Understanding What Causes Problems

Mary shares a five step methodology that will help uncover the root causes of problems. They are:

  1. State the problem
  2. Collect data
  3. Observe problems
  4. Develop an issues template
  5. Identify the critical issues

This podcast is also available as an article: Understanding What Causes Problems

Best Practices for Effective Implementation Plans

Mary shares best practices for effective implementation plans. This includes:

  1. Business readiness
  2. Liaison roles
  3. Software or other equipment needed
  4. Training
  5. Communication
  6. Scheduling
  7. Resources
  8. Logistics
  9. Budget
  10. Change management

This podcast is also available as an article: Best Practices for Effective Implementation Plans

The Power of Why

One of the best ways to get to root causes of problems lies in the question “why.” Why does it take 30 days to pay an invoice? Why does Finance require five signatures on the cheque? Why is the Contracts Division involved in payment processing? Why? It is such a simple question, but it can generate powerful results.

The key to using the “5-Whys” is to ask “why” five times (sometimes the answer you’re looking for will be revealed in less than five questions, but usually not more than five). Each why question builds on the answer provided to the previous question. Here’s an example of how to use it to get to root causes of problems, starting with the problem statement.

Problem statement: Our suppliers are unhappy because they aren’t getting their payments within two weeks of invoicing.

1.  Why aren’t suppliers getting paid within two weeks?

Because it takes Finance at least two weeks to get approvals on the invoice.

2.  Why does it take Finance at least two weeks to get approvals on the invoice?

Because it takes at least two weeks for the contract manager to approve the invoice.

3.  Why does it take at least two weeks for the contract manager to approve the invoice?

Because the contract manager doesn’t always know that they have invoices waiting for their approval.

4.  Why doesn’t the contract manager know that they have invoices waiting for their approval?

Because invoices aren’t separated from other work, the contract manager does not know that they have high priority items like approvals mixed in with lower priority work.

5.  Why aren’t invoices separated from other work?

I don’t know.

In this case, you can see that it took five Whys to discover that the delay in payment is a result of ineffective approval processing.

The 5 Whys can also be used as part of a cause-and-effect diagram. This is also known as a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. Here is an example of this diagram. You will notice that process has the most issues, so this is an indication that process may be the root cause of the problem you are seeking to resolve.

While a very simple tool, the power of the 5-Whys in rooting out causes of problems is invaluable to those interested in improving organizational processes. Why, you ask? Because it is simply one of the easiest tools to use; that’s why.

How Organizations Can Identify Areas for Improvement

Mary shares ways that organizations can identify priority areas for improvement. She discusses using a lean assessment methodology. The steps include:

  1. Conducting meetings to review expectations and deadlines
  2. Determining the project scope
  3. Conducting interviews with staff
  4. Developing benchmarking in numerous areas
  5. Preparing a summary of your findings and preparing solutions
  6. Meeting with the stakeholders to review your findings

This podcast is also available as an article: How Organizations Can Identify Areas for Improvement

Planning Makes Perfect

When was the last time you developed a plan? Did you implement your plan? And here’s the million dollar question: Did you implement your plan successfully? If implementation was successful, then it is very likely that you spent at least half your time in the planning process before you started with implementation. The importance of planning cannot be overemphasized, but in western cultures, the tendency is to follow a cycle of “plan,do, re-plan, re-do, re-plan, re-do,” until the plan and implementation are completed.This is the wrong way to plan and implement, since the end result can take
twice as long and cost twice as much as necessary.

Instead, follow the Japanese Management Paradigm process where planning is done completely and right the first time before implementation commences (i.e., “plan, plan, plan, plan, plan, do”). There are many advantages in doing it this way, not the least of which is both time and cost savings. Other advantages include:

  • Verified and correct guidelines and goals that can be used for future decisions.
  • Proactive goal setting including risk contingency plans.
  • Established baselines that can be used for performance measurement of the implemented solution.
  • Correct allocation of time and resources to the solution.

