Monthly Archives: June 2016

Decision-makers in a given business may ultimately decide which organizational changes or initiatives to go through with, but without information supporting their drive to action, things may not go as planned.

Operational data gleaned from assets, sales metrics, KPIs – these things determine when leaders need to take the helm, but they do not provide a full picture of where to go from there. Cross-functional collaboration fleshes out that perspective and, in theory, provides a context in which solutions develop organically. However, employees from different departments may not see eye to eye upon first meeting. If your cross-functional team creates more chaos than order, what might it be lacking?

Governance of ideas as well as people
While cross-functional collaboration sounds democratic, it cannot thrive without defined leadership, according to a study conducted by Behnam Tabrizi, a professor at Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering. Tabrizi found organizations with “strong governance support” had a 76% success rate while those with only “moderate governance support” only succeeded 19% of the time.

Cross-functional teamsProsperity in cross-functional collaboration is about sharing information as much as it is about who information is shared with.

But how do we define “governance”? Yes, governance could mean identifying a single leader who listens to cross-functional collaborators and decides the course of action based on the discussions. Governance could also imply a multi-tiered structure, where one executive level cross-functional team represents a larger body of employees, respectively.

Regardless of the cross-functional model chosen or leader(s) assigned, every team needs one clear goal. Later, we’ll talk about the importance of ancillary objectives for each arm of a cross-functional team, but these tasks should all strive to galvanize the main goal. Cross-functional collaboration shouldn’t operate with bargaining chips, where one department promises to help so long as the greater business meets its individual priorities. Instead, all factions must coalesce around a sole objective and check all other issues at the door.

Evenly portioned communication from the onset
All cross-functional collaboration planning sessions must address how invested parties will communicate going forward and how frequently communication should occur. Groups may be inclined to focus on the former rather than the latter, but a balance of both is what makes communication work to their advantage.

“When in-person meetings occur too often, they hamper more than help”.

For instance, a study from the Malardalen University School of Sustainable Development uncovered that even in the digital age, face-to-face conversations still prove the most effective and efficient means to coordinate cross-functionally. In-person conversations, however, do have a drawback that drains their benefits: high frequency. When in-person meetings occur too often, they hamper efficacy and efficiency more than help.

Similarly, while digital communication like email or group messaging platforms have a positive impact on time management, an overloaded inbox can work against productivity. That said, benchmarking progress digitally ensures adherence to assigned tasks, as well as a history of documentation to refer back to if something gets derailed. Again, striking a balance with regards to communication medium and frequency of internal contact allows cross-functional teams to share knowledge and develop without creating more work for themselves or sabotaging their efforts.

Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines
Members of cross-functional collaboration teams should always leave meetings with a specific objective to accomplish until the next check-in, a small step toward the greater goal.

Time afforded to complete said task should certainly reflect the size and scope of the given task, but everything a cross-functional team does deserves a deadline for two reasons. First, scheduled deadlines keep the group as a whole on pace to finish the overarching objective it set out to perform, even with all its disparate moving parts. Second, deadlines create an impetus for collaborators to communicate early on if their progress begins to slip for whatever reason.

If cross-functional collaboration at your business feels like a runaway bus with several drivers steering in different directions, these tips can help centralize the mission, set concise expectations, and involve everybody evenly so projects drive straight toward success.

When undertaking a new project or process improvement, organizations create action items that set change in motion. As the name suggests, an action item is a discrete task meant to be carried out to achieve a common goal. In regard to optimization, managers or supervisors typically assign action items after group meetings or cross-functional collaboration with leaner or more streamlined operations as the core objective underpinning everything.

Although action items may appear like simple tools anyone could master, they are, in fact, quite nuanced. Developing clear, concise action items improves a project’s chances of success and prevents risks from slowing projects down or dismantling them altogether.

Pay attention to the three prongs of every prosperous project
For a project to be considered successful, it must adhere to three standards:

All action items comprising a project must distinctly address each of these components. Project managers who assign action items must, among other things, ask themselves:

Not following through may bring disastrous consequences. One study from the Project Management Institute reported low-performance project management organizations, those who did not heed these elements, risk much more money than high performers if given the exact same budget. With $1 billion to fund projects and little to no observance of these three principles for project management, low performers could endanger as much as 28 percent. High performers that keep goals, money and time on their minds only risk 2 percent.

