No time for rapid improvement?

No time for Rapid Improvement?

Recently I visited a large organisation where I met a head of department (let’s call her Susan) and her team. The team’s remit was to recruit temporary, unskilled staff for the rest of the organisation.

Susan and her colleagues admitted they were frustrated by the inefficiency of the recruitment process which involved interfacing with many different groups. The receiving departments were disappointed by the length of time it took to get the resource they desperately needed.

With some guidance, Susan’s team mapped out each step of the process including timings. Surprisingly, the total process duration was often around 20 weeks. (Yes – 20 weeks!)

Susan considered that a ‘Rapid Improvement Workshop’ would be an effective way of tackling the lead-time of this process. With a few days of concentrated effort, she believed, her team could make a big difference by eliminating much of the complexity, delay and frustration in the existing process.


Contrast with part-time improvement projects

Organisations often initiate cross-functional improvement efforts as a part-time activity for people.

There is nothing wrong with this, and sometimes it’s the only option, however, consider the implications:

  • It takes much effort to get everyone in a cross-functional project team together at one time.
  • Attendance at weekly meetings might vary and consistency of contribution can be lost.
  • Meetings generally last an hour or two and progress can be limited in that time period.
  • Time must be spent recapping at the start of each meeting, before new progress can be made.

All of the above is quite normal. However, results can take many weeks in coming.


What is a Rapid Improvement Workshop?

A Rapid Improvement Workshop (RIW) is a way of engaging a team to quickly improve or transform some aspect of an organisation. Such a workshop focusses on the redesign of one or more processes to make them more efficient and effective.

After a problematic process has been identified, rapid improvement takes place when:

  • A cross-functional team of people are carefully selected to address the challenge.
  • This team meets in an environment which is free of distractions for 1 to 5 days (depending on the complexity of the problem).
  • Participants dedicate their attention to the specific problem at hand and work on it in a very focussed way.
  • A facilitator guides the team through the workshop using systematic problem-solving techniques.
  • The team is empowered to make decisions but has pre-arranged access to management to ratify any proposals.
  • Wherever possible, solutions are implemented before the workshop ends.
  • Remaining post-workshop actions are taken quickly to minimise drift and maximise benefit.

Rapid Improvement Workshops are effective because the team is freed up from all other tasks, allowing them to do “deep work” with little or no distraction. It is generally recognised that whilst knowledge and intelligence are necessary ingredients, great success is achieved through sustained focus.

It was Zig Ziglar who said, “I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there, you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.


So what’s the problem with Rapid Improvement Workshops?

In a word, time. Given the need for full attendance for at least a day (more likely longer), when a Rapid Improvement Workshop is suggested, I often hear responses like:

“We couldn’t do that; we can’t leave the office (or the line) for that length of time.”

“Management would never agree to freeing us up.”

“The place would collapse.”

All of the above are natural responses. Historically, as fast global supply chains have developed, as international competition has increased and as budgets have been squeezed, so “minimising headcount” has become a prevalent management tactic. If anything, every role is having to contribute more and each is critical for delivering results. There’s not a lot of slack in available time.

However, the improvement imperative has not gone away. We end up with conflict between the requirement to keep a process running and the need to temporarily extract people to allow them to examine how the process might be bettered. Some would name this differentiation as working “in” a process, as opposed to working “on” a process.

Despite these difficulties, in my experience, a little bit of creative planning and organisation is often enough to ensure that a quorum of the right people can be freed up to fully participate in improvement workshops and generate great results without “the place collapsing”.

After all, the same organisations find ways to cope with holidays, illness, maternity / paternity and compassionate leave, time for training and development, and special events.


What to do?

In the case of Susan’s recruitment process, a few days allocated to a Rapid Improvement Workshop, would make no substantive difference to her 20 week service level in the short term, but would result in many weeks of time saved on an ongoing basis.

Susan “bit the bullet”. By the end of the second day of her workshop the team had identified ways to cut the lead-time in half! Many opportunities remained to improve further but this was a huge difference that her internal customers would welcome.

It’s not unusual for cross-functional teams to experience such significant results from Rapid Improvement Workshops.


Who could benefit?

Any leader who needs fast improvement, should consider using the Rapid Improvement Workshop method. There is no question that this is an effective approach where teams successfully transform the performance of their processes in short order.

The subject matter options are limitless:

  • Employee Attendance
  • Care Homes Finance
  • Heating Systems Installation
  • Technical Records
  • Estates Management
  • Consortium Interfacing
  • Pest Control
  • Strategic Planning
  • Supply Chain for White Goods
  • Submarine Dock Readiness

These are ten examples from the many I have facilitated.


Let’s put it in context

I am not suggesting that Rapid Improvement Workshops are the single answer to achieving Operational Excellence. No such silver bullet exists. However, I do think that such an approach can form a useful element within the broader activities of a Continuous Improvement drive.

They are particularly useful when cross-functional problem solving is required.

The key enabler is the enlightened shift in mindset from “we can’t spend this time” to “we must invest this time”.

Managed correctly, a Rapid Improvement Workshop will deliver quick gains for the long term.