I’m sure you have all heard the phrase I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me this question. If you follow LinkedIn at all someone poses this question to anyone willing to answer at least once a day and as a result they get opinions that list the benefits of a Top Down or Bottom Up continuous improvement process.
I happen to sit right in the middle on this subject and will boldly tell you that both methods are highly likely to fail. In fact, I believe that if you were to pick one or the other you would have about a 10 percent chance of building a sustained continuous improvement effort. If it makes you feel better, you have about a 30% chance of recognizing a minimal return on investment for a single Top Down or Bottom Up continuous improvement project. You should also expect that the recognized improvements will quickly fade away with the next change of management or the promotion/exit of a key hourly employee.
Understanding that both Top Down and Bottom Up continuous improvement efforts are doomed to failure, I do believe that it is possible to create a continuous improvement effort that will deliver a culture of improvement with sustained results. This effort is known as Cross-Functional Continuous-Improvement.
Before I discuss how to effectively implement a true Cross-Functional effort I think it’s important to understand the multiple reasons Top Down and Bottom Up efforts fail. As you read each one begin thinking of some simple steps that would have resolved the issue.
- Middle Management Has Pay/Performance Goals That Drive Bad Behaviors – Good luck driving TPM, Operator Care, Precision Maintenance, Reliability Centered Maintenance or Root Cause Analysis if your Operations, Maintenance and Engineering Managers have a portion of their pay tied to monthly production numbers. Those who are short-sighted will always elect to run your equipment to achieve short term goals.
- Hourly Operations, Maintenance and Service Employees Have No Stake in the Game – I have been involved in the world of continuous improvement for over 30 years and continue to be impressed by the knowledge our hourly people possess. I’m also not surprised when I see a large percentage of these folks sit back and cross their arms when we start talking about thing we can do to improve. “What’s in it for me? If we help eliminate problems, increase production and reduce costs my bosses all get a raise. When the problems go away and the equipment runs better we then look to eliminate hourly people. What’s in this for me?”
- They Try to Take On Too Much at The Start – I like to tell people that a Continuous Improvement effort is best started one asset or process at a time so we can begin demonstrating best practices and show the results of the effort in 1 area. When you try to make significant changes in behavior and then expect them to change overnight the likelihood of success is very slim. Remember your current behaviors good or bad are a directly related to years of reinforcement. Start small and develop a plan to change one asset, system or process at a time.
- We Lack the Skills Required to Make Change Occur – I would like to point out first that this is a two-way street. While it’s nice to believe we could transform from total chaos to a world class organization in 6 months, unless we identify our skill gaps at all levels and provide the training necessary to eliminate those gaps, the probability of succeeding in that goal is very slim.
- We Fail to Communicate – It seems to me that bulletin boards have become a thing of the past. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if they are the be all end all of proper communication but they can provide a critical function to aid success. Communication! I am continuously amazed at how little most companies communicate with their employees in regard to anything that is important to their business with the exception of Safety Incidents. If you’re starting a Continuous Improvement effort, it might be a good idea to appoint someone as the project communications leader. This person will be responsible for communication progress in regard to training, task implementation, task schedule compliance and key result measures. Add the visual communication to weekly face to face progress reports and you now have a form of communication that reinforces the importance of our team effort.
- We Ignore the Business Case – A good friend of mine used to say if you want people to change all you need to do is create a crisis. While this might work to some extent, I believe that the best way to drive change is to involve people at all levels in the company in how to build a business case for change. Unless your people at all levels understand what it costs to make our products, what it costs when the equipment is running, what it costs to rework product or produce scrap you are losing out on a multitude of fantastic ideas that can reduce costs and improve productivity. Now add to this the fact that you are trying to change a stale culture and drive improvement at all levels and less than 2% of your employees know what it costs to put your product on the shelf. Real change requires transparency at all levels, open communication between all levels and a real stake in the success of your business at all levels.
- You Use Complex Tools and Methods to Solve Simple Problems – We have been doing this for centuries, look up Occam’s Razor a problem solving principal attributed to William Occam in the early 1300’s. In simple terms Mr. Occam suggests we start with the simplest of tools to first solve our problem. Start with 5 Why’s before you use Fault Tree Analysis, exhaust and mitigate your known failure modes before applying Weibull statistics to identify potential causes, the list of complex tools available for use/misuse is endless. If you’re looking for success, keep it simple. I promise you, your problems aren’t nearly as complex as you believe them to be.
- You Don’t Believe Your People Have the Answers – The reality here is this could not be further than the truth. For the last 20 years I have been working with teams to identify and eliminate problems and in all of the years I have been doing this I have never had to call an expert from an outside company for assistance. Your people have the answers, in most cases your internal leaders/facilitators either lack the skills required to lead the effort or they are simply afraid to ask the more difficult or pressing questions.
- Why Bother, When You Know the Management Team Will Change in 18 Months – This very clear message never seems to make it to Corporate Management. Put in simple but honest terms you hourly folks are sick of the constant change in Operations, Engineering and Maintenance management. Each new person that rotates into one of these positions wants to put their name on some kind of change. I have seen several programs making great progress come to a complete halt when someone decides it’s time to change managers. If you were looking for the number 1 reason why you need a cross-functional continuous improvement team this might be it! Think about it. How excited would you be to participate in a new effort if you worked 2 years to get a good effort started only to have one person come in and drive it to a screeching halt?
- Your Continuous Improvement is Focused On Blame – I honestly don’t believe anyone starts a Continuous Improvement effort with the thought of blaming an individual or group of people for a failure that could have been prevented. I have however seen teams on verge of break-through change go completely silent when someone with authority asked them who was responsible. If you want to really find out what is going on at your facility you need to create an environment where people know they can share without repercussion.
So let’s talk about how to remove the excuses and make all of this work. The term Cross-Functional Team shouldn’t be new to anyone as this typically is a team made up of people from Operations, Maintenance and Engineering. While a team with representatives from each of these areas could certainly could identify some issues and develop some mitigating solutions they won’t have influence necessary to sustain the effort. Our Cross-Functional Team needs to include your companies top influencers. Leaders whose positions and titles are not going to change every 18 to 24 months. Start with a charter that outlines the objective of the effort, roles and responsibilities for each team member, a communication plan and leader. The charter should also set clear expectations regarding meeting attendance, how projects will be selected and who will be responsible for facilitating the effort.
While many would consider this a top down effort the objective for having high level team members is to send a clear message that the effort is supported at all levels of the company. This helps to eliminate the mixed messages we often see in top down efforts and reinforces the discipline of using simple structured tools to identify and eliminate problems. To help make clear that we are truly using a cross-functional approach, participants from hourly positions will be appointed as team leaders. In doing this the effort to identify issues and recommend mitigation strategies will be driven from the bottom up by the people who know the process the best. The implementation and follow through to ensure all tasks are completed and have become a regular part of our working routine is driven from the top down. This ensures old bad behaviors don’t creep back in and sabotage the changing culture.