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Four dynamite steps for lighting a fire under your improvement program

Recently, a colleague said to me that he had been on the improvement journey with his team for quite a while but it wasn’t until he had received some very specific training from me around how to ‘coach’ for improvement that the penny started to drop.

Then the penny dropped for me. What do leaders need when they are starting out in improvement? They need some strong tips to help them understand what they are trying to achieve and some tools to get started with. I’m a big believer in giving people simple, straightforward options when it comes to lean and starting an improvement program is no different.

In Toyota Kata, Mike Rother provides us with a great pathway to follow when starting out with improvement and more importantly, how to coach others on the path. Today’s tips are based on his work, but adapted to suit the improvement program start-up.

If you want your improvement program to burn brightly, you have to fire people up and then keep those fires burning.

1) Make sure people understand the target vision and the current strategy to get there.

Without a target vision your improvement efforts will be random and less effective than they could be. In ‘Lean Leadership – The importance of having a clear target vision for your lean transformation,’ I talk about how having a clear, shared target vision can focus your improvement journey and generate rapid results.

Everyone in your team or organisation must understand the target vision clearly. Make this a focus point.

2) Empower people to get fired up about improvement

In ‘The Three Essential Things Every Company Needs for a Successful Lean Transformation,’ I discuss the fundamental principles that are driving our company’s lean transformation. One of the key things is providing people with the empowerment, skills and ultimately the obligation to improve their own work areas and processes.

Without the creation of a safe, blame free culture, no improvement program stands a chance. Commitment from the top to improvement and constant encouragement to keep moving forwards, even when there a failures adds essential fuel to the fire.

3) Focus your improvement activity like a laser beam, not a scatter gun.

Make sure that when you do start improvement work with your team,  you focus on improvements that will move you towards the target vision. In Toyota Kata, Rother discusses the difference between what we can do and what we have to do to move us towards the Target Vision. Making sure you focus mostly on the ‘have to dos’ will move you and your team towards the target vision more rapidly.  By all means, if there are pressing safety or quality improvements, make sure these are done but then move focus back to the target.

4) Focus the improvement activities themselves on the five coaching questions

Again, in Toyota Kata, Rother gives us five questions that can help us move towards the right solutions for our improvement activities with little fuss.

These questions are*:

1 – What is the target condition? (the challenge)

2 – What is the actual condition now?

3 – What obstacles are now preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are  you addressing now?

4 – What is your next step (Start of the PDCA cycle)

5 – When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

* from Toyota Kata, Mike Rother, 2010

I love the simplicity of these questions. They are accessible to anyone and can be used anytime anywhere.

When combined with the first three steps, they are a powerful mix that will catapult any team towards rapid improvement.

The number is not entirely certain but many lean practitioners believe that anywhere from 90% -98% of lean transformations fail. I believe these failures come from leaders who are unable or unwilling to keep the improvement fires burning. It’s a simple formula:

  • Have a vision and communicate it
  • Empower and drive people to improve processes
  • Focus improvement like a laser beam
  • Coach people in the five questions

These four simple but effective steps will help you get your improvement program started and keep it burning for the long term.

Want more information or help? Check out The Lean Minimalist for free articles on simple but powerful business improvement philosophy and tools.

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