I was talking to a number of my clients last week about the progress being made on their continual improvement projects. Each one of them told me about one of their concerns – something that was diametrically opposite to the results that they had been tasked with.

In every case we dug through some data in their business and could find that their concerns were well founded; each issue required a recovery plan to be put in place to get them back on track. Having a simple guide in our business to help us ensure our improvement projects are on track is great aid to closing out recovery plans, such as when we use an improvement barometer.

 

What is the continual improvement project barometer?

I talk about barometers with my clients on a regular basis. I like barometers, they tell you which way the weather is changing (with a simple tap of the glass – as my Grandmother showed me!) and you can decide what to do.

In business there are many options for us to create barometers. Simple measures (KPIs) that give us a clue as to which way our performance is going can be used as a barometer, but there is a different kind of barometer I want to share with you – the human barometer.

 

Who are the human barometers?

When I get involved with the continual improvement activities of a business there are invariably people involved. People doing the job. People dealing with the results of the job. People that are dependent on the outcome of the job. Some are happy, some are unhappy and some are somewhere in-between.

The people that I focus on, to become barometers, are the ones that are unhappy. These people usually have some kind of performance related gripe in the business that isn’t helping them to feel productive and effective. These people have pride in what they do and they don’t like it when they can’t achieve what they have been tasked with.
Their face and their story are the real barometer.

 

Real life barometers

Let me give you a few examples of real life barometers that can help you to spot them in your own business.

1. A Team Leader that runs a production facility was always finding themselves short of materials. They told me about this every time I saw them and they were in fact correct about the situation. The purchasing improvement project that we were running was then linked to this person, they became my barometer. Every time I went to the business I asked them how it was going. Over time, as the project progressed, they told me about how things were progressing. It is easy to see the results on paper and get feedback in project meetings, but the look on someone’s face can be a whole load more effective in finding out the truth of the matter.

2. A Production Scheduler was crushed under their workload. This was their story. As with most stories there was truth in the story. Some of the workload was self-inflicted, but a great deal was caused by inadequacies elsewhere in the business. These inadequacies formed part of our improvement projects and the Production Scheduler was our barometer. As the quick win actions were undertaken their story started to shift and within a few weeks they were no longer holding onto their story. They started to talk about completing the improvement projects and at that point I knew that our project was becoming successful.

3. An Admin Manager was concerned about being out of control of their department. This was their story and unfortunately it was correct, control had in fact slipped over the previous few months. Their concerns were repeated constantly and as we made improvements to this team’s processes the story started to soften. Within a couple of months, the story disappeared and the team hit the performance levels that they needed to.

 

Listen for the stories in your business

Listening to your team can give you food for through when it comes to defining continual improvement projects for your business. You can also take the opposite approach; take your improvement projects and then find out what the stories are around the topic and where they are coming from.

Either way, you have the opportunity to make a link between your barometers and your improvement projects. Regular chats with your selected barometers will help you gauge exactly what is going on in the business, with regards to these issues.

A personal favourite of mine is to map out a physical route to interact with my chosen barometers when working with a client. It usually doesn’t take long to complete my tour and, apart from learning a lot in the process, it helps to develop productive relationships to get more improvements to take hold in the longer term.

 

Non-human and non-data barometers

I should also make reference here to the non-human and non-data barometers that we can define in our businesses too. The condition of certain aspects of our businesses can tell us a lot.
A good example here is of a shop floor stock location at a factory that I have been involved with. It is an intermediate stock holding area (a Kan Ban location) for the production department. The idea behind this area is that it reduces the time taken to load up production with certain higher volume components. It is a simple idea and the Stores Team have taken ownership of the area. The only problem is that this area is never topped up; a sign that other agreements are not being managed properly.

However, next week is a new week and I shall be stopping by to see my non-human barometer (the store location). The result of this viewing will inform the conversations I have thereafter – we will achieve the productivity results we are aiming for.

Other great examples of non-human barometers include:

  • Staff conduct in meetings.
  • Punctuality.
  • 5S / the condition of the business itself.
  • The quality of reports.

I’m sure that you can think of lots of other barometers that you could use in your own business that don’t have a voice or aren’t a KPI / set of numbers.

 

Your next step

Do you want to take this opportunity to look for the barometers around your business that are linked to your improvement objectives?

Or, are there repeating stories floating your business that you can now listen to with a different perspective?

It is my belief that any business, at any point in time, has a number of barometers it can use to help inform and accelerate the results that flow from improvement projects.

Food for thought?

 

Giles

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Giles Johnston

Giles Johnston is a Chartered Engineer who consults with businesses to improve their productivity and on time delivery performance. Giles is also the author of Business Process Re-engineering and the creator of the Making It Happen toolkit.