How often have you worked on fixing what seemed like an obvious problem but found yourself frustrated with how much time you had to spend convincing others it was worth solving? Have you ever sponsored a Black Belt, a Green Belt or a Lean practitioner in solving a process issue only to see the effort languish for lack of buy-in? Even with seemingly simple ideas, this can be a huge waste of energy.
What Is Process Improvement and Who’s Buying It?
Process improvement necessarily involves others. You need them to provide you with data, change what they do and generally expend some effort. But other people don’t necessarily see the effort through your eyes. They may not understand the point of what you’re trying to do or they may not be sold on the way you’re going about it. They may just not like you, but that’s an issue for another day!
When conducting process improvement work the all-important buzzword is “buy-in.” Everybody stresses the importance of getting buy-in from leadership, buy-in from stakeholders and buy-in from other departments. At some point while trying to “sell” my ideas to others, a wise person explained to me that “buy-in” isn’t the same as “ownership,” and that’s the problem.
“Buy-in” isn’t the same as “ownership,” and that’s the problem.
Asking for someone’s “buy-in” indicates that you have an idea that you didn’t involve them in or discuss with them, but you want them to embrace it anyway. And on the flipside, “ownership” is what people feel around an idea, improvement or decision because they’ve been part of the process of coming up with it on some level, at some point. The key when doing process improvement work is increasing others’ of ownership of an idea. How do you pave the way for others to become part of the process?
What’s great about this is that the tools and techniques of continuous improvement provide an easy answer. They key is to use the tools with others. This way you get critical assistance with fixing process problems and the people you include get the satisfaction of ownership.
The first thing people need to understand is why you’re doing what you’re doing. Back in early days of Six Sigma at GE the mantra was, “Satisfy customer needs profitably.” Most of our efforts are focused on doing just that whether we’ve made it clear or not. People generally don’t rally around, “Decrease the hours it takes to make a whirligig”, or “decrease the cost of a whatsit.” So when you declare that you’re decreasing or increasing something, it’s helpful to answer the question, “for the sake of what?”
So when you declare that you’re decreasing or increasing something, it’s helpful to answer the question, “for the sake of what?”
Include a description of how this is enabling the organization to have a positive impact on customers. Once people are clear on the purpose of the work they’re generally more engaged than they were with the goal of raising or lowering a given number.
The next opportunity to engage others is the Process Walk, which also goes by the name Gemba Walk. This refers to the act of taking a small, core group of people to walk a process and interview process participants. At each step the process walkers learn the actions involved along with sources of pain. It’s group education. This accomplishes two things at once, Number one, it educates the process walkers on what exactly happens in the creation of the output. And two, it allows the process participants to speak their minds. It may have been a long time since anyone asked them for their opinions. By joining in this exchange both the interviewers and the interviewees are engaged in discovery. They are now part of the improvement effort as opposed to observers or victims.
They are now part of the improvement effort as opposed to observers or victims.
This should always be a group activity. It’s a great follow-up to the Process Walk since you just spent time learning the process. Do this with sticky notes so you can edit as you go. Post it on a wall somewhere and invite others to come see it and add what they know. Ask them to use pink sticky notes to point out pain points. This advances the project and engages the process participants. Even if you already have a map due to ISO efforts or Standard Operating Procedures, you can involve others in verifying that the recorded process steps reflect reality. You’ve just on-boarded a new set of owners and completed essential process work!
This is generally a team activity and it starts with brainstorming all the people who might be impacted by a particular process effort. It isn’t always obvious where the ripple effects of an effort might extend. Having a diverse group of minds thinking through all the touchpoints uncovers more potential owners. When reaching out to stakeholder groups and individuals consider how you plan to engage with them. Will you ask them for input? This is a great start point and a source of true connection. Don’t get in “transmit only” mode when dealing with stakeholders – invite them to participate on some level.
Don’t get in “transmit only” mode when dealing with stakeholders – invite them to participate on some level.
This last example provides an opportunity to expand the network once again. This is one of those essential tools for project work. It points to where you might go to get data and to discover what potential root causes to examine. The key is to consider all potential sources of issues. Invite a crowd and make this a Fishbone Party. You want a good spread of brains in the room so you can think about the process from as many angles as possible. Process participants from all levels of a process get an opportunity to give you input and your project gets valuable information. Another task done, more forward momentum and a new group of owners. Everybody wins.
This is such obvious synergy but many project leaders choose to go it alone. Stop wasting so much time selling and start asking others to join you. Reach out and lighten your load.