Constant change or process discipline?

by Daniel Druwe Araujo
There is only one way to make changes effective and sustainable in a human organization: by solidly encoding the changes into its culture and into its processes.
The world today is marked by ceaseless changes, forcing the culture, concepts and practices to constantly change, to cope with the needs of the moment. Organizations and professionals who stick to yesterday’s concepts and practices lose competitiveness and are run-over by more proactive competitors. This sounds like common sense, a truism, with no need to be discussed and not subject to challenging.
Toyota is frequently presented as a good example of a company able to sustain success for a long time with a culture of continuous improvement, i.e., continuous change. It is interesting to note however that Toyota is also notable for sticking to the same solid concepts and practices for decades, with a strong process discipline.
In contrast to Toyota, most organizations demonstrate a lesser application to continuous improvement but a high determination to continuous substitution. In my experience as practitioner and as consultant I have been amazed by the easy with which companies abandon concepts and practices that were just half-utilized in favor of a new methodology or program that (once again) promises all the answers and solutions to the business challenges. With each new initiative promising to be the last and definitive one.
I have also verified many times that the “new” methodologies or programs rarely come up with some truly new element and tend rather to be the repackaging of previous concepts and techniques. Sometimes a much clever repackaging but still an avoidable repetition.
Needless to say, this culture of continuous substitution causes an absurd waste of resources and time and, as a consequence, contributes to the loss of competitiveness and of business opportunities.
One of the major causes for all this waste has been the lack of discipline of organizations to implement and operate the processes as they have been agreed upon. Consciously or not, people have used the argument of continuous challenge and improvement as a justification to tolerate deviations from the initially agreed process before it has a chance to work well and achieve sustainability. In this article I want to explore one way for organizations to enforce Process Discipline, consistent with the best practices of operators’ ownership and of the supportive role by leaders and process coaches.
Designing a Process Discipline Accountability Chain
For a long time we accepted as normal that products would be designed for engineering excellence but not necessarily in the best way to manufacture, procure materials, achieve quality and low costs. Because of that, products needed many changes as soon as we started to manufacture them. Even though many of the changes needed in the first year of operation could be classified as improvements, the truth was that most of them could have been avoided at design time, had the designers trained their minds to ‘anticipate the improvements’.
In this sense, most improvements can be considered a failure of design and development.
Suffering these types of waste led us to improve the product engineering disciplines by orienting them to manufacturability, logistics, quality and costs. And more recently to environmental standards.
This has enabled the best companies to avoid a vast amount of product engineering changes, saving time, money and the inherent complexity and confusion.
A similar evolution is needed for teams designing processes, orienting them to design effectiveness and sustainability. It is not enough that processes are elegantly designed and, on paper, that they achieve the objectives. Design teams need to guarantee that the new processes will achieve the defined business objectives not only at the inauguration day but consistently over time.
Obviously most processes will require some maintenance, adjustments and improvements over time, but the way to manage these activities need to be thought out as part of the original design and implementation, in the same way that the design of an equipment or a car must include all the trouble-shooting and maintenance procedures.
Failing to do this has caused well designed processes to be improperly implemented and poorly sustained. As a result, the organizations eventually give up on the implemented processes and start on a new project to redesign, re-implement and retry achieving the same business objectives.
Many of the new processes in an ordinary organization today are, in fact, a new attempt to accomplish the same as the processes implemented before, without really understanding why the previous attempts failed.
One of prevailing reasons for processes failing and requiring substitution is simply that the organization did not apply the discipline to make the processes work consistently, to the specifications.
Going back to the analogy to equipments, this is like substituting an equipment time and time again, without checking if the reason for the old equipment not to work could not be simply... it was not properly installed, operated and maintained.
Since design time we need to define a clear chain of accountability for the effectiveness and sustainability of the processes to be implemented.
Coherent with modern practices of operator ownership, supportive leadership and process coaching, the accountability chain should involve the design team, the operating organization and some process expert personnel.
