The topic of this blog is a question that we get quite often. Teams will implement a continuous improvement program with much enthusiasm and tons of activity, but over time, the momentum slows, and new opportunities for improvement come less and less frequently. If you are in this boat, you are definitely not alone.
Because so many folks have experienced and talked to us about this, we have some advice.
Let's start with two things not to do.
Don't Assume that Everything Must Be Fine
When companies first launch improvement initiatives, especially if they have a strong culture that encourages employees to share their ideas, most collect a lot of ideas for improvement. There are usually things that have bothered people for years, but they just didn't have the invitation or mechanism to flag the issue. When employees are offered a platform for getting these problems addressed, they use it.
But after a while, all of the "low hanging fruit" problems are reported. Processes start to improve, and fewer apparent opportunities are out there. Does that mean that all is well? Not at all.
The old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," does not apply to continuous improvement. "Not broke," isn't the goal (although it is a good first step).
The goal is perfect.
Unless you can validate that all processes are performing at the optimum level, there are opportunities to be found.
The fact that fewer opportunities are being submitted does not mean that continuous improvement has failed at your organization, and all hope is lost. It might be due to the cycle we just described, and it's actually a good sign that you're ready to move to a more in-depth phase of improvement.
It might also be an indicator that there is a cultural problem that needs to be addressed. In either case, the volume of opportunities being logged is data that you can use to remove the friction.
Now, what should you do?
Try to Find the Root Cause
A dip in the number of reported opportunities for improvement is much like any other process anomaly. The first thing to do is to try to identify the root cause. In this case, that means looking at the data to see if the drop involves any one department or team, or perhaps one or more opportunity types. That may tell you something about what has changed.
The next step, of course, is to talk to the employees. Are there certain people that used to submit opportunities who have stopped? That's worth a conversation about why. Perhaps there has been turnover and the new employees are not as comfortable submitting ideas. Or maybe, people do believe that the major problems have been solved and they're not pushing themselves to go to the next level.
There may be more than one cause, but the better you understand the situation, the more effectively you can react.
Spend More Time in the Gemba
The practice of going to the Gemba (the place where work is done) to observe and show respect is essential when improvement activity starts to slow. Not only might the manager herself observe an opportunity for improvement, but she may also find impediments to employees collecting and submitting ideas.
Do a Standard Work Refresh
If a process is working well enough that employees aren't asking to change it, revisiting the Standard Work might break loose a few great ideas. During a Standard Work refresh, the people who operate the process should first verify that what is actually being done is consistent with the current Standard Work. Next, they should review each step in the process and discuss possible improvements. A PDSA or DMAIC cycle can help evaluate changes that may eventually make it into new the new Standard.
Be Sure You Are Broadcasting Success
When improvement work is going fast and furious, it's easy to forget to recognize and congratulate those people who have been most engaged. This is even more important when the pace slows down. When employees see others acknowledged for their work, they are more likely to engage. Using software to measure the impact of improvements helps in this area because people can be shown the very tangible results of their extra effort.
There will almost always be ebbs and flows within improvement programs. Still, if you've noticed a drop in activity, it's important to take action to understand the issue and remove any barriers. These ideas are an excellent place to start.