Why do some improvement efforts succeed while others fail? What actions do some companies take to ensure that improvement efforts are successful? Do other companies’ efforts fail because of a lack of action? Think about the following factors when embarking on an improvement effort in your company.
Leadership must be committed and demonstrate interest in the improvement process. This cannot be emphasized enough. Company leaders need to demonstrate a real interest in doing things better and participate in the training and planning of the necessary improvements. Leaders need to be more than just supportive; they need to be cheerleaders. The moment key leaders lose interest or give the appearance of losing interest, they have delivered the message “this is not that important.” Having participated in numerous continuous improvement efforts, I can tell you that when a leader misses a training class or project planning meeting, you will see eyes rolling, feel a drop in enthusiasm and hear comments such as “here we go again.”
Make time available for the improvements to take hold. Time must be allocated for a new process to take effect, practicing quick change-over techniques or even cleaning and organizing the workplace. Improvements typically do not happen without practice and a certain amount of on-the-job effort. Although everyone is busy, there must be a commitment to making time available for improvement.
Bite off not only what you can chew, but also what you can swallow. Organizations often get paralyzed by trying to tackle too much at once. These organizations would be better off taking “smaller bites” and having immediate success. Some people say that success breeds more success. However, if the first achievement takes too long to realize, people will become discouraged. By identifying pilot projects with a high chance of success, the company can experience these victories more quickly. I recently worked with a company that looked at all the process improvement projects it had in the works and realized there were more than 40 of them. To make things worse, all of these projects were assigned to the same five people who all had other full-time responsibilities. Things were not moving along as expected, and the reason for this was very obvious.
Stay on target with the message and avoid mixed signals. Companies need to say what they are trying to do (communication) and then do what they say (action). Company leadership communicating the need for the improvement in one manner, then acting in another manner makes success all the more difficult. Mixed messages are one of the most frustrating things workers encounter.
Recently, I was running a setup reduction program where the people seemed unusually disinterested. During one of the breaks (which could not come soon enough for me) I spoke with one of the employees and found out that this was not the first time the company had recognized the need for reducing setup times. In fact, about 2 years earlier, the team came up with some creative improvements that reduced setup time. The company introduced a quick change-over program that yielded good results. However, at the conclusion of the program, the company initiated a cost-saving practice of sending employees home whenever there was a lack of work. Perhaps this action was based in sound fiscal logic, but it was a real dagger to the heart of the setup time reduction effort (or any productivity improvement effort). The equipment setup personnel realized that if they completed setups too soon then there was a chance they could be sent home, so they tended to stretch out the work to maintain their hours (and paychecks). The result was that the setup times actually became longer, and the company leaders decided that quick change-over techniques did not work at their company.
Follow up on commitments made. Change does not happen by hoping it will. Change happens when it is supported and monitored. If leaders do not follow up on stated commitments, then it is extremely unlikely that the improvement program will be successful. Leaders must be willing to stay current with commitments to ensure that the improvement effort stays on target. If commitments are not maintained, then some encouragement and restating of the importance of the effort may be warranted. After that, follow up, and, when necessary, follow up again.