If an organization could choose only one method for unlocking value quickly, what approach should rise to the top of the list? If a company could adopt only one method for shaping its culture toward continuous improvement, what tool should it use? The answer to both questions is Work-out.

Work-out certainly should not be the only process improvement tool employed – far from it. The power and utility of Lean Six Sigma and Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) and other analytically intensive methodologies are unquestioned, and these tools have generated enormous value in a wide variety of settings. But, perhaps because of its relative simplicity, Work-out is often underemphasized – and underutilized – as complement to these well-proven approaches.

No Contradiction: Lasting Improvement and Speed

Work-out is a structured, systematic way to bring people together to develop rapid, lasting improvements in process performance. The improvements are typically implemented in 90 to 120 days. Evaluating Work-out, former GE CEO Jack Welch observed, “Trust the people in the organization – the people in the best position to improve a business are the people in the job every day.” This reflection goes to the heart of what makes Work-out so powerful. By design it engages the best thinking of the those in the organization who are closest to the processes, who “live them” daily and who invariably have a lot of ideas for improvement. They just have not been asked to contribute in a structured way that ensures their best ideas get implemented and supported.

A Work-out starts by setting a specific, measurable challenge and goal (clearly linked to strategic priorities), identifying the cross-functional set of participants who need to be involved, and by collecting relevant data prior to the Work-out event. While planning and preparation usually takes four to six weeks and implementation occurs over 90 days, the Work-out event itself takes only two to three days.

Structure, Roles and Responsibilities in a Work-out

A Work-out session has well-defined roles and three fairly distinct phases:

  • Design and preparation
  • Conduct the event
  • Implement the decisions

Phase 1: Design and Preparation

The design and preparation phase typically begins four to six weeks prior to the event, and involves engaging senior leaders, or sponsors, for the Work-out session who will directly benefit from its success. Their role is to select the topic and craft a challenge statement for the session which defines clear goals and value to be derived. In this stage, key activities are selecting participants and organizing the event, collecting data, and briefing key players on their roles. The number of participants varies, from 20 to 30 people up to a maximum of 100. Communication with the participants begins now.

Who’s Who in the Work-out Process

To involve large numbers of people simultaneously in process improvement, a variety of roles need to be fulfilled in a carefully orchestrated manner.

Participants: A Work-out’s success depends on the participants. It is their ideas, based on their intimate knowledge of the process, that determine the quality of results. Their role is to be familiar with the intent of the Work-out prior to the event, and come ready to share their best thinking and participate fully in discussions.

Sponsor: The sponsor is the senior manager responsible for identifying the opportunity area on which the event will focus. He or she works closely with the designer and agent in scoping the Work-out (that is, what will be the area examined, what the specific challenge and anticipated value will be, and who should participate). After the event, the sponsor oversees implementation (with help from the agent and action plan drivers). In short, the sponsor has overall responsibility for the success of the Work-out, and for realizing the performance improvements and benefits identified during the event.

Agent: The agent is a usually direct report to the sponsor, and in many ways owns the success of the overall effort. During the event, the agent helps insure common usage among participant teams (for example, consistency in metrics) and identifies issues and opportunities that may need to be broached to the decision-making panel members prior to the events conclusion. The agent plays a critical role in implementation to ensure progress occurs and recommendations are executed.

Drivers: Drivers lay out the steps for individual action plans and the timing for implementation of approved recommendations. They ensure that agreed actions are completed on time, and that any incremental resources needed are identified and that roadblocks are removed.

Designer: A Work-out designer can be used to provide expert assistance to the sponsor and agent to ensure that the Work-out is carefully scoped, including a challenge that is neither too broad nor too narrow, identifying what data and access to experts participants may be needed, and working closely with the sponsor and agent to ensure the right people are selected as participants. In addition to providing hands on assistance in scoping, the designer can play a quality control role to ensure that Work-outs across businesses have the essential ingredients to support success. Often, the designer also is the lead facilitator for the event.

