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11 Common Continuous Improvement Mistakes You Are Probably Making

In any field, there are a handful of common mistakes. Continuous improvement is no different. Some of these errors come as a result of ignorance about the proper way of doing things. Some are the result of habit. And a handful come as a function of taking the path of least resistance.

Regardless of the source of these problems, it is important to be able to recognize them, and more importantly, correct them. Now, very few people make all of these mistakes. But even fewer make none of them. Most of you will fall somewhere in the middle, committing a handful of these infractions. As you read the list, consider if you or your team are falling into these continuous improvement traps.

1. Voting on Ideas

While voting sounds like a good idea in theory, the truth is that it is simply a way of choosing the most popular opinion. Now I’m not saying that all voting is bad. When using a decision matrix, for example, you might vote for the most important factors. But you should never vote on a process or other business decision. Those should be grounded in facts, not popular opinion. If there are two competing choices, decide on the criteria you will measure them by, but let the options go head-to-head against each other on their own merit.

Answer Polls

2. Using Averages

It is very uncommon for averages to help you improve processes. Let’s say that your takt time on an assembly line is 12:07, and your average cycle time is 11:52 on all of your stations. Using the average would tell you that you are in good shape. However, you know nothing about how often you have to stop the line. The same holds true in virtually any meaningful metric. The average ship time compared to your target time tells you very little about on-time delivery. The average size of the component may make it look like a part is in tolerance when in reality it has a high defect rate. Make sure you have some way of looking at the spread of your results rather than just the average.

3. Collecting Data without Using It

Everything you do should have a purpose. We recognize this when doing customer facing processes, but often we neglect this principle in our management and administrative processes. Very often we spend resources collecting data, and then sorting and processing and compiling it, but never get around to actually using it to make an improvement. The problem is that resources are spent without a return on that investment.

From Our Data Collection Training Module

From Our Data Collection Training Module

4. Making Lists

I had a coworker once say, “Lists are just a renewal of hope.” It stuck with me. Very often, we compile lists of things to do, and problems, and issues, and ideas, but the lists just sit there. A list should never be a final step. They can be useful in creating a plan or developing a schedule, but on their own, they do nothing for you. You need dates and people assigned to do the tasks to get things accomplished. The real problem with a list is the perception of activity. Once something makes it onto a list, it can stagnate for an eternity. But since it is on the list, people think it is being addressed and nothing else is done.

5. Not Planning for Improvement Time

This is one of the biggest issues I see for most management teams. They want to develop a continuous improvement culture, but then staff for teams to be continuously doing production work. It sends a mixed message. I tend to recommend about 10% of a person’s time be spent on making improvements. That means that you’ll need to be staffed as if a person was only working 36 hours per week, less breaks, meetings, etc. Now, as improvements come from that planned project time, the staffing requirements will drop. But it is simply not logical to claim that something is important to the business and then not allocate resources to it.

Work Lean and Surf the Continuous Improvement Wave

Work Lean and Surf the Continuous Improvement Wave

6. Training for the Current Job Only

Most employers train their teams. Much of that training, though, is focused only on how to do the current job. If you want your team members to grow in their capabilities, you need to train them for what you want them to do tomorrow. Unfortunately, training tends to be treated as a low priority, so it is hard to get in front of the training curve. The bottom line is that if you expect employees to take on more responsibility, you have to train them before you give them their expanded role.

7. Managers Overriding Processes

You’ve helped your team develop great processes. You’ve trained them. You’ve set up the systems to support those processes. And then, when there is a crisis or a problem, you immediately discard the process. It is surprising how often managers make exceptions to a procedure. It gets the immediate problem fixed, but at a cost. All the work backed up in the queue now is in disarray, and the team has to get things back in order. It introduces a tremendous amount of waste for very little actual gain. Instead, improve the process to either eliminate the reasons for the exceptions, or set up your process with some decision points to accommodate the special situations.

8. Encouraging Variation

Not only do managers often tolerate variation in processes, they often actively encourage it. The most common infractions occur in administrative processes when there is a big backlog or a person is going on vacation. The boss looks at the workload and asks the person to clear his or her desk before the time off starts, or says things like “Do what you can” or “Let’s pull out all the stops”. Does he think that the person normally is not doing what she can? Does he think that there are normally ‘stops’ in a process that are optional, but are left in there for no particular reason? What he is really saying is that he wants the person to change the way the work is done. That should never happen. When there is a big pile, the manager should provide help. When there is a vacation, the manager should provide help. When there is a big order or a spike, the manager should provide help. See the trend? The manager should never ask people to disregard their processes.

Control Charts Promo

9. Making Time Estimates or Mapping Processes from a Conference Room

Picture this scenario. A kaizen team is sitting in a conference room, and the facilitator asks them to map out a process. The team hovers around a big sheet of butcher paper with sticky notes and does the map from memory. Or the facilitator asks how long a process takes and the response is “about 5:30”. In truth, when a team is trying to analyze a process to improve it, they rarely get the degree of accuracy they need from memory. Even with a map created by a team of people who do a process every day, I invariably find inaccuracies or missing steps when we actually go and watch the process. And if you look at a list of actual timings, only 2 out of 60 should end in either :00 or :30. About 97% of the time it will be some uneven number. You need accuracy to make improvements, and guesses don’t cut it.

10. Treating Symptoms

Far too often, a team attacks a problem and comes up with a solution. This fix looks like it works. Then, a short time down the road, a related problem pops out sideways. Why? Because the original solution was actually just a treatment. It addressed the symptom and not the root cause. We hear repeatedly to just try things, and we reward action. The problem, though, is that we don’t consider root cause analysis to be action. Spend the time looking for the underlying issue and you’ll only have to ‘solve’ a problem once.

11. Believing “The Customer is Always Right”

Over and over again, people repeat that mantra to me when I am coaching them. Normally it is used as a defense against changing a process. My response is usually something like, “So, if I told you I was only going to pay $1.00 for your product, you would still sell it to me?” This adage is not to be taken literally. Obviously, respecting the voice of the customer is important, but you also have to remember that not all customers are actually right for your business. Some are far too demanding for what they are paying for. Some look for every little loophole and take advantage of policies in ways they were not intended. Some simply think they are more important than all of your other customers and should immediately get priority treatment. Unfortunately, these sorts of customers not only consume more than their share of your time, but they also disrupt the process for other customers, putting other relationships at risk. Managers should be far less reluctant to tell a disruptive customer “no” if the request will negatively impact others. Now, don’t take that to mean I don’t think you should focus on customers or that I don’t value them. You should set lofty goals and provide outstanding service and value to all of them. I just am opposed to increasing the service level of one customer at the expense of others and thinking that it is good customer service.


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