Category Archives: Human Side of Improvement

People + Process = High Performance

Over the last few years I’ve had somewhat of an awakening or discovery that high performance is not just about great processes. High performance, I would argue, especially in the transactional world, centers more on people. Unfortunately, most lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals like myself have been taught from a single drawer of tools (i.e. stats, graphs, charts, etc.) when high performance requires in many cases opening a second drawer focused on people. In this post I will share a simple perspective that may help you determine which of these drawers you need to pull tools from to get to the performance you seek.

All organizations whether they are for-profit, non-profit, private or public sector, government, etc. run on two things-people and processes. People are required to deliver a product or service to customers or citizens, and processes are required to create the product or service. You can’t do one without the other.

The 4 “Can-Do’s”.

When starting an improvement effort you need to determine-is this more of a people problem or a process problem? From my experience you will likely have a little of both, but generally one is greater than the other, and that may be an initial indication which drawer you will need to pull from more to attain higher performance. Four simple questions to begin with that may indicate the problem is more of a people issue are:

  1. Do they know what to do?
  2. Do they know how to do it?
  3. Can they do it?
  4. Do they want to do it?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no” you may want to start by addressing the people issues rather than turning the problem into a LSS project that may not address the true issue. For example, when I was in high school I worked a coop job during my junior and senior years in a warehouse that supplied woodworking professionals supplies like saw blades, drill bits, etc. My job was to fill orders and prepare them for shipment to customers. I was working in this job for three months and feeling like I was doing a great job because I wasn’t hearing otherwise, but when my teacher came to meet with the company owner for my first semester evaluation he told my teacher I was going to be fired if I didn’t stop making so many mistakes!

Here I thought I was doing such a great job, but was on the verge of being fired! When my teacher gave me the news I clearly knew I had some improving to do. My boss failed to address the first three questions from above, but once I was given clear direction and expectations were set I made very few errors from that point on. In fact, I worked for the company for several years after high school while in college. What a change one simple conversation and setting clear expectations and direction did for my performance!

Looking at this scenario from purely a process standpoint, the former me (process focused LSS MBB) would have said this is a great LSS project opportunity! I would have put together a project charter defining the problem, metric, goal, and business case and created a team to start collecting data to track the baseline percentage of orders filled correctly, and before long I would have been knee deep in statistical analysis when all that was needed to improve performance would have been a simple…”Hey Scott, you’re making a lot of mistakes filling orders, here’s a simple way to fill orders and make fewer mistakes. Try this and lets see how well it works for you.”

Looking past the obvious.

What I’ve discovered is we as LSS professionals often look past the obvious at the start of an investigation related to performance issues. We see problems only from a process perspective because that is what we are traditionally trained to do. In many ways we are blind to the people issues that may be the true root cause of the problem.

Another way of looking at the problem is to determine which quadrant the issues resides in. Below is an illustration to help visualize what I am describing. The worst case scenario is the bottom left quadrant where the process is out of control and the people working in it are not engaged in their work. My advice in this scenario is to run…run as fast as you can to avoid the fallout from the imminent explosion!

Seriously, you face a challenge that can be overcome, and in all cases I would start with addressing people issues first because it’s difficult to address process issues without good people involved, then move on to the process, but in many cases if this has been going on for a long time the end is probably near and maybe running is a good option.

A second possibility illustrated in the lower right quadrant is that you have good processes but disengaged employees. The aforementioned four questions are a good starting point to address the people issues found here.

A third scenario is engaged employees, but bad processes as illustrated in the upper left quadrant. This situation is ripe for LSS tools to help analyze the process for deficiencies that are leading to waste and defects.

A final possibility is the ideal one that is located in the upper right quadrant, which also leads to how best to determine which quadrant you are in. One simple way to determine which of these quadrants you are in is to talk with customers and employees. Are customers happy with the product or service being provided? Do employees enjoy their work and find it engaging? The answers to these questions will determine the quadrant you are in, and also which of the toolbox drawers you will need to pull from to find a path to the upper right quadrant.

Is your heart in it?

What I’ve learned over the last few years is that the most important element to high performance is having a heart focused on helping others thrive and flourish at what they love to do. In fact, that’s my personal mission statement I use to describe to others what I do. No amount of knowledge, training, education, or experienced can replace a heart for improvement. So consider the first step in achieving high performance by evaluating what’s in your heart, then move on to determining if you have a people issue or a process issue, and finally get to work on using the right tools to achieve higher performance!

