cxl | Customer eXperience Leadership

Driving transformational change through Process Excellence and Lean Six Sigma.

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Optimization vs. Operational Reality

Over the years, service organizations have built elaborate optimization models to drive improved operational performance, particularly when it comes to scheduling team members or assets. Conceptually this makes a lot of sense and has driven significant savings and business opportunities. Nevertheless, I’ve seen too many cases where these models don’t adequately factor operational realities and business variability, often leaving missed opportunities on the table.

The first time I came across such a situation, an organization had invested heavily in a state of the art scheduling system that attempted to mathematically optimize various scenarios to create the tightest possible planning of an expensive resource pool. When implemented, the model demonstrated significant savings and no one questioned the validity of the approach. However, an inquisitive leader had noticed that on months where the system had done a stellar job in optimizing the deployment of resources, his month end financials were typically well above target. And on months where the system couldn’t pressurize the resources as well, his month end financials were typically better than target.

As we probed, we found that on months that weren’t as “optimized”, there were less irregular operations, less rework and less customer misses, all of which were driving up hidden costs. In other words, an optimal planned solution drove additional operational costs into the business and was more difficult to manage. As we further analyzed the data, we discovered that it wasn’t that the business was reaching a tipping point but rather there were two key locations which were stress points in the overall operations. With high volumes at key points during the day, these locations experienced very high variability in performance. To improve performance, all that was needed was to reduce pressure and build-in sub-optimal buffers at key times during the day to improve performance across the system.

A similar situation came forward a few years later. In this case, a state of the art system optimized the overall scheduling but also didn’t factor in the variability associated with key tasks and simply worked with average durations. As the variability of these tasks was driven by the time of day (i.e. traffic patterns) and the type of activities, the system would create an optimal solution that simply couldn’t be achieved at key times during the day, causing sig- nificant customer challenges. Regrettably, the optimization algorithm had been hard coded into the system, making it very difficult to adjust to the operational needs.


In both of these cases, there were some common elements, namely:

  • The system was too big to adequately visualize and understand;
  • There were no indicators or processes built-in to see these opportunities – in both cases they were stumble upon by accident;
  • There was no way to contrast the plan with the day of operations scenarios;
  • These systems were not self-healing or adaptive by design – in other words, never would the optimization factor in an understanding of what actually happened;
  • Front-line team members shared concerns with occurrences that they had noticed but were dismissed as there was blind trust in the system.

In a service or transactional environment, often these opportunities are not noticed as it becomes very complex to visualize these constraints. With huge amounts of data, the inefficiencies caused by an optimization system becomes very difficult to demonstrate and find while the impact on operational reliability, costs and customer experience can be quite high.

Have you encountered similar situations where an exercise to optimize caused more operational chal- lenges? H ow was this counteracted with a view of the operational reality? 

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The right tools and assessment of organizational needs

Building on Chris’ recent post, I was talking with a colleague who shared a disheartening example of a retailer that was attempting to launch a new process improvement program with a very narrow approach. The deployment leader had determined that rather than focus on a holistic approach to process improvement or even focus on a toolkit such as Lean or Lean Six Sigma, they would focus on launching a single tool into the organization. While there is no doubt that a single tool can bring value, my challenge comes from the way in which the tool was selected and whether the approach actually fits the organizational needs.

While the leadership of the organization expressed some concerns as to whether the single-focus would work, they gave the go ahead to essentially invest over a million dollars to support the launch after doing a simple pilot that yielded only moderate benefits (and not even demonstrated through a scientific method). A scan of the organization revealed that the critical challenge faced by this retailer was much broader than what a single tool could enable. Rather than focusing on key failure and pain points in the value chain or fully understanding the organizational culture, the decision was made to deploy a tool which had demonstrated results in a prior deployment in a very different sector and with a very different organizational context.

In a subsequent conversation with another leader in a different retailer, a similar story was shared in which they decided to adopt a few key tools from Lean to drive transformational change. This leader expressed great concern that such a narrow focus would likely bring limited outcomes and become the “flavour of the month” program.

In both cases, shouldn’t one ask whether:

  • There was a solid assessment of the organizational needs and culture?
  • The challenges faced by the organization have similar underlying root causes and whether the treatment of these could benefit from a singular approach?
  • Thought had been placed on long-term sustainability of the program and the necessary cultural implications?

The recent work from Mike Rother (Toyota Kata) would tend to reinforce that the real impact of Lean is not from the tools but rather the overall underlying cultural focus on driving continuous improvement at all levels.

While I hope that these two deployments are very successful I’m very alarmed as it is examples like these that bring into question the validity and importance of investing in Operational Excellence programs.