The Design, Development and Implementation Team
As mentioned above, this team is responsible for defining the procedures to guarantee that the new or changed process will be implemented to the original specifications and will be sustained and continuously improved from that level up. It is responsible to guarantee that the new or changed process will not be partially implemented and that it will not step back or loose effectiveness.
This can be achieved by
including the procedures for monitoring and continuously improving the process in the Standard Work for the process;
ensuring that the operators of the new / changed process and the involved leaders are fully educated and trained on the required concepts and on the Standard Work for the process, including the monitoring and continuous improvement procedures;
following the operation of the process and the performance of leaders as many times as needed to be sure that the process is valid and running smooth, and that the operators and leaders are able and committed to their roles;
ensuring that the other ‘nursing’ procedures are in place and performing well.
This is to say, the design, development and implementation team cannot consider the process implemented and, therefore, cannot retire from the monitoring of the process until the permanent monitoring schemes are fully capable and operational.
In figure 1 this is represented with an 1-month monitoring but the time needs to be whatever is required to demonstrate that people are fully educated, trained and committed, that the process is operating effectively and achieving the objectives, and that the monitoring and continuous improvement procedures have taken over.
The Operating Organization
The design, development and implementation team can only consider its work completed when the organization that operates the process assumes full responsibility for operating and monitoring the process, for identifying deviations and taking actions to ensure effectiveness, sustainability and continuous improvement.
The role and responsibility of the process operating organization starts with the workers that operate the process in the day-to-day. The philosophy of Lean, of which Toyota is a great application, establishes that the operator of the process should own the process, enforce strict obedience to the formal standard work, and pursue continuous improvements.
Continuous improvements need to be discussed within the operating team and with other expert people, validated and agreed upon, and incorporated into the Standard Work so they can be applied.
In this way we achieve a good balance between standardization and proactive change to continuously improve, and between operator level empowerment and disciplined cross functional validation.
Deviations from the Standard Work are considered waste and the operator of the process is the first agent able to notice the deviation and take or call for the needed actions to eliminate the waste. He/she is expected to identify deviations and take or call for action in real time, as the process is running or measures are being taken.
In figure 2 I am assuming for example that a deviation cannot go unnoticed or un-acted by the operating worker beyond its shift. I.e., any deviation older than one shift that goes unnoticed or un-acted represents a failure in the monitoring of the process by the operators of that shift. The next instance of the monitoring process that detects the deviation needs not only to take action on the deviation but also inquire and take action on the fact that the operators have not noticed and acted on the deviation in time.
The cause may be a matter of commitment by the operators to enforce the Standard Work but it may also be that the operators are lacking the conditions to notice the deviation and take action. Whatever the reason, it needs to be resolved.
It is also part of the Lean philosophy that leaders at all levels should be responsible and committed to frequently walk to the processes, observe their operation, compare them to the Standard Work and take action on any deviation noticed.
If deviations are caused by lack of conditions to properly execute the Standard Work, it is the responsibility of leaders to understand it and promote the necessary conditions.
If deviations are caused by a need to change or improve the Standard Work, leaders also have the responsibility to support the operators and expert people in designing and implementing the appropriate changes.
Therefore, when the design, development and implementation team defines the procedure for monitoring the process, they need to specify at which time interval each level of leadership is scheduled to go to observe the process in operation, verify the compliance to the Standard Work, coach operators and subordinate leaders, and call for actions on observed deviations.
Figure 3 exemplifies the progressively larger intervals for every higher leadership level in the operating organization to go observe, verify, coach and act.
If the monitoring procedure implemented for a given process were like depicted in figure 3, it would mean that a deviation older that half a month, found unnoticed or un-acted upon, would indicate a failure in the monitoring by the workers executing the process, by the team leader, by the fore(wo)man and by the supervisor. Then the first level noticing the deviation should not only call for actions on the deviation but also investigate why the previous monitoring levels did not notice or did not take action.