Redefining what it means to have a “great” idea.

brainstormingOne of my favorite tools to utilize when selecting potential improvement ideas is the impact – effort grid. This tool is a simple, yet effective, approach for identifying solution ideas that have a high impact and require a low effort. For years my clients and I have used this tool with success, but occasionally the ideas that come from using this tool don’t work as planned. One of the reasons I believe this happens is because the tool fails to address one of the biggest challenges to making improvements stick – people!

The grid focuses solely on the idea from just a problem perspective. How big an impact will the solution have in solving the problem and achieving the goal? How much effort will it take to implement the solution? Both are great questions and will lead to a potential solution, but what is not evaluated are the people implementing the solution and those who will be living with it.

I propose a new dimension needs to be added to the impact – effort grid that includes passion and resistance. A great solution, one that will be sustainable in keeping the problem from recurring, is not simply one that has high impact and low effort, but one that also has high passion from those implementing the solution, and low resistance from those who will be affected by the solution.

A new twist on an old tool.

To refresh on the impact – effort grid, the process begins with a short list of causes to a problem that have been validated as legitimately causing the problem a team wants to solve. This process usually includes some type of quantitative analysis (i.e. correlation, regression, etc.) and / or qualitative analysis (i.e. observation, interviews, surveys, etc.). With a short list of valid causes, a team comes together to work through each cause one-at-a-time by brainstorming potential solutions to keep the cause from recurring.

I suggest setting a scale (i.e. high , medium, low; 1-5; high/low) for the impact of the solution in relation to how it will affect the goal, and using time as a way of establishing the effort required to implement the solution. Illustrated below is a simple grid that can be drawn on a white board or large piece of paper to get started.

The next step is brainstorming solution ideas. I suggest doing a silent brainstorm to begin the process. Over the course of several months I conducted a study to compare group brainstorming and individual brainstorming and found when starting with individual brainstorming ten times more ideas were developed in comparison with brainstorming as a group.  Start first with individual brainstorming and then move on to group brainstorming to come up with a greater number of ideas to evaluate.

Once all ideas have been brainstormed the next step is to place them in the appropriate quadrant on the grid. I suggest letting the person who came up with the idea make the initial placement, and if team members highly disagree with the location then have a discussion to determine where it best fits. To save time you should also have anyone who has a similar idea to the one being placed on the grid place it on top of the similar idea to eliminate the need to evaluate two or more similar ideas. When you are complete with this step your grid will look similar to the one illustrated below.

This is where a typical impact – effort grid would move on to selecting the ideas from the green quadrants as those to review and select in fixing the problem, but what is missing from this equation is the people side of improvement.  People will be needed to implement the idea and people will be asked to accept the idea.  Without evaluating these two elements I would argue a valid idea that has a high impact and requires low effort may not be the best solution.

A new perspective to evaluate the ideas in the green quadrants in relation to people is the final step in this new approach that uses a similar process in evaluating not impact and effort, but passion and resistance.

With just the ideas from the green impact – effort quadrants the team will finish the process by evaluating the ideas in relation to how much passion those who are implementing the idea have for doing so, and the measure of resistance those having to live with the idea have toward using the idea in the process they work within.  Just as before, the post-its can be transferred from the green quadrants on the impact – effort grid and placed in the appropriate grid on the passion – resistance grid as illustrated below.

The final result are ideas that have a high impact on keeping the cause from recurring, and require a low effort in relation to the time to implement in combination with high passion by those who will implement the idea, and a low resistance from those who will have to accept and live with the idea in the process they work within.  This, I would argue, is the true definition of a “great” idea!

Are you a 14 decimal place person?

math problemHave you ever been in a meeting, training class, webinar, etc. and noticed a bullet point out of place?  How about when you’ve been reading an email and noticed a change in font size from 12 to 10 that probably wasn’t intended by the author.   Now the big question….did either of these bother you?  If so, you might be what I call a 14 decimal place person – someone who really loves details, complexity, and strives for perfection in everything they do.

