The CEO of a $1 billion business with sales and marketing affiliates in Europe, the Middle East and Africa asked the question, “When one of my affiliated businesses makes improvements, how do I get the benefits across all my businesses without having to wait for people to reinvent the wheel?” His question stimulated those responsible for process excellence in his business to find a way to replicate best practices while avoiding the “not invented here” syndrome or the negative consequences of benchmarking (“Why aren’t you as good as your peers?”).
They determined that isolated improvements can be successfully replicated company wide by creating opportunities for employees to:
- Recognize that their improvement needs are common throughout the company.
- Discover that proven solutions already exist within the company.
The approach they developed to leverage improvement encourages employees to “steal with pride” from their own company.
Experience shows that the business impact of an initial improvement can be multiplied five to seven times within six months when leveraging is applied. For example, a Six Sigma Green Belt project that delivers a $75,000 business benefit typically produces a $500,000 impact if it can be leveraged.
Selecting Which Ideas to Leverage
Improvement leveraging will seem counter-cultural to those schooled in structured approaches to solving problems in which root causes are analyzed and solutions are then developed. Leveraging is not just a jump from symptom to solution. It is a solution in search of a common problem.
Best suited for leveraging are solutions for problems that are widespread within an organization. Management should look for problems in processes that are performed throughout the business, such as invoicing, forecasting sales or responding to customer inquiries.
Companies that are geographically dispersed are excellent candidates for improvement leveraging. Sales and marketing affiliates are typically smaller businesses with limited resources constantly juggling the increasing demands of customers and of the parent corporation. They are eager to take and adopt practical ideas that require minimal investment, especially those already proven by their peers to work.
Capturing Management’s Interest and Commitment
Once a set of solutions to leverage is found, the inventors of the solutions and all the company’s general managers are brought together in a “gallery walk.” Here a dozen or more ideas are presented simultaneously. Inventors of each idea display it in poster board format, showing the logic that led to the solution (e.g., the structured problem-solving approach used, such as DMAIC). The general managers circulate in this ballroom-setting from one presentation to another at 10-minute intervals. They use the following questions to zero in on the ideas most relevant and applicable to their business:
- Does the idea address a problem or opportunity I have?
- Does the “before” process look similar to my current process?
- Are the conditions for success, such as enabling technologies, in place or readily available?
- Are the people who would be involved in adopting the solution open to new ideas?
- Would the business benefits be comparable for us – or higher, or lower?
The temptation is to take “home” for implementation as many ideas as possible. However, it is best to select just one to take to the next stage of leveraging. This gives the recipient organization a chance to practice the leveraging process and work on the associated change management issues. Not unlike a transplant operation, it is the receptivity of the host organization that determines success.
Developing Ownership of the Improvement
Back at their business, each general manager reviews the findings with their staff. Once they have concurred on improvement to leverage, a sponsor and project leader are named. In smaller affiliate organizations, the sponsor is often a direct report to the general manager. The project leader is typically the manager whose responsibility it will be to run the process day-to-day. It is reasonable to expect the three-month transfer process to take about 20 percent of the project leader’s time.
Leveraging Workshop Agenda
- Review the participant pre-work in “gallery walk” style.
- Present original idea – from symptom to solution.
- Simulate the solution – walk through the recommended process step by step.
- Develop recipient organization implementation plans, building on pre-work:
- “to be” process
- stakeholder analysis
- risk analysis
- cost-benefit analysis
- communication plans
- implementation milestones
- 90-day deliverables
The sponsor and team leader will meet with the inventor at a leveraging workshop to develop the 90-day implementation plan. Each workshop is a single three-day event with as many as four recipient organizations represented. An important demonstration of the commitment to implement, rather than window-shop, is the workshop pre-work. Each participating business is asked to develop the following:
- Project brief (terms of reference or charter) that describes the problem to be solved and scope of inquiry as well as expected date of completion.
- Business case that estimates the cost savings and/or revenue enhancement compared with the investment necessary to implement the idea.
- A high level process map (SIPOC in Six Sigma parlance) that describes the current process in the recipient organization.
- An estimate of the current process effectiveness and efficiency (yield).
- Analysis of those whose support will be necessary to succeed – the stakeholders.
- Review of what will help and hinder implementing the new idea (force field analysis).
- Risk analysis that identifies possible risks and ways to mitigate them.
The pre-work is gathered and reviewed by whoever is coordinating the leveraging initiative (e.g., regional process excellence leader). Experience shows that some coaching is needed if those involved have not had prior experience with structured approaches to process improvement. Each participant is asked to summarize their pre-work in poster board format like the one used in the gallery walk.
Conducting Leveraging Workshops
The leveraging workshop is typically hosted by the leveraging coordinator accompanied by a facilitator as well as the originator of the idea being leveraged. Given the hands-on nature of the workshop, the number of participants should be limited to 15 or less.
The workshop’s purpose is to prepare each sponsor and project leader for success in adoption of the idea in question. Each participant should come with a detailed understanding of their starting point (“as is” process) and leave with a clear understanding of what should be implemented (“to be” process), and a detailed change management plan for making the idea operational in 90 days.
The participants leave having built up a network of peers who have prepared themselves to take a similar journey, though in different terrains. To stretch the metaphor, the inventor has proven the idea in one environment, the project leaders are test drivers prepared to test and improve the idea under a variety of conditions. The 90-day peer review is an opportunity for the recipient organizations (test drivers) to explain what they have learned, further improving the original idea.
Across three international businesses involving 12 countries, it has been demonstrated that improvement leveraging can multiply the business benefit of a good idea. The best ideas to leverage are those that speak to issues felt by peers across the business. Introduce leveraging by generating interest and enthusiasm at the senior management level. Build on that commitment to appoint a sponsor and project leader for the idea to be developed. Start with just one idea since leveraging is as much about managing change as it is about implementing the idea itself. Insist that the project leader understands the starting point and requirements of the business before starting the leveraging process. Use the workshop as an opportunity to spring board off the work of others as well as an opportunity to build a network of peers facing similar challenges. In the end, leveraging stimulates interest in others who want to be the next to have an idea that is worth stealing.