Redefining Excellence – Beyond Firefighting

Redefining Excellence – Beyond Firefighting

Guest writer Sara Hanks highlights the importance of existing beyond the emergency situation in “Redefining Excellence – Beyond Firefighting.”

In today’s business environment, the spotlight often shines brightest on those who extinguish fires rather than those who prevent fires from igniting. This dynamic has increasingly highlighted the misalignment within companies regarding quality and continuous improvement principles. While saving the day deserves recognition, the diligence of preventing problems goes unrecognized. Over time the motivation to be proactive and focus on process improvement diminishes. This trend undermines the core values of continuous improvement and quality management, but also creates long-term risks to operational excellence and customer satisfaction. When competition is low, this is exponentially worse.

The recent events with United Airlines suggest that companies may have lost their way when it comes to quality and operational excellence. A quick Google Search, or CoPilot prompt can show that 3 incidents occurred recently, which I find rather alarming. If the aviation industry, which is notorious for high regulation, has visible mistakes, what is the culture like in other companies? 

Historical shifts in quality and operational excellence often arise from moments of intense challenge and competition. A classic example is the U.S. automotive industry’s response to the introduction of superior-quality Japanese vehicles in the latter half of the 20th century. American companies to adopted Lean Six Sigma and other continuous improvement methodologies that emphasized defect reduction, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. This begs the question: Are we waiting for another moment to realign our priorities towards prevention and quality, or are we already in the thick of challenge, driven by a post-covid rut.

Regardless, it’s imperative for organizations to adopt a culture of continuous improvement. Here are some recommendations for individuals and organizations looking to instigate meaningful change:

Establish a Rewards System for Prevention

Create a rewards system that equally acknowledges both the resolution of existing problems and the identification and prevention of potential issues before they arise. As part of regular operating rhythms and meetings, highlight success stories related to prevention, or good corrective actions that prevent recurrence. Share stories and case studies within the organization to provide examples for people to learn from, and more importantly give credit to those who implemented the projects.

Build Comprehensive Training Programs

Training programs should include basic overview training for all employees in the company, and in-depth measures that include application. Here are a couple suggested training topics:

  • Process Mapping and Waste Evaluation – develop training programs for employees at all levels on how to conduct process mapping exercises and evaluate processes for waste, inefficiencies, and opportunities for improvement.
  • Data Analysis and Problem-Solving Technologies – offer training on the latest data analysis tools and technologies that facilitate problem identification and resolution, including visualization tools and artificial intelligence.

Create a Mentoring Program for Projects

Create a mentoring program that pairs less experienced employees with seasoned veterans to foster a culture of learning, sharing, and continuous improvement. If the expertise is not available within your company, hire a consultant to develop key talent internally, then expand. Promote cross-functional teams to work on improvement projects, facilitating knowledge transfer and a broader understanding of the business processes.

Set Ambitious Continuous Improvement Goals

Tell me how you will measure me, and then I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way, don’t complain about illogical behavior. — Eli Goldratt

It’s amazing when people’s job performance is tied to a metric, actions are taken to meet the goal. Here are a few examples of continuous improvement goals:

  • Cost Reduction – evaluate non-value add cost, such as scrap, rework, redesign, or warranty.
  • Defect Reduction – focus on areas of process rework or physical defects.
  • Cycle Time Improvement – focus on reducing cycle times for key processes and product deliveries, enhancing responsiveness and customer satisfaction.

Leadership Commitment and Involvement

Conduct regular reviews of continuous improvement initiatives, adjusting based on results and feedback to ensure alignment with overall business objectives. Ensure that leadership actively participates in and supports continuous improvement efforts, setting the tone for the entire organization. Educate the leaders on asking questions that prompt investigation and plans to prevent recurrence, as opposed to demanding explanations or expecting action before root cause is understood.

By embracing these strategies, companies can shift their cultures towards valuing and rewarding the crucial work of preventing problems before they occur, thereby laying the foundation for sustained excellence and competitiveness.