I admit I’m one of these people, and chances are if you work in the field of process improvement like me you’re probably one too.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; paying attention to details is a good thing to some degree.  Where being a 14 decimal place person, I would argue, creates a challenge is helping others see the value in process improvement, specifically in using lean Six Sigma (LSS), to solve tough business problems that matter to achieving key organizational objectives.

A question I ask quite frequently is why LSS, or just process improvement in general, has not become a central focus for most organizations?  Think about it-every organization of all types in all industries all around the world have processes, and none of them is perfect; they all need some improvement.

So what is keeping business leaders in these organizations from engaging in getting better at what they do each and every day?  One of the reasons, I believe, are the people pimping approaches, philosophies, methods, however you want to classify LSS; the 14 decimal place perfectionist like myself-we are the problem!

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, this is the kind of people who are naturally attracted to LSS.  We like the complexity and detailed focus that comes with LSS.  However, I would argue, we are in the minority in most organizations.  To say it more candidly – we’re a bit “odd”, not quite “normal”, maybe even “awkward” to some degree, and certainly “outliers” if you look at it from a people data perspective.

Maybe the reason most people in many organizations have yet to embrace process improvement is because of the people leading these efforts, or in my world of consulting, trying to convince business leaders they need to hire people like myself to help them get better at what they do.  So what can we do about it?  What are we 14 decimal place type people to do in order to get others, specifically senior leaders, more interested in process improvement?

Rounding off.

When working a math problem sometimes we need to be precise, but most of the time in business we have little use for 14 decimal places, and can simply round off to get close enough.  This is probably the first challenge 14 decimal place people need to get over-striving for perfection in everything we do.

I’m not saying we have to give up on seeking perfection; that’s still the ultimate goal.  What I am saying is that we have to shift our focus from perfection, or 14 decimal places, to just getting better than we were yesterday.  I believe it’s really that simple.  We just need to focus on getting better, not perfect.

I know this is incredibly hard to do.  You see that “bullet point” out of place and it just bothers you, but does it really matter?  I often have to stop myself when I encounter these types of situations and ask questions such as, will this help who I’m working with get better at what they do?  Do they really need to know about this in order to take one step forward and / or accomplish the goal they have set?  Will NOT knowing this cause them harm?

The answer to most of these questions most of the time is no, but keeping my mouth shut can be an incredible challenge.  I see an opportunity that I think will help, but in the end it may just lead to over complicating the process and push people further away from process improvement methodologies like LSS.  I find that if I ask myself to THINK before I speak often I find keeping my mouth shut is easier.

Before speaking ask yourself is what I’m about to say:

  1. True?
  2. Helpful?
  3. Inspiring?
  4. Something they Need to know?
  5. Kind?

If the answer is “no” then it’s best to keep your mouth shut.  You won’t be helping if you don’t THINK before you speak.  You also have to slow down for this to work because our mouth tends to get ahead of our brain much of the time.  I’ll leave you with some wise words from Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”  Your tongue has power so use it wisely!

Quit wasting your time helping people who don’t want your help!

crying at workOne of the greatest frustrations when leading a lean Six Sigma (LSS) project team is working with people who just don’t care much about the problem.  I see this challenge with my clients all the time.

They setup a meeting with a potential champion to discuss a problem that could be an impactful LSS project only to have the meeting request denied, rescheduled, or with no response at all.  Weeks go by as they try to find time on the champion’s calendar, but nothing happens.  They wonder, “Why won’t this person I’m trying to help take my offer to help them?!?!”

Then, after multiple attempts, they finally “push” the champion into starting the project.  This only leads to a frustrating number of months working the DMAIC process and finding the champion does little to sustain the effort.  In the end the process goes right back where it started!  Ugh!

In this post I’d like to share some advice on how to make sure you don’t end up in this situation on your next project.  Determining the potential success of a project comes down to three P’s that include:

  1. The “right” People…
  2. with a Passion…
  3. to solve a Problem worth fixing.

After close to two decades working in various organizations I’ve never found long term success where any of the 3P’s was missing.  You need all three to be successful over the long term.

Lean Six Sigma would be easy if it didn’t require people!

Let’s start with the first P – People.  This is somewhat of a no-brainer in that it takes people to make a project successful, but what / who are the right people?  There are the obvious people you need, for example, the subject matter experts in the area you are working and those with the technical skills that will be required to use the LSS process, but more importantly you need people with the second P – Passion!

