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Everything Continuous Improvement


Should Lean Tools Be Used for Every Improvement?

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Oct 14, 2019 10:11:31 AM

When I first saw this tweet from our resident Lean and Six Sigma expert and author, Mark Graban, I thought that he made an excellent point. Sometimes we get caught up in all of the sophisticated improvement tools at our disposal like value stream maps, Kaizen events, A3s, heck, even continuous improvement software that we fail to make or adequately recognize small improvements that don’t require tools.

But when I reread it, I was struck by the line, “This small improvement didn’t require a belt, root cause analysis, or a project champion.” Nope. Recognizing that the speakers were not in the ideal location and finding a way to solve that problem didn’t require any fancy techniques at all.

But what did it require? There are some prerequisites that are necessary to make even a simple improvement like this one possible.

The ability to recognize the problem

Whoever put the tape on the floor was paying close attention and realized that something could be better about the presentation. Perhaps the problem was really obvious, or maybe this person had years of experience with this kind of event, but either way, they knew something was amiss.

This ability to recognize an opportunity for improvement is harder to come by than many people think. Employees who operate processes in organizations can become so blind to inefficiency and other problems that they don’t know that anything is wrong. This is especially pervasive in organizations where “We’ve always done it this way” is a common refrain.

It is great to arm employees with tools like root cause analysis, and DMAIC, but the first step is to help folks learn to notice when something is amiss. That depends on…

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The desire for perfection

People often look at us strangely when we say that the goal of continuous improvement is perfection. We all know that perfection is impossible, so why even talk about it? But the search for perfection is essential to finding and fixing problems. If the bar for improving a process is that it isn’t working at all, employees will probably tell you that improvement isn’t necessary. If the bar is perfection, you can bet they’ve got a list of what isn’t optimal.

The first part of that conference probably wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t perfect. If nothing had been done about where the presenters were standing, everything would have been OK. But, the hero of this tweet wasn’t happy with good enough. Ideally, your employees won’t be either.

A sense of empowerment

Our quick thinker didn’t need a committee or permission to apply this simple solution to the problem, but they did need to believe that they were capable and empowered to jump right in. There are a bunch of reasons that not all employees feel this way. The biggest one is fear, fear of being viewed as a trouble-maker for pointing out problems, fear of negative consequences for speaking out, and fear that the solution will fail.

This is why we talk so much about developing an improvement culture. When people see problem-solving modeled and rewarded, the fear shrinks, and they become more willing to take the risk of speaking up. You can’t just give lip service to creative thinking applied to problems, however. People will recognize if it isn’t authentic and shut down.

I was initially going to call this post, “Sometimes the best Lean tool is no tool at all,” but this person had tools.

Essential ones.

(And tape. You've got to have tape.)


Topics: Lean, Improvement Culture

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