Nibbling from floor up delivers real change

By David Brewster and Gary Calwell

Efforts to improve the modern workplace tend to come in large packages.

Culture change programs, restructures, re-engineering, popular improvement methods such as Six Sigma or Lean: all of these tend to be applied from the top-down and across the whole organisation. They are costly and time consuming.

Most of these initiatives, if applied properly and in full, can provide significant benefits. But this rarely happens. All too often such programs run out of steam when their results don’t come quickly enough, or on sufficient scale.

Eventually both budget and attention are drawn to a fresh crisis, or to the next big "this’ll fix it all” solution. The original initiative is quickly forgotten.

Meanwhile, junior and middle managers grapple to keep the machinery of the organisation running. Caught up in full-time troubleshooting, "local" or frontline ideas for improvement get short shrift.

There is simply no time to consider them, let alone act on them.

Eventually these large package improvement initiatives deplete the engagement of both managers and staff.

Buy-in to future improvement initiatives will be half-hearted at best. An alternative approach is to work in "small packages” from the bottom-up, emphasising improvement on a workgroup-by-workgroup basis.

Upfront costs are much lower, benefits realised are more sustainable, and the ongoing engagement of staff and management is significantly higher.

One such approach, which we call "one bite at a time”, centres on junior managers working directly with their own teams (often frontline staff) to identify and implement local opportunities to boost productivity, quality and or service.

This involves managers taking their staff through a structured brainstorming session to identify as many issues — problems and opportunities for improvement -as they can.

These issues are then filtered and sorted by the group and, ultimately, a single issue-the "one bite”- is chosen to be targeted over the coming three months.

There follows a period of measurement and analysis in which the main causes of the issue are verified, after which solutions can be determined and implemented.

At first glance this approach seems fairly straightforward. However, it requires adherence to a number of disciplines for its benefits to be fully realised.

At the outset, managers and their staff need to be given the time and support (and education, if necessary) to see the process through. 

The time needed is not onerous: typically around a day-and-a-half per team spread over a number of weeks.

This is much less than most large-package initiatives demand for their information and education sessions.

Whole-of-team involvement in all aspects of the project is essential: from the initial brainstorming, through measurement and on to the implementation of solutions.        

While this can be challenging to facilitate, it greatly increases both the enthusiasm for change and the sustainability of any improvements made. As a side benefit, it also means that the project workload is shared and doesn’t fall too heavily on one individual.

Teams need to focus on just one significant issue at a time. This can meet resistance where previous chances to contribute have been few and far-between.

But in environments where time and resources are tight, focus greatly increases the chances that the chosen project will actually be completed.

Along the same lines, teams also need to focus on those issues that they themselves can deal with without placing unrealistic demands on resources or budgets outside their own area of control.

The emphasis needs to be on getting something done, no matter how small, rather than simply adding to the to-do lists of others (the IT department, for instance).       

Finally, the use of a structured and staged approach to identifying and solving problems significantly improves the chances of success.

A lot of organisational problem solving has become knee-jerk: the first solution which comes to mind is often the only solution considered.

A structured approach- we use an adapted and simplified method inspired by Six Sigma -forces thinking before action.
Improvement in small packages doesn’t always come with the grand financial promise of its large package counterparts.

But it is far more likely that effective change will actually take place and be kept in place by enthusiastic staff.

David Brewster and Gary Calwell are co-authors of One Bite at a Time: How Every Manager can use Six Sigma to Make a Difference, published by Monterey Press

The Weekend Australian

Related articles you might be interested in reading