I think we can all agree that the world is changing. We have all heard about disruption in the economy, technology, and even in the way we work and interact with others. Statistics prior to COVID-19 estimated approximately five million U.S. employees (1) work from home, and in today’s COVID-19 environment, with many states under “shelter at home” mandates, this number has increased massively. What does this mean for those of us lucky enough to still be employed and working in the operational improvement industry?

The global decrease in business activity has offered a unique opportunity for people like myself. How many times have you thought “If I just had a little extra time I could…”? The daily pressures of business activity sometimes prevent the ability to reflect and thoughtfully plan for improvements that could paradoxically allow us to have more time in our daily lives to reflect and thoughtfully plan…you know the vicious cycle!

Well, now is that time. Let’s work together to develop our processes, build on our strengths and strengthen our weaknesses (or at least reduce their impact). My colleagues and I are committed to taking advantage of this unusual opportunity to collaborate and develop ideas that improve our products, services and overall delivery so that we can emerge from this crisis stronger. But hold on, how does that happen in today’s environment of social distancing? It was hard enough to get a cross-functional team together when we were in the office. Now we are spread out all over the world.

Luckily, we have many options to help us achieve our goals. ZOOM, Webex and Google Hangouts allow us to interact effectively even when working remotely. Improvements in cloud-based technologies have allowed business management systems like ERP and Q.M.S. systems to be safely and securely maintained outside of a business’s internal environment, and the advent of these systems will enable teams to collaborate and optimize performance even when affected by situations such as COVID-19 effectively.

As companies emerge from the current crisis, I wonder how many will evaluate and learn from their company’s performance during this time of enforced isolation. How many will adopt more flexible work schedules or the ability for employees to work remotely? This adoption will force us to adapt the way we develop our improvement plans, and hopefully for the better.

What are your company’s change drivers?

Over the past 30 years, I have had the opportunity to participate in a great number of ongoing continual improvement programs of varying degrees of effectiveness. I have worked with small (very small) companies that were rapid and agile, but perhaps not effective, and larger companies that were perhaps more effective (debatably), but definitely not rapid or agile. I have seen ideas developed that ranged from the ludicrous to the most simple and effective. What is the magic source here to make it better? The answer here lies with understanding the drivers that push for change in your organization. Does your business look at performance-based only on EBITDA? Do you only increase revenue and profitability by cutting costs? If so, perhaps you are missing the bigger picture of how to drive improvements in your operations?

Preparation, preparation, preparation

By now I am sure we have all heard of the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle. But how much time is actually spent in this often costly planning stage (at least it appears costly as many of us fly through this portion of the work to get to the more fun stuff)? I am sure my teammates hate to hear my much-repeated mantra of Planning, Preparation, Practice (my own three Ps). Perhaps I should add another P for Perfect (Perfect Planning, Perfect Preparation and Perfect Practice) to ensure we all take the time to understand what needs to be done. What will be the return on the investment, and what’s the best way to move forward? Knowing these answers is crucial to the success of any improvement effort.

Organizations should develop improvement ideas that are linked to the strategic direction of the company and impact the whole organization in a holistic manner. In my current role, I often hear of companies that have “improvement projects in every department.” For organizations of any size, this would appear to be a daunting endeavor to manage. How is that managed now that many of us are working remotely? How do we ensure that we plan for success and that we concentrate on the really critical engagements rather than the shotgun approach of improvement that is rampantly prevalent in business today?

How does your organization plan for its success both in the area of focus and through the implementation of the project? Do you have a repository of lessons learned where controls are added and sustained to ensure that the failures of yesterday are not repeated tomorrow? Have you allotted enough time to planning for the project to be successful? Remember, most people fail, not because they lack talent, money or opportunity, but because they never really planned to succeed. Plan your future because you have to live there! (2)

Find the right tools

Is a successful improvement program just a question of applying the tools? Partially, but which one works best for the situation? And how do you correctly apply the tool(s) you choose? I am sure none of us want to see our surgeon turn up with a mallet for surgery, but if you are having a hip replacement, that is exactly the tool that is needed. The operational improvement industry has a very extensive toolbox. Think Six Sigma, Lean, Lean Six Sigma, Kaizen, T.M.S., T.Q.M, T.O.C, B.I.T, A.P.Q.P, etc. and all the tools layered within these toolboxes. Do we open the box and gaze ardently at the shiny tools available to us and dive in to use as many as possible without truly understanding how they match our needs or what impact they could have? O.E.E. (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) will save the day! But have we done the correct root cause analysis? Do we have the supporting structure to eliminate problems at the source or are we just adding a Band-Aid, or worse, creating another problem down the road that may be harder to fix? Choosing the correct tool for the job is more important than ever.

Determine the right metrics.

Where do metrics fit into this picture? After all, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, as the quote goes. The real question is: are the metrics you have in place telling the full story? Many manufacturing companies have great metrics in place. O.E.E and O.T.D.I.F., for example. But we have to ensure that these metrics are calculated and applied consistently across the organization. We also have to ensure that they can measure the improvements that you expect to gain at both a micro and macro level. Do we tie our improvement suggestions to expected improvements in operational metrics, and are we able to see the results in real-time?

Leadership is crucial

Leadership plays a key role in addressing the issues outlined above. Finding the right tools, metrics and management for an improvement project is all for naught if leadership is not engaged. What does success look like for your company? Do you have a vision for what the future looks like? Has the strategy for achieving the vision been set? Are the values in place to support the mission? Do you have the right resources available to achieve the goal(s)? Does everyone on the team understand their role? Are the teams empowered to make decisions and given the authority to move forward while at the same time being held accountable for their actions? Remember that leaders set a vision and then empower and motivate people to implement that vision. Managers manage processes and process owners ensure that the processes work. Leaders must define and create a company culture. For example, is it OK to fail in your organization? Does failure equal termination, or does it identify new opportunities?

Compiling the right team

The right team is crucial. Is your team truly cross-functional? When did you last include the finance team in your improvement projects? Should they be involved? Do they want to be involved? I have seen many projects that seemed beneficial when viewed from a purely process perspective, but when the lens of the accounting team is applied the perceived gains did nothing to improve the company’s financial performance. Are the sales teams included? Is a R.A.C.I. (Responsible / Accountable / Consult /Inform) matrix in place so team members know who to turn to and communicate with for different issues?

Putting it all together

So much has to happen to get where we want to be, and with social isolation the rule, we have to make it happen while working remotely. Definitely a daunting task but not insurmountable. In fact, this unprecedented situation may be leading companies to better understand how crucial it is to be able to access and use the data stored in their systems to allow for business continuity and the management of rapid, agile and effective change. Is your business set up to take advantage of the opportunities this crisis offers?

Global Workplace Analytics’ analysis of 2018 American Community Service (A.C.S.) data]

Robert H. Schuller  - “You Can Become the Person You Want To Be”