Larry Fast
December 12, 2016

The Fast Lane: The Discontinuous Continuous Improvement Journey

Mapping the continuous improvement journey

Why do so many operations in so many companies commit to a career-long Continuous Improvement (CI) journey only to go into the side ditch in less than 5 years? 

I've not seen any new surveys, but the latest I recall was in 2010 which showed the vast majority of CI  journeys stalled out in 2-3 years.  These companies are either in the process of "restarting" what's intended to be a continuous journey or else it is the beginning of abandoning the whole idea.  Less than 5% had sustained and were still on the original journey 10 years later! 

In one of my workshops I start by asking how many in the audience are working in a company that has an active CI process.  Usually the number of hands that go up represent from 90-100% of the attendees.  When I ask how many have had a restart (or multiple restarts!) I record their current streak of CI.  Most are in the 2-3 year time frame.  I go up in increments of < 3 years,  3-5 years, 6-8, etc. until I ask for a show of hands of those who have not had any restarts and are sustaining since their journey started more than 10 years ago.  In a workshop of 20 it's typically zero or one hand which continues to make the point.

I'm aware, as perhaps you are, of companies that have made good new businesses by starting a consulting arm to share their processes for CI around the globe.  I've also been in some of their factories as a visitor or during conference tours.  Even great companies that have a solid process with which to drive CI have facilities that look and people that behave in a very traditional way;  i.e. there is clear evidence that the people aren't engaged, the shop floor isn't well organized, metrics boards are way out of date, symptoms of local leadership that don't "get it", etc.  There's also no palpable culture of continuous improvement when you walk through the plant.  These kinds of examples are simply evidence of how easily parts of the business can wander off to a different agenda if there aren't clear expectations, follow up/support by the boss and accountability throughout the structure of organization.

Leadership and Operational Excellence

These examples and many others draw me to only one logical conclusion:  The commonality in every case is a failure of leadership from the Board Room to the shop floor or the back office and everywhere in between.  Continuous Improvement by any other name (lean, agile, 6 sigma, etc.) requires strong and aligned leadership from top to bottom with unyielding expectations to achieve and sustain operational excellence throughout the company, all global locations.  It's all about leadership. It's ALWAYS all about leadership!

For example, here are some of the most common and most harmful symptoms and causes of failures to achieve and sustain operational excellence from the top down:

  • The Board of Directors often does not understand the initiative, the "all-in" commitment it takes, what is necessary to be done and how key their advocacy is to make CI a reality. Their role is to hold the CEO accountable to ensure the CI process is robust and is sustained, including during changes of CEOs.
  • C-suite functional leaders often don't understand the initiative and tend to think it's something the Operations team does, not them. As a result, they under-communicate the vision, the strategy and "the whys" for  making the necessary changes.  They don't feel accountable personally so they tend to stay on the sideline often feigning support in front of the boss but otherwise initiating no functional objectives for CI.  These people are passive supporters at best and blockers at worst.
  • Senior leaders fail to change their own thinking and behaviors and don't set the proper example for everyone else. A common root cause is that they don't really know what to do differently.   Senior leaders need training and mentorship too!  But since those down a level or two in the organization may lack the courage to try "managing up" these senior people, no education and training follows.  Often everyone in the business receives training except the most senior leaders.  The better solution is for senior leaders to read themselves up to speed on the kind of support and resources that are required and what behavior changes are critical to making CI a career-long success.  Better yet, they should take the initiative and have their own people train them and openly discuss what they need from the boss.  If CI is not one of the top 3 strategies of the company, then that in itself speaks volumes to the masses who are looking up the organization chart for real evidence of commitment, support and change.
  • Lack of alignment by senior leaders of all functions. The Board and the CEO have to make it perfectly clear:  The voting is over.  Everyone needs to get aligned and to get going!  The battle cry from one of my factories 20 years ago ended up becoming the battle cry of the company:  "We carry our wounded but we shoot the stragglers".  It's important to get those not aligned out of the way.  Do it the right way, of course, but get them out.  Your best people are watching to see if you're serious and committed.
  • Organization changes within operations cause loss of focus and often the abandonment of the existing successful CI processes. What's the onboarding process for new operations managers, Directors and VPs?  Same issues as noted above.  Do new leaders get "to vote" or are they expected to get trained up and follow the CI path that you're already on?  They are not to stop thinking or bringing their skills to bear.  But they must stay within the process that the company has chosen to achieve and sustain excellence.
  • Operations leaders fail to create the soft infrastructure necessary to achieve excellence and sustain the gains. My experience is that many leaders, once they reach the Director/VP/SVP/EVP levels, tend to leave the "deep-diving" to those well down the organization structure.  While it's appropriate for the lowest level, capable person to do the work, the thinking that goes into it needs higher level interest and guidance.  It's an opportunity to help ensure the desired outcome by providing the business context for the project and to answer questions, e.g. why is this important?  What outcome are we looking for?  Are complimentary systems integrated?  How does the system work today?  How will it work better tomorrow?
  • Operations VPs and Directors are not hands-on enough to lead the engagement of their people and to lead the culture change necessary to achieve and sustain excellence.  There are too many "fly-by" site visits skimming across the surface of issues and too few in-depth visits to really understand what's going on in the operation.  A greater understanding is critical so the right, penetrating questions can be asked and answered and appropriate follow up conversations and assistance can be provided.

On March 21, 2017, at the Business Transformation & Operational Excellence World Summit, I'll be presenting a workshop entitled:  The Dis-Continuous Improvement Journey.  Here we'll talk about these common disconnects throughout the leadership ranks that contribute to the ultimate demise of well-intended but poorly executed CI journeys.  Chances are very good that your company suffers from some or many of the maladies we'll be discussing.  Hopefully, some will bring positive stories examples of C-level participation.  I'll be sharing my own experiences about the disconnects both as a former operations executive as well as from my 10 years as a consultant, author and leadership coach. I'll be inviting your participation in the 90 minutes we'll have together.  Hopefully you will leave with renewed energy for the purposeful, relentless mindset that's required to achieve and sustain excellence.  Perhaps you'll hear ideas of how to help your companies take pre-emptive counter measures to avoid or correct the pitfalls over the long haul.

This workshop is intended for the company's senior leaders, i.e. CEO, Corporate Leadership Team members, VPs and Directors of Operations/Manufacturing.  I hope to see some of you there.

This article is the first of Larry's new exclusive BTOES Insights series, 'The Fast Lane to Operational Excellence'. Subscribe to stay up to date on Larry's articles!

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