ready.

Next, talk with some of the internal managers and leadership. Check with accounting to see if there are things on which you should focus. Sometimes the trends can hide the details. Maybe there is an uptick in one area but a downward trend in another area. In this case the bottom line doesn’t change much, so you probably should look into what is driving the numbers up and down. Other places to look include vendors and purchasing, quality, distribution and warehousing, and sales.

Finally, talk with internal team members, informal leaders and managers. There is a wealth of information in every organization if you only take time to ask the questions and listen to the answers. Ask the internal members:

  • What issues do they struggle with?
  • What makes their jobs hard?
  • What should you improve?
  • What would make them happier to come to work?
  • How could you make their particular process more efficient?

Hopefully, you get the idea that you need to sort through and seek out input from several perspectives. The more places you look, the more comprehensive (and meaningful) the list will be. Remember, the driving force behind this is to develop a three-, six-, nine- or 12-month CI plan. Maybe this is an annual planning session to develop the Lean Six Sigma plan for the year.

The point is that you are developing your plan for improving the business in several key areas. This is a serious effort that will to some degree determine where you will spend your time, effort and resources.

Now that you have a plan, or at least a framework for the plan, you must line up the resources necessary to drive that plan and ensure that you will be successful. You need to get the right people around the table to ensure that you have buy-in and that the leadership team is going to support the plan with resources, support, time and attention.

Hopefully, since you have asked them what it is that they want you to accomplish, you have developed a plan that these folks will support. This is called alignment. Alignment means that the team in a company, division or plant agrees to support the plan and the initiatives, both tactically speaking and strategically. If you have been diligent in reaching out to people and ensuring that their thoughts, ideas and issues are represented, you should have fantastic alignment. If not, you probably have a plan with very little support.

As you are talking with different factions of the organization, you should be looking for overlap or multiple people talking about the same issue. In other words, you may hear the same issue from several different perspectives. For example, you might overhear the accountant talking about how much inventory is being carried and the manufacturing manager talking about running out of space. This is probably the same problem from two different directions.

The solution(s) to this problem will most likely solve two problems, but it will also be a large problem to tackle. The places where you have the most overlap are where you will have the most alignment and the largest potential for success.

Also, realize that while you hear about a problem, you will have to study and understand the baseline of the situation. Where do you stand now? What is the situation at present day, and what has the trend done over the trailing 12 months?

Once you have the plan and the people sitting around the table talking about the plan, look around the room and ask them: “Will you support this plan and help drive the success of this effort?” Until you get a “yes” from each stakeholder, the meeting isn’t done and you are still in the planning phase of the plan, do, check, act (PDCA) cycle.

In summary, you must have a comprehensive plan for your CI effort. Reach out to stakeholders (both internal and external to the organization) to gain buy-in, alignment and ownership. Articulate what it is you are trying to accomplish in SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) terms. You then will have specific targets that should yield significant impact to your business.

Hopefully, you have some high-level goals and objectives, such as:

  • Reduce overall cost by 7 percent
  • Improve output by 9 percent
  • Reduce lead time by 14 percent
  • Reduce lost-time accidents by 7 percent
  • Improve quality (measured by first-pass yield) by 9 percent
  • Improve on-time delivery to John’s House of Widgets by 11 percent
  • Reduce inventory on-hand by 10 percent
  • Reduce cost of manufacture by 4.5 percent

The next question is how are you going to implement the plan? What should you do next? Where do you start? The first step is to see where you are currently. You may have heard the phrase “baseline.” Where are you today specifically with the data?

Next, you are going to enter into the “do” phase of the PDCA cycle.

Some potential places to start:

  1. Value stream map
  2. Road map
  3. Scorecard (if the data is the same as the goals and objectives)
  4. Lean audit (think in terms of the principles of lean that Dr. James Womack outlined in his books)
    • Value
    • Value stream
    • Flow
    • Pull
    • Culture

This last one may be hard to put together in the short term. If you choose that route, ask around to see if you can find a lean audit that you can use without creating one.

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