Improvement Unplugged

The maintenance manager of a $50 million contract manufacturer recently complained that the workers wouldn’t use the safety system he had in place to help them move heavy product. He also has responsibility for safety and looks around the facility to make safety-related improvements.

I asked what their concerns are. His reply: “I don’t know; they just won’t use it.”

His system may well be a great one, but without including the workers in addressing a problem that impacts them, we’ll never know. Improvement unplugged.

We’ve all seen hour-by-hour boards with old data, or with no explanation of variance from plan documented. If HbH boards do not solve a problem that workers care about, why should they use them? Improvement unplugged.

Sometimes there is intentional resistance to change; there is the human tendency to fall back into old habits. But in many cases, there is simply a lack of agreement on the existence or definition of a problem and how workers are truly helped by all these alleged improvements others ask them to make.

If we can’t agree on the problem, we’ll never agree on the solution.

We all know and believe in the power of PDCA but so few organizations actually live it. We’re heavy into D, often preceded by a snippet of P, but the C and A are too often missing.

Operations folk tend to be “action oriented,” which can be the kiss of death. Position listings often require this characteristic, which implies a company that likes to live in crisis. Of course, actions are necessary in any organization. But what about the planning, follow-up, and learning aspects? Are they less important? Yet how many position listings stress those characteristics / skills?

Try this:

  • Identify ten recent improvements that your team made.
  • Ask for evidence of what the target improvements was, what has actually occurred, and what was learned as a result
  • Ask for evidence of clear accepted responsibility for regular follow up on each of the ten to ensure they last or discover why they need to change
  • Ask to see plans for the next 5 improvements to be worked on soon
    • Plans include the why (what is the problem to be addressed), the when, resources needed, the expected results, and follow up activities (C and A, of PDCA fame)

If you read that recommendation and say there’s nothing we don’t already do there, I’m very happy for your organization and its embedded PDCA culture. If your response is “who has time for all that?” then perhaps your PDCA culture could use some improvement, itself.

Every company makes improvements that don’t stick. Some because the problem wasn’t well understood, some due to lack of follow up. We all know to include people impacted by a problem in solving it, but often don’t want to “take the time” to do that. Improvement unplugged.

On an upcoming gemba walk perhaps you’ll look for improvements unplugged. Rather than simply insist they be re-energized, you can discover where the effort missed the mark and is no longer living. Observe and learn. Then adjust.

“They won’t use it” implies not a problem with “them” but a problem in the process of PDCA in change management. For many, PDCA is a process unplugged. One needs to be plugged in first; then the others will be powered for success.