It is human nature to want to get “doing” as soon as possible; but the devil is in the  details. If you do not devote enough time to the details, those overlooked details may very well be your plan’s undoing during implementation. Here are guidelines to help you develop a solid plan before moving to implementation (these guidelines are how to plan for a Lean project, but can easily be adapted to any project in your organization):

  1. Form a steering committee of stakeholders to guide your project.
  2. With the steering committee, identify the current situation (problem to be addressed) in your organization.
  3. With the steering committee, identify the future state (aim for realistic and achievable improvements, but it doesn’t hurt to aim for “utopia” in the long term).
  4. With the steering committee, identify three to five high level objectives to be achieved in the first year (working toward future state).
  5. With the steering committee, identify the projects that align with the high level objectives (see item 4 above).
  6. With the steering committee, develop a risk management plan for each of the projects.
  7. With the steering committee, develop a communications plan for each of the projects.
  8. With the steering committee, develop an implementation plan for projects to be implemented in the first year.
  9. Commence implementation.

Notice that planning is not a “solo” act. The steering committee must be involved and included during the entire planning process. For greater effectiveness and efficiency during the project, I suggest that the committee be no larger than ten members (seven-to-ten is ideal).

And, finally, remember that during any new initiative (and starting right away with the concept), communication is extremely important. You will need to repeat your message(s) at least seven times before your audience understands what it is that you’re talking about. People will rather put up with an existing problem than accept a solution they don’t understand. Communicate, communicate, communicate. By doing so, you will build buy-in and momentum for both your plan and its successful implementation.

Leaders Helping Staff with Productivity

Mary shares how leaders can empower their staff so that they, too, can become highly productive. Empowered employees are more engaged, and more engaged employees tend to work harder, knowing that they are an important part of the big picture, thus helping to create a successful company. Here are steps to help your employees feel more engaged:

  1. Talk to your staff and let them know your vision
  2. Provide staff with necessary training
  3. Delegate work to your staff and provide assistance, if required
  4. Empower employees to make decisions so that they don’t have to get your approval on every task
  5. Don’t hover. Set goals and priorities and allow them to work independently
  6. Reward your staff for their productivity

This podcast is also available as an article: Leaders Helping Staff with Productivity


Work Smarter, Not Harder

What’s the secret to working smarter, not harder? The answer is standardized work methods. If you do not have documented standards for your work, then you are working much harder than necessary.

Standards, by their nature, imply that they are good. And they are. When we have standards for the way we work, we have a method that enables us to improve control of our operations. Documented standards provide us with the baseline against which to measure our performance. When we have standards, we are able to optimize our performance by reducing waste and variability in our operations and improving the quality of our product or service.

When developing standards for work methods, here are some considerations to help you get started:

  1. Standards must be followed. In order to achieve this, buy-in must come from all of those who are using the standard. One way to accomplish this is to engage the people who will be following the standards to develop them. This approach enables a “self-governing” process. Also, locate a copy of the standards at each workstation (or ensure people know where to find them online).
  2. Standards must be monitored for improvement opportunities. Continuous improvement is key to ensuring that your standards are always current and that they meet the organization’s and customer’s needs.
  3. Manage exceptions by documenting, reviewing, and acting on the exceptions. If exceptions are too frequent, this is an indication that the standards need to be changed.

Without standards, an organization cannot improve. Trying to do so is like trying to hit a moving target. If the current process is in control and stable (through standards), then it can be improved. If it is not subject to standards, then it cannot be improved, since there is no baseline on which to gauge improvement.

The benefits of standardizing work methods through documented procedures cannot be overstated in terms of benefits to the organization. These benefits include enabling problem-solving, reducing costs of continuous improvement, highlighting waste and problems in processes, making new employee training easier, and improving operator control of operations.

In short, standardization is the best, safest, and easiest way to do your job. It’s a way to work smarter, not harder.

What is Value-Add and How Does it Impact Efficiency?

Mary explains the meaning of “value-add.” The criteria are:

  1. The customer is willing to pay for it
  2. The process, object, or service has to be physically changed
  3. The process, object, or service is done right the first time

In this podcast, she also shares eight common areas for waste and provides examples of each. They are:

  1. Defects
  2. Overproduction
  3. Waiting
  4. Non-utilized talent
  5. Transportation
  6. Inventory
  7. Motion
  8. Extra processing

This podcast is also available as an article: What is Value-Add and How Does It Impact Efficiency?