These people, from my experience, are rare jewels in most organizations.  The employee engagement numbers Gallup reports are evidence that most people don’t care much about their jobs.  They tend to have an attitude of doing the minimum and simply work for the weekend.  However, there are those few individuals that always seem to have a positive attitude and are always looking for a better way; a way to provide greater value to the organization.

This can be a challenge in some organizations, but I’d suggest instead of starting with a problem and then finding people to work with you to solve the problem, focus on finding people with passion for improvement and they will have plenty of problems to work on.

You’ll know you’ve found them because they won’t refer to their problems as “problems”, but instead they’ll call them opportunities.  You’ll also recognize them because they will be smiling when they talk about the opportunities, and they’ll likely reach out to you to get started instead of you pushing them to do so.

Finding a problem worth messing with.

What is a problem that’s worth fixing?  The simple answer is that a business case can be made if we fix the problem it will lead to a positive financial impact (i.e. revenue increase, cost reduction, etc.).  I would argue when answering this question we need to dig a little deeper than simply ensuring the problem will have a financial impact, but will also have a positive effect on achieving the goals of the business (i.e. strategic plan, tactical plan, departmental goals, gaps in KPI’s, etc.).

Not every problem is worth messing with.  Ask the question, “How will fixing this problem help the organization take one step forward in achieving the key goals identified by our leadership team?”  Your answer will determine if the problem is worth fixing.

I often tell my clients the most important aspect of a successful LSS initiative in any organization starts with working on the right stuff; the stuff leadership cares about; the stuff leadership gets measured on; the stuff leadership gets rewarded on.  Work on that stuff and succeed, and your leadership team will be asking for more!

There’s no question this process is a huge challenge, and from my experience most don’t succeed at it.  They start the process, usually with the wrong elements like training everyone.  Training is important, but has almost nothing to do with LSS success.  What is important is what you’re working on and the people doing the work.  Pick the right people with a passion to get better, and the problems worth messing with will come to the surface.

The simple infographic below is a great checklist to get started with any LSS project.  You’ll notice that people are the “bookends” that hold your project together in the middle.  Nail down these six things BEFORE you start your next project and you’re more likely to succeed!

This type of work is one of the things I’m most passionate about helping clients with.  Could you use some help?  I’m here for you along with 30+ VRI lean Six Sigma experts located all around the world.  Contact us to help you succeed!

Play better “chess” with your people to get results!

chessWe’ve all been there before.  Whether it’s working on a process improvement project, giving direction to those we manage, telling our kids what to do, etc.  People don’t always do what they’re supposed to do.  So what can you do about it?

In this post I’ll share with you an overview of a short presentation I use with my clients to quickly explain how using positive reinforcement after a desired behavior takes place can lead to sustainable behavior change.

People behave based on two things.  First, what happens before a behavior (i.e., training, coaching, giving direction), and second, what happens after the behavior takes place (i.e. rewards, punishment).

The biggest problem I observe with my clients who are trying to change behavior of others is that they focus far too much on what happens before the behavior.  They spend hours in training, coaching, writing SOP’s, and telling people what to do, which is a necessary component of behavior change, but far too often they miss the more impactful aspect of behavior change, which is what takes place after the behavior.

Think about when you were a child and had to do “chores”.  Mom or dad told you to clean your room, which may or may not have led to doing it, but if you did complete the task the reward you received (i.e. allowance, ice cream, etc.) was more likely to get you to repeat the behavior than just simple direction on what and how to do it.

I would argue, and the behavior science research supports my argument, it’s no different in the world of business.  Your chores now are the job duties you are hired to complete, and one of the rewards is the paycheck you receive for doing the work.  What I’m getting at here is that what happens after the behavior takes place has a much higher effect on the person repeating the behavior than what happens before the behavior.

Let’s put this into more practical terms of how to drive behavior change.  Before focusing on the rewards component of behavior change let’s make sure you have the necessary elements to set the stage for the desired behavior by asking three simple questions.

1. Do they know what to do?  This might seem like a no-brainer, but just asking the question ensures the expectation has been set.  You wouldn’t believe how many times this one step is all that is needed to change behavior.  Have you ever told someone they were doing something incorrectly to which they replied, “I didn’t know that’s what you wanted.”?

