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The Unspoken Key to Improvement Success, Part 1

If we can effectively change the way people do things without new maps, diagrams, vocabulary, metrics, policies or work instructions, we can affect change with less red tape.

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

Let’s talk about what happens when our process improvement efforts and our business improvement initiatives succeed. Do our initiatives work because we send out a memo? Does process automatically improve because we draft a new process map? Of course they don’t.

We make them work because we communicate, we set expectations, we enforce new rules and policies, we reward good outcomes, and we correct poor ones. In short, we follow through and doing so makes our changes take place and improvements happen.

Think about it for a minute. What are we really changing? We change maps and instructions; sometimes we change leadership. We may start using new metrics or vocabulary. That’s all true, but just because those things change, it doesn’t mean performance improves.

Some processes work better because we change the process flow and the instructions. Some processes work better when we don’t follow them, and we do something else instead (which we have all experienced). However, just because we change everything about the process, or about our business guidance, it doesn’t mean that anything changes except our diagrams and paperwork.

Change takes place when people change how they do things. If you follow my posts, then you have read me write this same message before. I repeat it because it is the “unspoken,” not understood, under-focused secret to performance success. In fact, if we can effectively change the way people do things without maps, diagrams, new vocabulary, new metrics, policies or work instructions, we can affect change with a great deal less of red tape.

Unfortunately, so many of us, and I think it is safe to say that all of us have, at some point, fallen into the trap of focusing on the tangible items to affect change. Yes, those things help. They facilitate the change by helping to communicate expectations, correct or incorrect behavior, and sometimes, by giving us an enforceable set of rules for reward or disciplinary action. But all those tangible components don’t make the change occur.

Change occurs when people change what they do and/or how they do things. People change when we effectively communicate new expectations and then enforce them.

Where am I going with this? The most important success element to a business leader, a functional leader, a team leader or a change agent trying to drive change and improvement is the ability to perceive, focus on and influence people’s behavior. Does that sound like an obvious statement?

Let’s look. Examine the last process improvement or performance improvement change that you drove or in which you participated. Did you focus on people’s behavior when you planned and executed it, or did you focus on the documentation and the map? Did you discuss how people were going to do things differently, or how the process would be diagramed differently?

It’s an easy trap. We make pictures of what people do, so we can analyze them. The picture is a communication tool, but we become focused on the picture and sometimes forget what the picture represents. Then, when we are done with the objective abstract of the process or the business program, we use pictures to communicate what we change, but we sometimes communicate how the abstract picture changed, not how people’s behavior is expected to change. Oops.

Let’s look at some real examples to help clarify. First, a very simple manufacturing change: A business decides to eliminate waste in assembly that occurs when one assembler hands off a product to another. Instead of each assembler doing a single step and passing it on, each assembler will complete the entire assembly operation.

The business changes from a linear assembly table with a bin of singular components in front of each station to a circular table with bins containing all of the parts at the center and tools allocated to each station. The workers are shown their new assembly area and set to work. Someone forgot to explain properly how the new station works (there is a language barrier, too, between the process designer and the assemblers).

The first few minutes are very confusing. When things finally get going, there is much arguing among the assemblers, more confusion, and finally, one of them gets the attention of the line lead, and then the process improver comes over to answer questions and try to understand why the new process is not working right away.

The brave assembler explains that there aren’t enough stations for each of the assembly steps. After much more confusion, the problem becomes clear. The assemblers are still performing a single assembly step and then passing the product-in-process to the next station for the next step.

Some of you are reading this and thinking, “There is no way that such a silly example actually happens.” Some of you are reading this and thinking about all of the times you have witnessed such a silly thing actually occur. And no, the assemblers aren’t really that dumb. They aren’t dumb at all. They are only trying to do things the same way that they have been trained and told to do them, and that worked perfectly well before. It was the process designer who was so dumb that he or she thought the round table and all the parts and tools would somehow make it work better.

Of course, with some explaining, training, improved communication and much mentoring among the different assemblers to instruct their team members in the best way to perform assembly steps they hadn’t really learned before, things began to roll.

This is an example of where the focus was directed so completely on the process map that no one took the time to explain it at a person-activity level. And yes, it really happens.

Please tune into the Chemical Equipment Daily for part two of this two-part series. What’s your take? Please feel free to comment below! For more information, please visit