Lead facilitator: This person acts as a master of ceremonies for the event itself, introducing the agenda and the players, and running the event to ensure it stays to schedule. The lead facilitator works with the agent to ensure consistency and overall quality, and conducts the decision-making panel discussions that conclude the event.

Facilitators: Typically, much of the work in an event will take place in teams of participants, each of which with an assigned facilitator assigned. The facilitators provide process support – not content. (In fact, in-house facilitators should generally come from a different business unit to help enable this.) Their role is to facilitate structured team discussion, act as scribe and provocateur, and help the team shape, document and prepare for their presentations to the decision-making panel.

Decision-making panel: The panel is comprised of the sponsor and up to four other senior managers. At the conclusion of the event, they will hear the recommendations from the teams, ask questions for clarification as needed, and give an immediate yes or no decision to specific proposals. Along with the sponsor, they share responsibility for providing implementation oversight, and removing any obstacles to successful execution of approved recommendations.

A key output from this phase is a succinct scoping document that lays the groundwork for a successful event and includes at least the following:

The challenge and expected value to be derived: A brief statement that clearly captures the whats and whys of the Work-out. This must represent realistic stretch goals in a part of the business recognized by participants to be an important opportunity area – neither too broad nor too narrow.

Scope: A description of the areas and sub-topics explicitly in scope, with clarity around what the participants should not consider (for example, longer term systems fixes, or capital investments over a stated amount).

Leadership and logistics: Identification of the sponsor(s) proposing the challenge, proposed dates and venue (generally off-site).

Participants: Identification of team members, facilitators, and persons with ad hoc expertise who will be directly involved in the event and the implementation phase.

Decision-making panel: Identification of the group of five or fewer (typically three) who will have the authority to make on-the-spot decisions on recommendations within the Work-out scope.

Stakeholder considerations and perceived risks: Description of organizational and environmental realities identified as relevant to producing the optimal set of recommendations that can be practically implemented within 90 days.

Phase 2: Conduct the Event

The event itself is a carefully orchestrated process aimed at capturing all possible ideas relevant to the challenge, and moving down a funnel through prioritization, selection and careful documentation/presentation, so that the outcome is a manageable number of realistic action plans that collectively deliver against the challenge statement. A typical high-level agenda for a three-day Work-out event might include the following elements:

Day 1:
Identify Problems and Opportunities

  • Introduction/sponsor remarks/challenge statement
  • SIPOC (supplier, input, process, output, customer) (high level process map)
    • Who supplies inputs to the process?
    • What specifications are placed on the inputs?
    • Who are the true customers of the process?
    • What are the requirements of the customers?
  • Gallery of ideas
  • Problem definition

Day 2:
Find Solutions

  • Root cause analysis
  • Solution generation and selection (prioritization)
  • Presentation production (with clear guidelines)

Day 3:
Decide on recommendations/launch implementation

  • Finalize presentations
  • Refine and rehearse
  • Conduct decision panel

The gallery of ideas on Day 1 is a structured brainstorming session, where the outputs are grouped to be worked on by breakout teams. Facilitators lead the teams in crafting specific problem statements, generating and prioritizing solutions (including costs, benefits, and risks), and defining specific action plans to guide their execution. Dividing participants into several teams and then conducting team-on-team sessions sharpen the work and ensure input from all of the participants as they work toward clear and compelling recommendations for the decision-making panel.

The decision-making stage is conducted so that clear yes or no decisions emerge (with an occasional “yes, subject to the following modification” – a decision subject to the team’s concurrence).

Phase 3: Implement the Decisions

The third phase of a Work-out spans the 90-plus days following the event, during which the “agent” for the Work-out stays in close contact with “drivers” for each of the action plans, to ensure the plans stay on track and the drivers receive whatever support they need to drive full implementation. Sponsors and the decision making panel members are kept informed with status updates at least every 30 days and a formal review at the project end date.

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