Failure in the monitoring procedure would be, as for example:
a deviation from the Standard Work that was not formally identified for action;
a deviation in performance (not achieving the goal in time or operating outside of the acceptable envelope) not yet formally investigated and identified for action;
a deviation formally identified but for which there isn’t a clear action identified or, at least, a clear responsibility assigned to formulate and take the needed action;
a deviation formally identified, with responsibilities and perhaps a clear action defined but already past due in any stage;
Again, the focus is both on understanding the root causes and taking corrective / improvement actions on the deviation itself, and on understanding and taking action on any failure of the monitoring procedure.
The Process Expert People
In addition to the process operating organization, there frequently is some staff or supporting organization dedicated to procure the best concepts and practices that can be applied to the business. These people can make three important contributions:
identify ‘foreign’ concepts and best practices and assess their attractiveness to the business, then facilitate their ‘digestion’ and incorporation to the business culture and processes;
work across functions, departments, business lines and processes, helping homogenize concepts and practices; learn the best concepts and practices developed internally and help disseminate them to the whole organization;
provide a critical eye to each process application, with the benefit of knowing the external best concepts and practices, knowing the internal culture and business characteristics, and being able to compare practices across the different areas of the company.
It is therefore very useful to include these people in the Accountability Chain for the effectiveness and sustainability of the implemented processes. Their role and responsibilities should be identified by the Development / Implementation team and should be in place before any process is considered implemented.
As an example, there might be someone assigned the role and responsibility of a ‘Process Coach’, to periodically go and see how the process is being operated in the different areas where it applies, to actively listen to the operators of the process in order to identify corrections needed by the process, to identify gaps in the development of people, improvement opportunities, etc. This ‘Process Coach’ should coach the operators and leaders involved in the process, cross-pollinate by taking ideas and solutions from one operating area to another, coordinate cross-area corrective/improvement actions, etc.
The interval for the periodical visits by the Process Coach will depend on the number of areas in which the process is used, the number of processes under the responsibility of the Coach, and so on. Even more important, the interval should be sensible to the maturity of the process.
Recently implemented processes, processes exposed to changing conditions and processes with higher people turnover should receive more frequent attention by the Process Coach.
Several processes may be part of a bigger program. For example, the Continuous Improvement Board Process and TPM may be part of a Lean initiative. That bigger program normally has a champion and leaders in the organization.
The champion and the leaders of that program should also understand and commit to the role and responsibility of going, seeing and acting periodically on all of the processes under the program. This role and responsibility should be clearly specified in the process monitoring procedure.
Finally, there may be an External Auditor who periodically goes and see the process in the different organizations where it is being operated, and recommend actions to correct and improve. This External Auditor may be someone internal to your company but external to the organization that operates the process, or someone contracted from another company.
Figure 4 exemplifies the responsibilities for all three types of monitoring people: the
Development / Implementation Team, the Process Operating Organization and the Process Coaching Organization.
A chart similar to that of figure 4, with the actual names of the people in each role, would be instrumental to make visual the responsibilities of the different agents that should go, see and act the process implemented. It would be a valuable visual to insert on the corner of the performance boards, to clearly expose who is involved in the Accountability Chain for each process.
With the pressure to lower prices and increase velocity, modern companies cannot afford to spend time and money developing and implementing a process without putting in place the mechanisms to ensure that the process will run effectively and that it will be sustainable.
Any process that is considered implemented without enforcing mechanisms will just create waste and contribute to a culture of non-accountability.
Processes that are said to be implemented but that are not managed to work effectively, or that soon deviate from the specified Standard Work, also build skepticism in the organization, cumulatively increasing the difficult to convince people to change and adopt new processes.
On the other hand, enforcing process discipline to accomplish effectiveness and sustainability absolutely does not detract from continuous improvement. On the contrary, having a clear definition of the existing process and the confidence that the standard work is being obeyed is an important basis for any improvement initiative.
Process Discipline and Continuous Improvement that mutually reinforce each other are one of the most important avenues for pursuing business competitiveness.
Transformation Through People
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