Such examples also bring into question how organizations can ensure that in recruiting a new deployment leader they can ensure that they focus on a leader that has sufficient breadth of expertise to build a deployment that truly fits the organizational needs and culture while maximizing the likelihood of business outcomes rather than rely on a few past successes. I will explore this topic in greater depth in a subsequent post.

What other examples have you seen around a narrow tool focus and the associated risks? What successes have you seen despite this narrow focus?

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As part of the blogging partnership I previously announced, Chris Wan and I are pleased to be launching our newest sister site: The Collaborative Edge.  While the Process Excellence & Transformational Leadership blog is intended to be a reference for implementing and leading Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence deployments with the intent of driving transformational change, this new sister site is focused more specifically on the collaborative space from social influences to methodologies and tools that can be leveraged to drive improved business performance.

We believe that this is an emerging space to which little has been written so far and which will likely trigger a substantial opportunity for the process improvement practitioner. This is an opportunity for us to share our thoughts as a result of our broad experience in tandem with your ideas and strategies. We will touch on topics such as social media, leadership, time and geographical barriers, culture and collaborative ways to drive improved business performance.

We believe that engaging and exploring new avenues with you is the ideal way to share ideas and discover new approaches to achieve process and operational excellence. To that end, we want this blog to be a collaborative exchange of ideas and knowledge so please take every opportunity to provide your feedback and suggest topics for discussion. If you have thoughts as to how we can improve this site, please contact us as well. We will make every attempt to create a collaborative space to foster continued growth.

In addition to regularly checking this site for updates, I encourage you to visit!

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Are we under-leveraging process improvement as a lever to drive team member engagement?

Having reflected on the key themes that came through during the recent Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence Summit in Orlando, I was surprised by the few examples presented by process improvement practitioners discussing how process improvement can be actively leveraged to drive employee engagement.  There were discussions around employee suggestion programs and some examples of “voice of the employee” exercises but the theme was not apparent in most deployments presented and does not seem to be deemed a metric of deployment success.

One might consider that this is an automatic benefit of a process improvement program but that is not necessarily the case.  In fact, while the Theory of Constraints (TOC) and most Process Design approaches have strong merit, the impact on employee engagement is often a hopeful outcome if the new process improves the employee experience and these approaches don’t typically help evolve an organization’s culture.  On the other hand, Lean and Six Sigma will typically engage team members in the process of driving change but depending on the approach taken by the team, the benefits on engagement can be diluted if these improvements still have the appearance of being driven by “experts”.  However, when Lean is applied holistically (as opposed to as a tool), there are definitely strong engagement benefits (think: Mike Rother in Toyota Kata).  Additionally, when approaches such as WorkOut are applied with a focus on engagement, the benefits are quickly apparent.

Given the importance of team engagement to the financial success of an organization and to the quality of the customer experience, there is no doubt that a well-rounded process improvement program should have a significant positive impact on engagement, particularly around the questions that typically focus on “work processes”, “tools and resources to do my job” and “at work my opinion counts”. 

In fact, in a past role where we took a holistic approach to driving transformational process change within a specific value chain (leveraging tools such as WorkOut, the Cultural elements of Lean, the principles described in “Toyota Kata” as well as fresh leadership style), we saw engagement scores move from the bottom quartile to the top quartile within a year while significant costs were taken out and the Customer experience was dramatically overhauled.  In my current role, we’ve noted that where our team has been highly engaged with process improvement efforts leveraging WorkOut and a highly inclusive approach to Lean Six Sigma, key engagement drivers around “work processes” and “at work my opinion counts” saw significant improvements, quite a bit higher than areas that didn’t benefit from as significant a focus on process improvement initiatives.  There is no doubt that other factors such as leadership are at play, but it does however strongly illustrate the benefit of an engagement focused approach to process improvement.

So what can be done to ensure that the linkages to engagement are a strong focus of a process improvement program?  Some of the things to consider include:

  • Build a strong partnership with HR business partners to focus impacts
  • Include goals around driving engagement in key process improvement portfolio leaders
  • Focus on a holistic toolkit that includes tools that are specifically designed to engage team members in driving and owning process changes (think: WorkOut or Kaizen)
  • Ensure that process improvement is focused on evolving the organization’s culture (think: Lean, Fair Process, “Toyota Kata” concepts)
  • Focus on engaging team members through process changes (i.e. rather than measuring number of team members trained or number of projects completed, consider measuring the number of team members engaged in process improvement projects)
  • Include visibility around engagement metrics as part of process improvement team dashboards
  • Ensure that process improvement team members live processes as much as possible and are not perceived as an “elite squad of statisticians”

I welcome your thoughts and ideas around other approaches that can help ensure that process improvement efforts maximize the organizational drive to improve team member engagement.

