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Improvement for the Sake of Improvement Means Nothing

by Dave LaHote
April 4, 2014

Improvement for the Sake of Improvement Means Nothing

by Dave LaHote
April 4, 2014 | Comments (5)

During a recent visit to a commercial equipment manufacturing company (that’s been working on “Lean” for over 20 years), I asked them to walk me through their latest improvement project. 

This idea of taking a walk in order to see first hand what is going on is a basic lean concept. They proceeded to show me their current project where some of their best “improvement” people were working on their quotation approval process. It was taking about 2 weeks to get a quote request approved and provided to their customer and they wanted to reduce this time to 2 days. They wanted to make an 80% improvement in process time.  

This quote approval process is similar to any administrative process that requires different individuals and departments to review and approve something. I’m sure you can think of similar processes in your organization. 

This company showed me their current state value stream map and physically walked me through the process showing me each step. As we walked I kept thinking to myself can all this work really be necessary just to provide an accurate and timely response to a customer request? 

Then they showed me their future state map. It was obvious they had put a lot of thought into the whole project and their mastery of the improvement tools was obvious. Still, I wanted to ask a couple of simple questions. “Why do you need to approve quotes?” and “Have you always had this process?”

To make a long story short, they had instituted the quote approval process about 5 years earlier in response to a mistake (one incorrect quote) made by a new salesman who the Sales Manager admitted they had not properly trained. Over time, this process instituted as the solution to one mistake, had become more and more burdensome and the cause of much dissatisfaction for customers.  

My advice? Eliminate the process, don’t improve it. If they could just step back from the process and see it objectively as I did, they would understand that the process was adding no value in the eyes of the customer. The customer wanted a quote right away and with a little work with their sales force, they could enable the sales people to make good quotes right when customers requested them.

So, what improvements are you working on? Are you improving something that is essentially waste or are you providing value to your customer, clients, or patients? I see far too many organizations waste some of their best resources doing the former rather than better understanding how to deliver real value at the right time. Improvement for the sake of improvement doesn’t mean anything. 

You’ll notice in the example above, they needed to move the responsibility for responding to the customer to the frontline worker (the sales people in this case). These people were in the best position to judge the proper way to respond to the customer’s needs. To do this, they needed the management team to support the sales force by making sure they had the information and guidelines needed to produce a good quote. Remember, the people closest to the point of value creation need to be supported to do their work well. If you’re in a management or supervisory position, is this something you make sure happens?

Ok, but what about processes you want to eliminate, but can’t or really shouldn’t. I often hear the excuse that a process is just something that's required, no if’s, and’s, but’s about it. For example, required by the Joint Commission in Healthcare or the FAA in Aerospace or the FDA in the Pharmaceutical industry. Sometimes this is true. Often it’s usually just an excuse. Your organization created the processes that you have. We need to learn to challenge our current conditions and dig deep to understand why we do what we do and question whether it really provides value to anyone. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Do we need this process at all?” or just to radically rethink your processes.

By all means, “continuously improve.” But make sure you are improving processes that deliver real value as defined by the end consumer of the process (in most cases the customer). 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  gemba,  mindfulness,  problem solving,  waste
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Karyn Ross April 04, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment

Absolutely correct! Here is the link to a SlideShare that Jeff Liker and I put together on this same topic: http://fr.slideshare.net/JeffLiker/a-lean-team-needs-a-goal

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Ken Hunt April 04, 2014
5 People AGREE with this comment
Agreed. This is a prime example of creating a process (non value added) to fix another one. Instead, if we work to mistake proof a process after an error is detected, and make it part of our Standard Work, then the error should not be repeated.

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Keith Lodahl April 07, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
A few years ago my department was given the assignment to work with IT and Lean the parts of a manual process that couldn't be automated.  I gave it to a new member of the team that came from IT.  He wisely asked those who recieved the report what part of the work they used.  He discoverd that none of the 53 recipients used the report or any part of it.  Compiling this report was one person's full time job, and she hated it.  The report was cancelled and the person was given other more fulfilling work.

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Erin Urban April 07, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Great article! I have an almost identical example from my former employer. A very time-consuming and laborious process originated from one mistake made over 15 years ago. As an improvement: they wanted to automate the process. Sometimes it's challenging for the participants to take an objective look at the situation (after all, change is scary business), but is so eye-opening when they do!

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Marc Gagnon April 10, 2014
"...FDA in the Pharmaceutical industry. Sometimes this is true. Often it’s usually just an excuse."
Be careful in extrapolating "Sometimes and often" to "usually" - unless you have data to support the assertion.
What happens in this industry is the FDA requirement gets layer after layer of policy interpretation and SOP dressing until the original requirement is lost. It is possible to mine the core requirement, but changing the corporate guidance becomes more burdensome than compliance.  Instead, at the site level, we focus on reducing the waste within this "Business Value Add" work at least as scrupulously as the true Value Add itself.

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