iSixSigma

Follow a Structured Approach to Continuous Improvement

The need to deploy a continuous improvement (CI) program is greater than ever. In the global financial meltdown, companies must find ways to produce goods and services cheaper, faster and better, while continuously delighting customers.

In an effort to catch up, companies may be tempted to launch extensive training programs or start multiple improvement projects with too little thought and planning. But a hasty, incomplete approach to the deployment of a CI program is the perfect recipe for disaster and unachieved potential. Instead, organizations can follow a simple framework – the Awareness-Motivation-Competency-Implementation (AMCI) approach – to deploy a CI program that will help maintain structure but also achieve results.

Building a House of Continuous Improvement

The framework identifies four pillars of CI infrastructure and examines what needs to be done to strengthen each of these pillars. The four pillars that make up the house of continuous improvement are:

  • Employee awareness of the need for improving the way of working rather than simply doing the work
  • Employee motivation to actually take part in the improvement process and projects in addition to their routine work
  • Employee competency to effectively take part in the improvement process and projects
  • Employee implementation of improvement project

The house of continuous improvement rests on these four pillars; if one is weak, the house may collapse under its own weight. Thus, careful planning and action must go into strengthening each pillar.

Ensure a Strong Foundation

Organizations embarking on CI programs can take a number of steps to improve the strength of each pillar.

Awareness

“Any company trying to compete must figure out a way to engage the mind of every employee,” Jack Welch, the former GE chairman, once said. Thus, awareness of the need for improvement must be hardwired in the minds of each employee. Some of the more common methods companies adopt to do this include:

  • Poster campaigns
  • Screen savers
  • Suggestion box programs
  • Improvement newsletters
  • Publishing results of internal and external benchmarking
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Motivation

Awareness alone is not enough to bring meaningful change to an organization’s CI culture. Employees must be motivated to make improvements above and beyond their normal work. There is no silver bullet for motivating employees – senior managers must determine what works best through constant trial and error. Many find setting stretch targets and then recognizing and rewarding the team on achieving those targets to be effective. Motivating rank and file for CI is an absolute necessity. W. Edwards Deming, the statistician and management consultant, realized this decades earlier: “Put everyone in the organization to work to accomplish the transformation. Transformation is everybody’s job.”

Competency

Aware and motivated employees may still fail to deliver on an improvement initiative or projects if they are not equipped with the right skills and knowledge. Many organizations either overdo training or have misdirected training efforts. Instead, they should identify the exact skills required for the problems at hand and the type of improvements that must be delivered, and tailor the training courses accordingly. For instance, an organization faced with operational problems that need only a low level of data analysis may only need employees trained in a method such as structured problem solving, rather than a statistics-heavy DMAIC program.

Organizations also should ensure they are using an education system that encourages innovation and creative thinking to help their chances of discovering solutions for problems.

Implementation

Once the other three pillars – awareness, motivation and competency – are adequately addressed, organizations must concentrate on actually implementing improvements. As Joseph Juran, founder of the Juran Institute, once remarked, “Improvement must happen project by project and in no other way.” Therefore, creating an environment where all the project ideas are captured, collated and evaluated before the right ones are implemented is necessary for a successful CI program. Many organizations use software tools to help with project tracking, but it is equally important for leaders to conduct workshops, coach employees and work to align projects with senior management goals to trigger the optimum number of improvement projects. Additionally, when the projects actually start, close monitoring and review are necessary to ensure success.

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Maintaining Success

While these four pillars may be implemented chronologically at the start of the improvement journey, mature programs must address them simultaneously. Additionally, every organization should build a maturity scale for the pillars based both on the various activities that need to be done in each of the four areas and the results expected and achieved. Organizations also should conduct periodic (quarterly or semiannual) assessments of the maturity and take corrective actions as necessary. For example, to assess the awareness quotient of CI program, an organization may survey its employees. The survey can contain questions to gauge the employees’ awareness of improvement activities.

The success of CI programs based on Lean and Six Sigma depends on meticulous planning and continuously monitoring and adjusting several parameters of the program. It is like flying an airplane though the mountains in a turbulent weather condition with heavy rains and very little visibility. To be successful, just like an adroit pilot, the program manager must not simply depend on gut instincts, but rather simultaneously monitor the vital key indicators and adjust interventions accordingly. The AMCI approach to CI deployment helps both in charting the roadmap and also in indentifying those critical few lead indicators.

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