AUTONOMOUS IMPROVEMENT – A thing of legend?
Over the last couple of weeks Anna and I have been having some fun accelerating improvement with a client in the West Midlands. It’s a great company with a strong tradition of manufacture, a united workforce, and a strong positive culture. With a highly experienced management team they are shaping themselves for success. Together we are rolling out our Accelerated Improvement Model, and the feedback has been quite humbling. We are enjoying it, but can we drive autonomous improvement….
THE AIRPLANE GAME!
After initial sessions talking about culture, and the role of leadership in improvement initiatives. We started to talk about foundations of improvement, and flow. This led to our use of the “Paper Airplane” Game, that I am sure a lot of people will be familiar with. The idea is to demonstrate the significant benefits of moving from batch manufacture to single piece flow.
The game starts with a requirement for each operator to produce batches of five aircraft each. They have to make five, before they can deliver any. This usually results in zero deliveries and masses of Work In Progress (WIP). As we progress to flow lines the deliveries pick up, and the WIP goes down. Eventually we end up with just one aircraft in progress at each work station. Also, a lot of delivered product that is all right first time. In all three sessions, we got our expected outcomes. We had a strong consensus that single piece flow was a better method. Bingo!
I don’t want to focus on the game, and the expected results. What I do want to talk about is our observations about the teams’ ability to solve problems, organise themselves and produce a system that is better. In most cases the system got too complicated at a point. With a little coaching, the team reflected on this and made the next iteration of the process simpler and better.
DRIVING AUTONOMOUS IMPROVEMENT
When we left, the teams were enthusiastic about change. We drove back to the office thinking about the cultural aspect of the session. Anna shared her thoughts on the autonomous improvement we witnessed in the game. She was right! With minimal coaching from us, the teams had not waited to be managed and told what to do. They had lead themselves to a better process.
In one session they were joined by one of the Directors, and they still maintained a level of autonomy. Isn’t that interesting?
HARNESSING REAL PROCESS EXPERTISE
As leaders, we often make negative assumptions about our workforces. They won’t be interested in change, they won’t understand it, or they will cause problems. Perhaps, we force change on them. They feel that they must accept the change because rank trumps their experience (Or in some cases, common sense!)
Maybe that’s why our workforce’s aren’t enthusiastic about change, even when the change is for the good. Maybe this is why autonomous improvement can never happen in such environments.
I am generalising, but it has made us think that if we give guidance on improvement, and get out of the way, these process experts (operators!) will deliver redesigned processes that far exceed our expectations. Solving more problems than we recognise, and at the end of it they will have had fun. Moreover, they will have a more intimate relationship with the organisation, and its objectives. Maybe, a lot more intimate than the relationship we constantly try to inflict on them.
We think that a more externalised leadership role may be better for process improvement, and indeed autonomous improvement. It will allow your teams to see that you trust them. It will drive more accountability by giving them ownership of the processes, and the subsequent improvement.
We aren’t saying that leadership should play no part. We are saying, act as a guide. Don’t step in too early when the team hits a road block. Give them a chance to overcome it themselves.
Trust will drive a better sense of value. It will drive more autonomy when their process starts running in its new iteration. Giving the added benefit of freeing up leadership time in day-to-day operations. Our leaders will have time to do all the things they always say they haven’t got time for. How great is that?