7 Steps to making sustainment sexy.

adult-streamingOne of the least glamorous activities in process improvement is leaving behind something that will ensure the sustainment of your team’s improvements. In the world of lean Six Sigma (LSS) this is the work most commonly done in the Control phase. Never in the two decades of doing process improvement have I met someone who has told me, “I love putting control mechanisms in place like SOP’s, process flows, and control plans. I can’t wait to spend hours creating documents no one ever looks at or reads.” Leaving behind something to keep a process sustaining a high level of performance is one of the least sexy aspects to LSS. In this post I’ll share some of my experience on why this is, and what you can do to take sustainment from dull unappreciated ineffective work to high impact pinpoint focused actions.

Why there is no sex appeal to sustaining.

My earlier comments may seem sarcastic, but quite often I find that the opposite of what I described tends to be the norm in that no one wants to do the non-sexy work that is typically associated with the Control phase. There is little doubt that this work is of high value in sustaining the improvements, and arguably, sustaining improvement is the main point of any LSS project-so why is this work so hard to do when we know the value it represents?

In the years of doing and helping hundreds of people work on process improvement projects I’ve uncovered a number of reasons why sustainment work can seem about as fulfilling as digging a hole only to fill it back up and dig it again. Let’s start with a definition of the word sustain.

Sustain (suh-steyn) v. 1. to support, hold, or bear up from below; bear the weight of, as a structure. 2. to undergo, experience, or suffer (injury, loss, etc.); endure without giving way. 3. to keep (a person, the mind, etc.) from giving way, as under trial or affliction. 4. to keep up or keep going, as an action or process.

Yup, that sounds about right. Supporting, holding up, structure, suffering, enduring, to keep up or keep going-no wonder no one wants to do this stuff! While this seems a little on the extreme, it in some ways characterizes why so many avoid this type of work, which leads to my top 3 reasons why there is no sex appeal in sustainment.

Sustaining can be laborious time-consuming work.

In many ways getting results from an improvement effort is the easy part, but when it comes to keeping those great result coming the true effort begins in creating a plan and implementing it to keep the good times rolling. There is no question this is work that takes time-time away from other problems and opportunities (the “sexy” stuff). When we have a choice to focus on solving another problem or spending time putting sustainment actions in place to keep the last problem you solved from recurring we often choose the former not the latter.

Many believe sustaining requires documenting everything.

One of the reasons why sustaining can be so laborious is a belief that to keep a process performing at a high level we need to document every detail. In some ways I believe this is just how many of us process improvement experts are wired-something I’ve referred to before as “14 decimal place people“. We are great at what we do because we enjoy the details, but sometimes, many times, the details are not very important in the grand scheme of a project’s overall long term success.

Few people truly appreciate sustainment work.

This may be the biggest reason sustainment work lacks sex appeal. When was the last time a leader in your organization said something like, “Wow, what a great job you did putting together that SOP and process flow to sustain your project’s results. I really liked that section in your SOP on how to enter data correctly.” What leaders reward is what most people in an organization spend their time focused on. Behavioral expert Aubrey Daniels nails it when he says, “Behavior goes where reinforcement flows!”


7 Steps to making sustainment sexy.

The goods news is there is a way to make sustainment activity have greater sex appeal. What I describe next is a simple effective approach to consider the next time you have a project move into the Control phase. Also, keep in mind the goal in these seven steps is to do as little as possible, but yet continue the success of your initial results realized in the Improve phase.

Step 1-Identify critical-to-success actions.

As previously mentioned, far too often we as process improvement experts want to document every detail and step in a process to a microscopic level, but many would agree that not every step in a process has equal weight in achieving our end goal. Some steps are more important than others.

Think about this from a simple analogy of baking a cake. All of us know from experience that baking a cake has a number of steps. If our goal is to make a great tasting cake there are certain steps that are more important than others. For example, the shape, size, and material our pan is made of is a necessary element, but in most cases has very little to do with how great our cake tastes. On the other hand, the ingredients used in the batter and the temperature and time we bake our cake have a much larger impact on making a great tasting cake.

It is no different with the processes we are making improvement to in an organization in that some steps are going to be more critical-to-success than others. From my experience there are typically 2-3 steps that will really stand out in a process that you should focus your sustainment action toward. Sometimes it can also help by noting the critical-to-success actions on your process flow.

Step 2-Identify critical-to-success behaviors.

Once you have identified the actions (process steps) most critical to success then your attention needs to turn to the behaviors of the people doing those actions. Four questions I suggest asking will help you determine if you have gaps between your desired condition and the current condition as it relates to the likelihood of sustaining the improved performance. These questions include:

  1. Do the people performing the actions know what to do?
  2. Do the people performing the actions know how to do it?
  3. Can the people performing the actions actually do it?
  4. Do the people performing the actions want to do it?

Just because you have created a great process doesn’t mean people will do it. These four simple questions will determine if you need to do anything to sustain the effort. In some rare cases you may have all of these questions covered and there is no gap and you can move on to step five, but from my experience there is generally some gap to fill. To dive deeper into these questions check our my previous posts (post 1, post 2).

Step 3-Develop sustainment plan to fill gaps.