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Appreciative Inquiry – The untapped opportunity to drive process change

In a recent interview, the topic of Appreciative Inquiry and the applicability to process improvement came up.  It definitely made me think as while Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to Organizational Development that has been around since the 1980s, it has regrettably been underutilized in the process improvement community.

Essentially, Appreciative Inquiry is a process by which the participants within an organization are consulted to help drive change.  While such engagement approaches in the process improvement space typically look at deconstructing the critical failure points within a process to then identify causality prior to implementing the proposed changes, Appreciative Inquiry take a very different approach.  Teams are first asked to share through story telling some of their best experiences.  From this story telling exercise, the teams start looking at all the critical themes that are present when things are working at their best and then start working on ways to improve overall performance by doing more of what needs to be present to improve overall performance.

So while this approach is not ideal to directly drive process change, there are definitely cases where a similar model can help shift the dialogue to a more constructive one.  The approach brings particular value when dealing with sensitive topics or where some of the challenges result from poor relationships between teams.

In the past, I’ve successfully seen this process work to complement WorkOut events or even Lean Six Sigma project teams where relationships between teams were a critical cause of the process failure.  In one case, we encountered a very strained relationship with a supplier which was starting to impact overall process performance.  A traditional approach of finding all the challenges with the supplier would have alienated the two parties even further whereas Appreciative Inquiry was able to focus on the components that worked well between the two teams in order to help drive the overall process performance.

In a second example, the approach was used between two teams within a critical process.  Both the upstream and downstream teams blamed each other for all the process failures and refused to talk to each other to solve the problems.  Using a model very similar to Appreciative Inquiry as part of a WorkOut event, the teams were brought together to focus on the key elements that were present when the two teams worked well together to improve the process performance.  This approach helped surface the key ingredients needed to improve the relationship and made the subsequent dialogue on improving the process performance much easier to complete.

While I’m not advocating the addition of yet another approach to our process improvement tools, I do think that the philosophy and key attributes of Appreciative Inquiry should be considered when addressing process improvement issues that are directly linked to the relationships between teams or to help shape the change process.  At a later date I’ll post more on the Appreciative Inquiry approach and the opportunity to link these with the process improvement toolkit.

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LIVE from the Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence Summit

Coming up in just a few days, I will begin my live Twitter feed from the Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence Summit in Orlando to share some of the key thoughts and insights from the event.  In addition to taking part in the conference to capture the key themes that are emerging in the process improvement space, I will be conducting a workshop for Lean Leaders on the topic of Accelerating deployments and results with 100-day improvement projects (more details in the Upcoming Speaking Engagements tab) where I will cover some of our key successes in leveraging 100-day improvement projects to engage team members in driving rapid improvements across the organization.

Additionally, our team is up for 3 awards at the summit:
– Best Process Improvement Project Under 90 Days: Broadband Build – Test & Turn-up/Migrations
– Master Black Belt of the Year
– Deployment Leader of the Year

Stay tuned for regular updates from the event!


How much untapped opportunity for improvement do we ignore by not engaging our team members?

I apologise for the long pause in my blogging and hope to be able to blog more frequently in 2011.

As I often talk about the importance of engaging front-line teams in leading improvements and turning the role of a process improvement leader into that of a facilitator of change, I’ve regularly been asked whether there have been times where such an approach did not yield results. To this day, I have yet to come across such a case. More often than not, teams have more ideas on how to drive the needed improvements than what we can execute in a reasonable amount of time when the appropriate approach to engagement is undertaken. I’m not talking about employee suggestion boxes or “quality circles” but rather a way to engage teams in focusing on the improvements needed to tackle the critical business challenges. Unfortunately, too often, we omit to tap into our existing knowledge base and miss huge opportunities for business improvement.

As an example, over the Holidays, I found it really interesting to observe how on two occasions the sanitary workers found a way to collect at least 3 hours earlier than on any other day of the year. Interestingly, the same speedier process seems to be in play whenever a pick-up is scheduled immediately prior to a long weekend. So while there are likely many other variables at play, it would lead me to believe that they do know of a way to complete all of the required work in less time than on regular days. The question is whether anyone tapped into that knowledge to drive mutually beneficial improvements!

In his recent book, Simply Effective, Ron Ashkenas shares an example of a question that he has posed to thousands of managers over the years. He asked these managers whether they would take up an offer from their CEO to take on a special one-day a week assignment working directly with them which would involve interesting travel and some exciting work but that would require them to do the rest of their job in the remaining 4 days a week. In 99% of cases, these managers responded that they would take the assignment and figure out a way to do the rest of their regular jobs more efficiently. They typically acknowledge that at least 20 percent of their time is regularly taken up with activities that keep them busy and comfortable but that don’t add much value.

So if all the know-how to dramatically improve productivity is present within the minds of the teams doing the work, why aren’t we better at tapping and executing on these insights to deliver significant operational improvements?


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