Action Items

Be careful when assigning one action item to multiple people
Some project management experts will argue the ratio of action items to people should always be 1:1. Others may allow leniency for a small group to take on an action item. And honestly, whatever verifiably works for an organization should be the rule of thumb.

However, a word of caution: When project managers appoint many people to perform a simple task, they imbue the assignment with unnecessary complexity. If managers feel like groups are crucial to finishing an action item, perhaps the action item in question hasn’t been reduced to its lowest common denominator. Project leaders may find it beneficial to continue dividing and assign action items from there.

“Uncompleted or incorrectly completed action items always create more action items.”

Understand how today’s action items branch off into tomorrow’s action items
Action items typically delineate stages or phases in a project, each one progressing further toward the accomplishment of a goal. The completion of one action item may, in turn, give rise to another or to multiple others. Employees assigned action items, as well as their managers, may find value in considering what lies ahead and how that may impact present work. If an action item involved travel to a remote location, for example, and managers knew another action item a week later would require the same trip, combining the two tasks may present savings in time and labor costs.

Additionally, while the potential of one action item to create another may not necessarily hold true, uncompleted or incorrectly completed action items always create more action items, many of which a project team may be incapable of solving. Let’s say an employee completes a task but spends much more of the budget than anticipated. What happens? This dilemma births action items focused on trimming costs elsewhere to make up from overspending in that one area. As such, project managers must stress to team members the importance of sticking to the script when carrying out action items. Failure to do so will only create more work for everyone and put more space between them and their objective.

Compartmentalizing project management into discrete chunks and delegating intelligently helps organizations home in on the finish line one step at a time. Before your next big project, be sure to review the finer points to creating action items so the whole team stays on task.

Process mapping allows businesses to chart out steps in a given system to understand them more fully. Virtually every process in any industry can and should be mapped, in order to conceptualize exactly where bottlenecks may exist, wasteful actions occur and, where emergency detours might be necessary to preserve production or service uptime.

As any cartographer will tell you, there are right and wrong ways to construct maps. While process mapping might not have been what map-makers like the ancient explorers had in mind, similar rules apply. We’ve collected a few best practices for creating valuable process maps that deliver results and hone operations.

Process Mapping

“Process mapping works best with concrete tasks.”

1. Tangible processes map best
Almost any process materializes well onto a process map. It is, however, worth noting the small category of those that don’t: highly abstract processes. Process mapping works best with concrete tasks that include appreciable and quantifiable objectives.

If process map-makers find it keeps failing to address all the concerns that led them to begin the project in the first place, that may be a sign the prospective map ought to be broken down into smaller chunks, a set of process maps within a greater process map. The road to the top of the mountain is beaten by many footsteps, so don’t attempt to leap there in a single bound.

2. Know where you’ve been and where you’re going
Since it is a tool commonly attributed to an agenda of continuous improvement, process mapping exists within a time continuum. Perhaps an organization has used process mapping since its inception, or maybe it’s part of a new operational excellence initiative. In either case, the use of this resource represents a single moment in an organization’s unending commitment to changing for the better. As such, process mapping should exploit the context of time any way it can.

“Treating process maps like historical documents can provide valuable insight.”

Process mapping can provide valuable insight as to how a company’s performance has improved or declined – a great metric for change management – as well as what sorts of process maps might be worthwhile in the future. Concise documentation is always needed to flesh out the story around the map: the reasons for updating, iterations of experimentation with process changes or shifts, or whether the team reached its goals at that time in history.

These notes will be informed by legacy and, in turn, inform future mappers. After all, process changes may pave the way for whole new avenues of possibility. Most of all, meticulousness ensures no step in the process goes unheeded and operations have the highest potential to succeed.

3. Strive for simplicity
All that said, these notes should be supplementary to process mapping and not exist on the map itself. Process maps should clearly and succinctly outline a system in the order it should be performed, with careful attention paid to visual simplicity. Save the extra documentation for planning meetings, but leave it off the map itself to prevent confusion or worse: non-use.

4. Try cross-functional mapping – but only when you’re ready
While all process maps are subject to time, only some are subject to a single department. In many instances, process mapping is most beneficial when it goes beyond a single silo. However, cross-functional process mapping adds a new dimension of complexity, as different departments may be subject to requirements, regulations, customs and, other kinds of checks and balances.