This is usually the step that many of us 14 decimal place folks can get carried away and make this process turn into 22 SOP’s, 12 job-aids, 5 training workshops, etc. A modification of a popular acronym (KISS) comes to mind here, but instead of Keep It Simple Stupid I suggest Keep It Sexy to Sustain. Sexy means less, and less often leads to more.

There’s no magic in creating a sustainment plan. The typical what, by who, and by when work fine here. Dig into your LSS toolbox and look for the best tools, methods, etc. to help sustain, but keep in light and start with the minimum needed.

Step 4-Implement sustainment plan.

Implementing is doing and doing it fast! You’ve found some success in the Improve phase with the solutions your team has implemented, and likely you have some momentum going. Capitalize on that momentum by implementing in less than 30 days.

The 30 day window will also ensure a lower degree of complexity is involved. You have to work hard to create something overly complicated that can be done well in less than a month. This can also be a time when your team quits meeting, but instead of slowing the frequency of team sessions I suggest increasing them, but making them shorter “stand up” style sessions focused on brief progress reports and quick action to address road blocks. This is also a great time to get your champion engaged and leverage him or her to provide the positive reinforcement to add some sex appeal to the work-in-progress.

Step 5-Evaluate sustainment plan results.

The big question at this point in the process is-are the actions working? Are people actually doing what they’re supposed to do. A simple “yes/no” evaluation for the actions and behaviors identified in steps one and two work best for evaluating your sustainment plan.

I also suggest taking what Mike McCarthy describes in Sustain Your Gains as “thick-to-thin” evaluations. Change can be difficult for most people, and sustainment is generally about learning new behaviors and eventually making them habits.

After sustainment actions have been implemented more frequent reviews are needed to determine if the actions and behaviors are being done consistently. The evaluations create a great opportunity to praise great work and provide constructive feedback where improvement needs to take place. As time progresses the frequency of evaluations decrease as the new way becomes habit.

A simple analogy I use to illustrate this is brushing your teeth. Chances are your mom and / or dad helped you when you were younger, and every day watched and helped you brush your teeth. Eventually brushing your teeth twice a day became a habit and hopefully this morning your mother didn’t have to call and remind you to brush! In some ways it’s no different with processes inside our organizations in that we need mom and dad (i.e. coworkers, managers, etc.) to guide, coach, evaluate, correct, and praise us that eventually leads to forming a new habit that requires very little conscious effort.

Step 6-Make adjustments as needed.

In a perfect world everything goes according to plan, but my guess is you are not working in a perfect world otherwise we process improvement experts would have little work to do. So when, not if, your plan does not go exactly as expected making adjustments before things get out of hand is important.

What I’ve discovered is a few things could go wrong. First, you may find that people are doing what they should be doing (i.e. high percentage of positive evaluations), but the results are not being sustained. In this case your team needs to reevaluate the actions identified in step one. In other words, it is likely a process problem and you may have identified the wrong steps.

A second, and more common, failure mode is people don’t do what they’re supposed to do and you have low evaluation scores to prove it. In this case a greater focus on the four questions noted in step two need to be evaluated. Reevaluate your answers to the four questions and discover which is lacking.

This is often when question four comes into play in that people don’t want to do what they’re supposed to do. The key to success here comes from making sure you have properly identified the true consequence provider (the individual who has the ability to reward and punish those doing the actions) and they are providing the right incentives for desired behavior and punishment for bad behavior.

Know that there is only so much your team can do when it relates to behavioral performance. True power in influencing the behavior of others usually starts with their direct supervisor, not a LSS team. This can also be a great reason to ensure those likely to be affected by the changes are involved in the change process (i.e. team members) from the beginning.

Step 7-Celebrate and elevate every chance you get!

The final step is definitely the sexiest and in many respects is not the “last” step, but a step that should be taking place throughout the aforementioned process. I look at this from both a macro and micro perspective.

From a macro perspective you need to celebrate success by rewarding and recognizing the groups of people involved in the effort. On a micro level you need to focus on individuals and elevate them to get more of the great performance they have demonstrated. These are the two behavioral “levers” you and your team can “pull” to get more positive results.

I suggest focusing more on the elevate lever because pulling it will typically yield greater results. Think of it this way. Imagine being in a big open space (i.e conference room, training center) with all of your coworkers and hearing one of the top leaders say something like, “I want to recognize the great efforts by the team that helped us reduce cycle time in our financial reporting process by 25%.” Now compare that to standing face-to-face with that same leader who says, “Scott, I want to personally thank you for leading the team who reduced the cycle time of the financial reporting process by 25%.” Which of those two scenarios would make you feel more appreciated? I thought so.


Get to work!

What I’ve described in this post seems easy enough, but it takes passion and desire to make it happen. If you’ve read this far and your heart has raced a bit as you’ve read you’re probably going to succeed, and take the steps I’ve outlined here on your next project. In fact, I challenge you to do so and compare your results to other projects not using this approach.

Don’t just look at the results of both projects, look at the faces of those whose work lives you and your team have impacted. Are they smiling more? Do they have a little extra “zip” in their step after you’ve put the sustainment plan in place and reaped the benefits?

I’ve made this a little corny with the “sexy” theme, but what really matters is not so much the sex appeal-what matters most is heart appeal. When you touch the heart of people sustainment is easy. Notice I didn’t say your heart, but the heart of those you are helping. That’s what sustainment is all about-them, not you.

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