If a process or a product hasn’t been going well for a while, frustration builds and some leaders try to fix it by looking for solutions from wherever and from whomever they can. This results in multiple parallel conversations and/or the team chasing after a dozen or more perceived solutions to the problem. While everyone is busy trying to solve the problem, the effort is often uncoordinated and undisciplined, causing the team to burn a tremendous amount of effort with very little result. The product or process still isn’t going well, despite the many solutions put in place and the many hours spent in different meetings. Everyone is even more frustrated than before. The leaders think they are doing the divide-and-conquer approach, but that is not what is happening. The team is divided, but there is no conquering, because the effort is not coordinated from a single plan based on a strategy that is transparent to everyone. Instead, everyone is running off trying to fix something in hopes that it will be the one thing that makes it all better and makes the leaders happy.
Once the customer’s point of view on the situation is understood, it’s important to focus the process improvement effort. First, find all the parallel meetings and conversations that are going on and redirect them to single owners on the customer side and the supplier side. These owners need to be in leadership roles and are responsible for coordinating efforts between each other and in their respective companies. Finding and redirecting all these conversations may take quite a bit of time and effort, depending on the company cultures. The goal of redirecting to single owners is not to create a bottleneck in communications. The goal is to ensure the owners know about everything that is being discussed and to be able to effectively prioritize and coordinate any problem solving efforts. Set up a transparent and regular communication plan to keep everyone on the team informed on what is happening. It really helps when everyone is literally looking at and working off of the same page, so make sure meetings are documented with meeting notes and they are broadly distributed.
The people coordinating the effort also need to work off of a single prioritized list and focus the team’s effort on the top issues. The top issues should be determined by business value – either money saved or potential revenue earned by fixing the issue. Sometimes the business value can only be determined subjectively with the team debating on whether fixing an issue is high, medium or low priority based on how painful the problem is. Wherever possible, though, try to use real data. Real data can more clearly show where the real problems are and then the amount of improvement can be measured. Being able to see how much something is improving helps build momentum on the process improvement effort. It also gives you a good indication of when you are done. Often teams and leaders try to address an exhaustive list of issues all at once. This can make the problem solving effort overwhelming. Focus the team on the top three to five issues. Solve those first, measure success, reevaluate the data and then move on to the next top issues. By doing this, the team will build momentum off successes that are achieved sooner. It will also be clear when enough improvement effort has been put in and everyone can take a break and focus on their regular jobs.
As issues are being fixed, remember to take a moment to celebrate the successes! A lot of hard work goes into process improvement and that effort needs to be recognized from time to time.
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