2. Do they know how to do it?  You can’t tell someone to do something and then just miraculously expect it to happen.  This is where training and education play a big part in setting the stage for behavior change.  Show them how to do it before asking them to do it.

3. Can they do it?  Not everyone has the ability to do all things.  Have you ever watched American Idol?  Some of those contestants actually think they can sing, but not everyone has a voice for singing!  It’s no different in business.  Some of us are gifted speakers, others are great at analyzing data-we all have talents to use in helping achieve our personal and organizational goals.  The best test here is to have them demonstrate they can do it.

Assuming those you are helping change know what to do, how to do it, and can do it, now it’s simply a matter of providing some reinforcement that fuels their want to do it, which leads to a fourth question.

4. Do they want to do it?  This is where positive reinforcement (rewards) comes into play when changing behavior.  I suggest checking off “yes” to the previous three questions (they are usually the easiest issues to address) before addressing the motivation issue.  No amount of positive reinforcement will make you into an American Idol if you have the voice of a broken chainsaw!

Not everyone views positive reinforcement the same.  For example, many of the hourly workers I have had as team members hate being recognized in public, but when I was a welder many years ago and working on the production line I loved public praise.  The problem with not understanding each individual’s preferred way of being recognized is that when you praise them in the wrong way you are likely to get just the opposite of what you desire.  Praising those hourly workers the way I like to be praised will almost guarantee they will never demonstrate the behavior that led to that praise again just to avoid being called out in front of their peers.

This is something all great leaders know about their people.  In other words, they play chess with their people instead of checkers.  If you compare the two games you’ll see that all the pieces in the game of checkers are the same, whereas in the game of chess each piece plays a unique role.  People are no different.  There are not two of us that are identical in most organizations.

One of the simplest tools I’ve used to play better “chess” with those I’m helping change behavior is a 3 x 5 card as shown below.  All you need to do is write your name on the card and list the ways in which you like to be recognized and praised when you do something good.  This card can then be copied and shared with everyone you work with so that everyone knows the best way to keep you doing great work.  You could also share this with your family as a way to sustain desired behaviors.

One final suggestion I’ll leave you with is that the timeliness and certainty of the reinforcement happening after the positive behavior are critical to repeating it.  Think of how likely you are to repeat a behavior your boss compliments you on months after the behavior took place.  This is one of the best cases for why performance reviews on an annual basis have little impact on changing behavior.  The second you see someone doing something great provide the reinforcement instantly!

In summary, if the people you want to drive behavior change in know what to do, how to do it, can do it, and want to do it, followed by you reinforcing the behavior in a way they find positive that happens immediately while the behavior is taking place or shortly after it, and the person performing the behavior knows for certain the reinforcement is coming, sustainable behavior change is possible – give it a try!

Choose to serve instead of being served.

hand-in-serviceI often help clients select people to get involved with their process improvement initiatives, and typically the process takes the form of evaluating the key characteristics that lead to success, and then searching the organization for people who have those characteristics.

There are a few “no-brainer” things that we always look for such as a mindset for improvement, future leadership potential, the ability to analyze processes and data, etc., but one characteristic I believe that stands out from the rest is having a servant’s perspective on the role they play in solving problems and helping others do what they do better.

Putting others first.

At the heart of a servant’s attitude is a focus on helping others.  When you become second and others become first you’re on the way to having a servant’s attitude.  Unfortunately, the “selfie-society” we live in today promotes just the opposite perspective, which makes finding these people quite the challenge in many organizations.

Good leaders must first become good servants.

Robert K. Greenleaf

To some degree I can see why we are so selfish because in every organization I’ve either been an employee or consultant my performance has been measured solely on what I have done, not on what I’ve helped others do.  I’m not suggesting this is going to change any time soon, but what can change starting today is your attitude toward helping others.

Seek to serve instead of being served.

Becoming someone who is focused on serving instead of being served isn’t all that challenging once you have the correct perspective.  Start with putting yourself in the position of those you are striving to help.  What is it you can do to help them look like a rock star?  What passions and talents do you possess that could be used to help others succeed?

You have something to offer others in their quest to improve.  Find what that is and put it to work and the ironic thing is that your good work will come back around to you and by helping others succeed you too will succeed.