Every industry seems to have its silver bullet for creating improvement. If you know the buzzwords and “tools” for the system of choice you can become a guru, sitting on top of the mountain dispensing golden pearls of wisdom for all to wonder at. At least, that’s the idea. My particular improvement soapbox is Lean Management with some Six Sigma thrown in for good measure. A good friend of mine recently introduced me to the Art of Agile Development for software projects. The principles can be applied to anything, just like Lean and Six Sigma.
Applying any methodology isn’t about adhering to rules and routine implementations, it’s about developing a sense of what is right and doing it. The authors state, “It’s about simplicity and feedback, communications and trust…It’s about delivering value – and having the courage to do the right thing at the right time.” With that being said I’d like to share my thoughts on what causes some improvement efforts to succeed and others to fail.

Implementing Improvement Initiatives

1.    A transformational idea requires transformation. Too many times businesses want to apply a paradigm to only one or two functional areas and expect to see tremendous results, but when a new monster raises it’s head that pet project is forgotten. Applying portions of an improvement program can result in catching some low hanging fruit and eventually result in localized improvement, but if the concept is not applied systemically the results can be temporary. The pebble dropped in that corporate pond will have unanticipated ripple effects that may be more disastrous than if nothing had been done at all. If it’s a systemic tool, the entire system needs to understand and apply the principles holistically, otherwise it will fall like so many other pet projects, and there are likely to be casualties. Lesson: If it’s not systemic it’s temporary, and at best partially effective.


2.    There is nothing that is truly new. I love finding the right tool for the job, whether it’s fixing my car or managing change at a major corporation. Few tools are perfect out of the box, so you may be tempted to look for something new. TED Talks covers a presentation by Kirby Ferguson where he presented an idea about remixes, it’s worth the time to view. His ideas aren’t new, just, uh…remixed. He states that innovation is really just a remix of existing parts. A remix requires you to copy, transform, and combine things in a new way. Believe it or not Toyota DIDN’T invent Lean. Kiichiro Toyoda embraced, copied, transformed, and combined concepts developed by his predecessors to provide a “new” concept that companies now aspire to. Their improvements were a remix. Lesson: Don’t force your business to conform. Learn the principles, apply them as taught, then “remix”.


3.    You’re doing it wrong. This is a basic principle of improvement. If you wince at the words, you’re not ready for ANY major improvement exercise. You have to be able to assume that your current practices and principles are inefficient, ineffective, and incomplete before you are truly willing to embrace change. It is imperative to understand that perfection is an iterative process rather than a destination. Get it right, then assume it’s wrong and look at it again. Change will become easier and the need to “reinvent” yourself will soon give way to small improvements with incremental gains. You’ll never get everybody to understand this concept, but it’s important that you understand it. Lesson: You can be humble, and confident, and successful.


4.    You are what you measure. Employees perform to the measurements that are applied to their work. Identify the measurements that are driving ineffective practices. It will be tricky to drive change because they are likely the CEO’s “dashboard metrics”. Start with the measurements (often in the finance department) and work your way to the line level employees. Many measurements are sacred to the board or other metric owners. Feel free to refer the metric owner to point number 3, after you have developed a meaningful alternative. Lesson: Research, be right, and present meaningful measurements that drive correct behavior.


5.    You will succeed incrementally. I don’t like the word “fail”. I don’t believe in failing, I believe in incremental success. Implementing Lean, or Six Sigma, or Agile, or any other improvement tool requires learning, practice, revelation, realization, and modification. These steps take time. The best learning comes from observing mistakes (Hopefully observing the mistakes of others!) and debriefing afterwards. Take the small successes to the bank and turn the challenges into lessons learned, then demonstrate progress. My preferred method is to apply a principle 100% by the book until I’m practiced. Then I “remix it” to meet my needs. Just like repetitive practice develops muscle memory in athletes, it develops concept assimilation in improvement projects. Once you’ve assimilated a concept, you can innovate and apply it. Then you can write a book about it and somebody will mention you in a blog. Lesson: Successful change takes time and isn’t without setbacks. Set realistic expectations.

What challenges have you overcome when implementing improvement initiatives? Are there some we should expect to NOT overcome?

About The Author

Matt Fouts is a Supply Chain professional with over 20 years of experience in managing change internationally in various roles on both sides of the supplier/customer table. Matt is always looking for opportunities to identify best practices. He is currently living in the Salt Lake City, UT area and open to new opportunities.