Joseph Paris, chairman of consultancy XON ITEK and the man behind the Operational Excellence Society, warns readers against the pitfalls of not connecting with their staff.

We all look at the world from one perspective – our own. The perspectives we hold are born out of the circumstances of our upbringing and further developed by the experiences we gain during our lives. As such, one would expect that the perspective of some who have experienced much in their lives will be wider than one whose experiences have been more limited.

This is true for professionals dedicated to continuous improvement as well. Those who are exposed to CI through lean tend to see opportunities for improvement from the perspective of a lean practitioner. The same happens to those trained in six sigma, or TQM, or whatever. I find it especially intriguing that each will argue that their approach is the best approach to improvement. But there are inherent limitations to restricting the approach in realising improvements – like Abraham Maslow said, “If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

My experience has been that the fatal flaw of most continuous improvement programmes, and the reason they fail to deliver their potential, is that they marginalise the people in the process – regardless of what might be written in the CI “mission statement”. Instead of gaining the trust and engagement of those who will be directly affected by the improvement initiatives, CI teams usually arrive with a mission for improvement, affect the improvement without connecting with the people actually working the process, and then they immediately move on to the next assignment without even so much as a thorough debrief. The end result is that they are never fully supported by those they are trying to help because they never bother to connect with them on a personal level. They are not fully respected by senior management either, because they fail to deliver the benefits at the expected rates.

But what can be done, what must be done, to optimise the CI programme, maximise the net results achieved and to bring them more in line with expectations? The answer lies in operational excellence, which I define as “improving the performance of companies and the circumstances of those who work for them”.

First, we have to honestly and thoroughly answer two questions, both of which have to be answered from the perspective of the subject being asked and not of what someone thinks the answers might or should be; the first question is, what is important to the company? The second is, what is important to the people who work for the company? Next, we have to discover the intersection between what is important to the company and what is important to the people who work for the company. And that’s where you start your CI programme.

The key to success for any initiative is to be able to clearly and concisely know what the STRATEGY is, to effectively communicate the objectives to the team, and to align the team so that they understand what it is that they are supposed to accomplish. Simplicity in defining your strategy is paramount to success – as Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

Next, you have to be able to develop the TACTICS to achieve the goals defined in your strategy. Close cross-departmental collaboration is critical as you will need the commitment of those who will ultimately make the dreams a reality. However, it is important to realise that you will never satisfy everyone and that there is no such thing as the perfect plan. Here, gaining trust is a prime objective. People are more likely to support a plan with which they disagree, but in which they were given a fair say, than following a plan that is thrust upon them. Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

But ideas will not be realised and plans will not be put into motion without the LOGISTICS. And herein lays the root-cause of why most CI programmes fail, the lack of commitment on the part of the company to support them. It is folly to expect a company to realise any improvement without allocating the resources necessary to affect the plan in pursuit of the objectives. “Strategy and tactics provide the scheme for the conduct of operations, logistics the means therefore.” – Lt. Col. George C. Thorpe, USMC.

Understanding logistics is the most difficult concept to understand for a CI practitioner. I am not talking about machines or inventory, but the “tools” of their trade. CI practitioners talk about the “lean tool kit”, or Pareto charts, or DMAIC. These are all merely tools and not solutions. They are the means to an end – in other words, logistics. It is important to forget the tools and to concentrate on the goals, in the context of their environment and circumstance.

And then EXECUTE, and execute as a team maintaining a high-level of communication. For after you have designed, developed, and prepared – after you have thought all the thoughts you can possibly think – it’s time to do. Without the vigorous prosecution of the plan, only mediocrity and failure will be found. “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution,” said William A. Foster. Remember to perform all the above in partnership and with consideration of the circumstances of those who work at the company. Are the circumstances for those working for the company being improved as a result of the efforts of the CI programme? Do they feel like they have an ownership stake? Are they being given the proper support? Or, are they being set-up for failure by “having responsibility and accountability but no authority”?

Whether you realise the full potential of your continuous improvement programme or not depends on how you answer.