- Posted by Howard Sneider
- On June 24, 2020
This summer is shaping up to be unlike any that I have ever experienced. Limitations on travel and activities because of COVID-19 will require individuals and families to be creative in summertime activities. Therefore when my wife suggested we invest in a 5000 gal swimming pool for the summer I figured, “why not?”
I was lucky enough to find a pool at a local wholesale club but just owning the pool turned out to be the easiest part of the project. The manufacturer required that the ground be level and recommended that the grass be removed below the pool to prevent a layer of foul odored slime. Also, the manufacturer recommended that earth be removed to level the ground rather than adding soil or sand to the low side. I had some work to do…
I take pride in my lawn and my property is mostly covered with a lush, full green lawn. However, I realize that I have some areas that are thinly covered, other areas that are weedy, and still other locations that may be mossy. In general, the yard area of the future pool was mostly sparsely covered and contained some areas of moss and weeds. As I began clearing the lawn from the future location of the pool I evaluated the look of the lawn in front of me. In each shovelful I scooped from the ground I saw only sparsely covered, mossy, weed covered squares of my yard. I subsequently dumped each shovelful of earth in my wheelbarrow.
As I carried my full wheelbarrow over to the corner of the yard for composting I noticed several other areas that were also less than “perfect”. Only then did I realize I was missing a huge opportunity to improve the overall appearance and health of the grass covering the yard. From that point I transplanted as much of the grass from where the pool was to be located into any other location of the yard that may benefit from it. When the excavation was complete I was surprised how little of the cleared area was wasted.
After a long yet satisfying weekend of manual labor, I settled in to prepare for work the next day and was struck by how applicable a metaphor this was to achieving continuous improvement at work.
There are always obstacles to improvement. Some of the more popular reasons for NOT doing anything include, in no particular order:
- Lack of resources dedicated to researching solutions.
- Lack of resources dedicated to executing changes.
- Too much at stake.
- Too many good solutions and little ability to focus on the “right one.”
- No incentive to improve.
One may conclude from the abbreviated list above that most impediments to improvement are related to program management. The ability to find good solutions is generally not limited by a lack of creativity or ingenuity but more often limited by the management of change, the ability to demonstrate that the changes are financially justifiable, and the tolerance for risk.
Here are some suggestions to get your ideas flowing and how to apply them.
- Look, Learn and Listen – Without a good understanding of an existing challenge, changes to an existing process won’t meet expectations or may cause more problems than they will provide solutions. Also, without a keen eye on the existing process, opportunities for improvement may not be identified. Therefore it is necessary to look for opportunities for improvement whenever possible. Write down any observations so that they are not forgotten and can be followed up with later. Bring the observations up with the operators of the process and see if this is a real concern worthy of improvement. Also listen to what the operators say and ask if they have any observations of their own. Everyone has grievances and being open to listening and addressing them is sure to provide many opportunities for improvement.
- Attack the problem – Engage the decision makers and stakeholders for the problem you have identified and describe your solution to them. Do this in person (or by teleconference or telephone call). Have a real conversation so that the real problem and solution can be understood by your audience. The best scenario is to have the decision makers and stakeholders see the problem first hand. Having this introductory communication by email or text is more likely to result in dismissal of the idea and a reputation as being unfocused on the established process or policy. If no other decision makers or stakeholders exist then engage a trusted colleague to review the problem and proposed solution. Another set of eyes will usually provide the benefit of uncovering missed opportunities, unintended consequences, or potential problems.
- Make some incremental progress – The key is to start the solution design right away. There is always so much more to accomplish each and every day that discretionary new work will never happen if it isn’t started. Effort on ideas that will not become solutions is wasted effort. Therefore put a small amount of effort forwards and see how it is received. Do not spend more than the first five to ten percent of effort on the project before engaging decision makers and stakeholders about the improvement opportunity that you’ve identified. Having a start will give you a easy place to resume the development after you have stopped and will avoid any problems associated with a “writer’s block” when starting from scratch.
- Keep records and show progress – Spend effort keeping records of the time and expense devoted to developing and implementing the solution. Ideally the solution should pay for the time and expense allotted to the design and implementation within a reasonable payback period. Report on the project progress to the decision makers and stakeholders. Once the project has been authorized it is important to the people who are relying on its implementation, no matter how discretionary or how much of a side project it is compared to other projects or efforts.
- Broadcast success and Improvement – Once the project is successfully completed make sure that as many people know about it as possible. Notify people in other departments, people responsible for other projects, other solution providers, and the solution users, in addition to the decision makers and stakeholders. This is the chance to celebrate your success and let people know that you have the ability to solve problems.
As stated earlier, the opportunity for improvement is all around. Attention to detail, communication, initiative, and follow through are all required to successfully transform a passing thought or consideration into a desired outcome. The key message of getting the first step complete is an effective and applicable guidance for all but the largest projects. Of course one blog post cannot provide all the required training to become an expert project manager, but even an encyclopedia of project management cannot provide the needed experience. Take ownership of the next improvement opportunity today!