Gain some experience with a few simpler processes before tackling organization-wide process mapping challenges. Cross-functional maps can bring about significant improvements, but only if they’re established and implemented with speed and accuracy honed through experience.

“Every step from beginning to end should result in some tangible value.”

5. Distinguish value at every turn
Process mapping is very much a value-based activity. Every step from beginning to end should result in some tangible value for the organization and/or its customers, even if the benefit is simply a more optimized system. But to accomplish this, the map-maker must  examine what value means for their organizations – and their organizations alone – as it pertains to each component of their process maps as well as the “big picture” objective.

Say a manufacturer wants to create a process map for an equipment changeover that includes a recently established standardized method operators have been asked to perform. Although the overarching reason for standardization might be to improve lead times, each step within the process map should demonstrate a quantifiable time management improvement over past operations:

Has the location of the equipment components necessary for changeover moved so they’re physically closer to the operator? Does the asset need to be equipped with different resources like raw materials or packaging? If so, how with a process mapping change factor into reloading?

However, the value in a single step doesn’t necessarily have to align with the process map’s general objective. So long as it’s of benefit to either the business or the client, the process map succeeds.

Successful manufacturing scale-up can feel like reaching the top of a very tall hill with your product in tow. You’ve struggled to get past the uphill climb and make a place for yourself in your respective market. Once over the crest, it’s all smooth sailing from there, right?

Unfortunately, not quite – not only do all business environments act cyclically, oscillating between peaks and troughs, but the battle to the top can be just as dangerous as the ride “downhill.” Successful manufacturing scale-up at break-neck pace without any control is no success at all. Take back the helm of your manufacturing plant by keeping an eye out for these signs your operations have been knocked into a higher gear as you fast approach a brick wall.

Unprecedented sales
Sales increases can be both a blessing and a curse for unprepared manufacturers undergoing growth. Manufacturing works under a rudimentary supply-and-demand paradigm, so it’s safe to assume if a plant has never experienced a certain level of demand, it cannot consistently supply customers once it hits that mark unless they change their processes to accommodate.

Manufacturers with a close eye on rising sales metrics will have to make a decision before increased demand catches up with their supply capacity. Wrong answers could compromise the quality of their products or customer relations. Either their equipment, processes or a combination of the two cannot produce because they’ve simply never had to before. Acquiring new assets and operators may require a great deal of capital. Processes may be in desperate need of optimization to discover what they’re truly able to accomplish.

Even if manufacturers can temporarily supplement the difference in sales with excess finished products from their inventories accrued over less fortuitous months of labor, it isn’t the same as scaling operations commensurate with increased sales expectations. So, if sales continually test the limits of production capacity even during a scaling up, perhaps it’s time to accelerate proposed changes or realign expectations before it’s too late.

Manufacturing Scale-Up

“Large WIP inventories are especially telling and troublesome for manufacturers.”

Inventory increases
Alternatively, an abundance of materials, work-in-progress/process (WIP) or finished inventories present a number of issues for manufacturers, all of which could easily lead to scaling imbalances as their cause. Large WIP inventories are especially telling and troublesome for manufacturers – as the U.S. Census Bureau explains, these unfinished goods drain enterprise cash flow, expend increasing operational costs for their management and count as a goose egg in terms of sales. That last bit is incredibly important – a large WIP inventory may skew operational data and lull decision-makers into a false sense of security vis-a-vis output.

Uncovering the production bottlenecks causing inventory overages only resolves half of the problem. Slowing down throughput, after all, compromises accelerated lead times. Plant managers must be mindful of operational capacity at all stages of production and scale them equally to generate positive results.

Labor uncertainty
Lean practices seek to optimize value-added production steps while reducing or eliminating non-value-added activities, the latter comprising a greater slice of the average manufacturer’s production pie. Ridding production of any and all waste should be secondary, however, to reprogramming the processes causing said waste.

To start, manufacturing plants should focus on smaller, more attainable improvements involving workforce management. For instance, asset utilization and standardization helps remove dissonance from the symphony of lean manufacturing by taking advantage of process steps proven to be the most efficient. As companies willingly accept higher demand, they must simultaneously ensure asset operators and managers adhere to defined protocol for things like materials handling and changeover that preserve quality and long-term productivity.