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Icebergs Lead to Titanics, Part 2

When everyone is fixing everything, all the time, a little bit at a time, the icebergs shrink quickly and fairly pragmatically.

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

This is part two of a two-part piece. Part one can be found here.

I believe the best way to prevent or address the challenge of improving everything that can be improved is to indoctrinate absolutely everyone in the improvement initiative. When everyone is fixing everything, all the time, a little bit at a time, the icebergs shrink quickly and fairly pragmatically. Unfortunately, not every business can engage everyone.

We need some filters to help us prioritize, make decisions and to set some ground rules. Let me offer some of the latter, first:

  1. If a solution makes some other process, system or effort worse, it is not a solution.
  2. If the new process’ inputs and outputs don’t match those from upstream or downstream processes, it is not fixed and is still problematic.
  3. Value-added means that either the product is improved by the activity or the information enabling the production of the product is improved by the activity. (This gets us working in the office, too, and not just the production floor.)
  4. The vision should be to improve everything that can be improved, eventually.

With the exception to the last bullet, the first ones are typical rules of most programs. We need to be sure to enforce them.

Strangely, some improvement initiatives don’t behave as if the vision is to improve every opportunity. Many behave as if only big deals deserve improvement. It’s certainly wise to prioritize, but the little things add up. I observe that the little things added up make a much bigger bucket of potential improvement than the big things added up do.

With that said, here are some suggestions for additional filters or decision-makers to help decide if we keep adding to our improvement project scope, or if we cut it off and save it for later.

No filter is a one-size-fits-all suggestion. Different businesses or business cultures have different sensitivities to these triggers. Use my list to generate some ideas and build one that is right for you:

  1. Will the added scope significantly impact the potential improvement (pick a sensitivity, such as, 33 or 50 percent added performance)?
  2. Will the additional scope eliminate a system, process, or significant step or element? Will the added scope noticeably improve morale or job satisfaction?
  3. Will neglecting the added scope negatively impact morale or job satisfaction?
  4. Will the added scope enable other significant improvements to take place immediately?
  5. Is it the right thing to do?

If the answer to one or more of the above questions is “yes,” the scope of the project should be allowed to increase. Neglecting these triggers, in my experience, leads to more problems than accepting scope creep.

I have a couple of comments about the first and last bullets in particular. The significant change to project impact is a self-limiting screen so it works very well. As we add scope and the impact of our improvement project grows, it rapidly becomes harder for the next scope increase to produce a 50 percent (for example) increase in performance improvement.

The last one can turn into a great deal of time wasted debating the meaning of “right.” The last bullet is not about what is “right” for the business or the process improvement program, per se. It should be focused on morality and ethics. If a problem leads to safety, quality, certification, legal or customer perceptions of the image of the business issues, the improvement should be made.

The others, concerning job satisfaction, morale, or eliminating major time or process elements are screens for the stuff that we can’t measure. If the pain of the problem is serious enough to produce a “yes” answer to those questions, then the waste or trouble of the improvement opportunity is big, even if we can’t put a measure to it. Fix it.

We can’t allow every little process improvement project turn into a titanic effort to consume the entire iceberg all at once. Neither can we stop improving things with just the portion of the iceberg that shows above the water line. We need to build some decision criteria that help us to intelligently and pragmatically determine when it is right to accept a little extra scope creep, and when it is smarter to save other improvements for later.

Make sure that your succeeding program has a vision for consuming the entire iceberg of opportunity. Then, make some simple screening questions that fit your business and your culture. Use my list above as inspiration, or use it as is. Be flexible, and look beyond just the “hard dollars.”

Stay wise, friends.

To read part one of this two-part series, please click here. What’s your take? Please feel free to comment below! For more information, please visit