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Measuring success

Measuring the progress of your lean initiatives is important but you need to use metrics that matter.


Leaders know metrics are necessary to define what success looks like, measure progress toward a defined target, and assess performance against standards, but they also demonstrate success to people who might otherwise roll their eyes. Used properly, they drive better decisions, problem solving and improvement, yet many organizations operate with few, if any, metrics that provide meaningful information.

Clarity, focus, discipline and engagement are behaviours that provide the necessary foundation for achieving outstanding business performance. Without them, organizations create varying degrees of chaos and the most common and destructive of them is “fire fighting.” In many companies, it’s a normal behaviour and in the most extreme cases, it’s encouraged because management rewards the heroes who save the day rather than those working to prevent chaos.

How does this relate to measurement? Improvement is defined as reducing (or closing) the gap between a defined current state and a target condition. If your company is hooked on fire fighting, your target condition is to reduce (or eliminate) the need for it. After you identify the root causes, then test, adjust and implement the countermeasures, it’s time to gauge your success.

One way to quantify a reduction in chaos is to conduct brief employee surveys. Another is to simply get anecdotal feedback to the question: “Does it feel better?” There are some important improvements that may be tougher to measure, but they’re the right things to do.

Senior management is focused on cash flow, EBITA and profit but how does that translate to the front line employees as a controllable metric?

Take time to convert corporate goals to tangible goals that are understood by people at all levels of the organization. The deeper you go, the more granular the goals need to be if they are to resonate with employees.

Make them fun, controllable and achievable. For instance, if your workers are taking an hour to unload a truck at receiving, challenge them to do it in 45 minutes. Reducing the unloading time by 15 minutes requires a 25% improvement. This is a major accomplishment on paper when viewed through your profit and loss statement, but it’s also a tangible target for frontline employees. It’s a metric that quickly identifies specific “disturbances to flow” that will impede reaching the goal. Management can then offer support and coaching.

It may be difficult to meet the target initially, but it will make subsequent wins easier to accomplish.

Once you have the metrics it’s all about how you “question for performance.”

The next frontier is to help every supervisor, manager, director and senior leader become proficient in improvement basics, problem solving and, ultimately, improvement coaching.

Improvement teams
An effective coach requires the following three skills sets:

  • The technical aspects of improvement (mindsets, tools, and practices).
  • Proper problem solving via plan-do-study-adjust (or its related forms).
  • Coaching techniques.

There’s also value in coaching the coach, then reflect on how you’re developing your improvement teams and leaders. Are they replacing solution-based thinking with clear problem definition, root cause analysis and critical thinking?
Listen to the words you use. Be clear about what you are actually asking people to do, because that’s what you’re going to get.

Here’s an example. A manager and his direct report were discussing the next round of improvements. The conversation was going around in circles: people habitually jump to solutions instead of first digging into the problem. But he was really asking for an improvement solution when he should have opened with, “I want the overtime to be 10% or less.”

When the tone of the conversation changed the improver came back with:

“Today, it is working like this, and we are running overtime as high as 30% in the worst weeks.”
“To keep overtime under 10%, we will need the process to operate like this.”
“As my first step, I intend to…”

You create a learning environment when you question an individual to self-realization. There are several types of questioning skills:

  • Open questions invite a huge amount of information but you may get a little.
  • Closed questions seek a specific answer but you may get more than you bargained for.
  • Turn-around questions ask similar things by using content conveyed to gather additional details.

The most important skill is your ability to “question to the void” … which means asking the same question repeatedly until there’s no more information to gather. Not doing so risks jumping to a premature solution.

Richard Kunst is president and CEO of Cambridge, Ont.-based Kunst Solutions Corp., which publishes the “Lean Thoughts” e-newsletter. Visit www.kunstsolutions.com. E-mail rkunst@kunstartofsolutions.com.

This article appears in the October 2014 issue of PLANT.

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