It’s striking that much is written about improving the quality and performance of processes, whereas little has been written about the quality and performance of the improvement methods themselves. If the quality of the improvement method is low, it is of little help implementing it correctly. A bad, undisclosed improvement performance not only wastes resources and opportunities, but more importantly also lulls the organization into a false feeling of security, resulting sooner or later in a harsh awakening. When asking executives or improvement experts what’s the quality of the improvement methods they use in their organization, most of the people do not even understand the question.
To achieve a mode of systematic and result-oriented improvement throughout the organization, you need to truly know what kind of performance your set of improvement methods deliver. The tricky part is not to understand the cost implication, or even the time dimension of the applicable improvement method, but to understand the quality of the delivered improvement output.
The crucial issue in process improvement, as in all operations, is to achieve as good an interaction as possible between people, technology, information and material to produce the desired output. The quality of this multidisciplinary interaction can be evaluated based on how well it satisfies the stakeholders as a whole. The desired output of process improvement efforts is the achievement of a better real-life interaction in the value chain, organization or process. Thus, the organization needs to master and improve two kinds of interactions, the one required in the improvement work, and the ones required in the wholes that are being improved. Sticking to improvement methods that do not support the organization’s current and desired ambition levels is a bad strategy that many companies do not recognize. Improvement methods should come with a best before date, just like groceries.
How well a specific set of improvement methods deals with today’s improvement needs should be judged based on how well it is able to solve the fundamental business equation: how to lower the costs, increase the price of the output, and sell more, without constantly sacrificing the satisfaction of one or more stakeholders. This can be done simply by analyzing the quality and scope of both the improvement plans and the practical realization of the improvement potential. The synthesis of such an analysis, i.e. the process improvement yield, can be quantified as a percentage point score (0-100%) that reveals how effective, efficient, and impressive the company’s improvement work is in real-life.
My analysis of the process improvement yield in some 30 companies in the electronics industry reveals that the average yield level is somewhat below 3%. To put this in perspective: What would Toyota’s estimated score be using the same analysis and synthesis logic? The well-known improvement methods of Toyota, hoshin kanri and nichijo kanri, have a combined theoretical score of 60%. However, a well-educated estimate of Toyota’s real-life score suggests that the level is approximately 15%. This score, achieved in some 20 years and maintained at that level for some additional 40 years, is more than five times higher than the average company. Although the end-results achieved by this yield level include lean thinking and the Toyota Production System, it is, nevertheless, modest from an improvement performance point of view. For a company that really wants to improve its operations in today’s dynamic business environment, it does not make much sense following the best student that did not pass the test.
What’s the quality of your organization’s process improvement plans? The quality level of the improvement plans in the average company is 16%. With such a low-quality improvement plan, it is likely that the organization improves, more or less randomly, within its comfort zone and current understanding what it can, not what is actually needed. Despite rigid and formalized project approval procedures, the actual quality of the improvement project portfolio in many large companies is so low that the customers, employees and shareholders should beware. There is no need for an organization to find or implement other improvement objects until it utilizes high-class improvement plans that assure the improvement effectiveness.
Achieving and maintaining a process improvement yield level of at least 75% within a few years should be high on any executives to do list. Such an improvement performance would work wonders in any company – including Toyota.