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Is It Always Reasonable to Follow Through?

Is It Always Reasonable to Follow Through?

Guest writer Sara Hanks explores the Say/Do ratio in business with “Is It Always Reasonable to Follow Through?”

The concept of the Say / Do Ratio, a principle I learned during my time at GE, stands as a beacon of accountability and reliability. It’s simple yet profound: if you commit to something, you own its completion. As a manager, I expect that when I assign work to an employee, it will be acted upon. If issues arise, the employee will reach out with questions or concerns. It is a culture of accountability and in many ways, I appreciate it.

But what happens when tasks veer off course or don’t pan out as expected? What if the level of effort has no payback or the work becomes obsolete? This is where the real challenge lies, and where the Say / Do Ratio is truly tested.

I recall a period where I was committed to sending a weekly report, a task that involved about three hours of meticulous data scrubbing and preparation every week. For approximately 1.5 years, this report was a thorn in my routine, until GE launched a simplification initiative. During this period, all tasks were scrutinized to determine their necessity. To my relief, this report was classified as non-essential and shelved, freeing up valuable time. This experience opened my eyes to the practicality of reassessing commitments.

Shelving non-value add tasks was easy when it was part of a major initiative. However, most of us don’t find ourselves in an environment when pushing back or stopping work is a usual activity. When faced with tasks that aren’t progressing as planned, it’s crucial to adapt. Here are some strategies that can help:

  • Set Realistic Expectations Early: If you sense uncertainty, communicate it upfront. It’s not about being pessimistic but about being transparent. For example, imagine you’re leading a project to implement a new software system. Early on, you realize integration might be more complex than anticipated. Instead of keeping quiet, you inform your team and stakeholders, setting the stage for more flexible timelines and reducing the pressure of unrealistic expectations.
  • Implement Mini-Deadlines: Regularly assess progress. If a task continues to be uncertain or problematic, it’s a sign to reevaluate. Let’s say you’re working on a marketing campaign with a three-month deadline. To ensure progress, you set monthly check-ins to evaluate the campaign’s development. In the first month, you notice some strategies are not yielding expected results, allowing you to pivot quickly rather than waiting for the final deadline.
  • Engage with Stakeholders: Schedule check-ins to discuss progress and challenges. Tailor your communication to their interests and concerns, ensuring transparency and collaboration. After a quick update, I jump into the discussion with the concerns and seek guidance from the stakeholders during the meeting. 
  • Explore Alternative Solutions: If the original plan isn’t working, don’t hesitate to seek different approaches to achieve the same goal. In general, sharing issues without offering a potential solution should be frowned upon. Before proposing a stop or a pivot with a project or a task, brainstorm other ideas. 
  • Know When to Stop: When a task seems futile, identify a stakeholder likely to support discontinuing the effort. Create an ally with the stakeholder, and then discuss it with the larger group.

Recently, these strategies proved effective during a project to build a prediction model for reliability improvements. Despite the model being built, it required substantial manual effort and offered results like the original estimates. Recognizing this, we decided to discontinue the model. First, we reviewed the challenge with the head of engineering to get support. Then we produced an updated estimate as an alternative. During the review with the remaining stakeholders, we agreed to move forward with the recommendation, rather than spend time continuing the model. This decision, though tough, was a practical application of reassessing our approach and realizing when to stop – a testament to the effectiveness of the strategies outlined above.

The Say / Do Ratio is not just about fulfilling commitments but also about smartly navigating through them, especially when situations change. It’s about balancing determination with flexibility and practicality. This approach not only ensures productivity and efficiency but also fosters a work culture of accountability, with adaptability.

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Hiring for Skills VS. Experience: A Contemporary Approach

Hiring for Skills VS. Experience: A Contemporary Approach

This week, our guest writer Sara Hanks tackles some of the ways in which we shortchange candidates and ourselves in the hiring process with, “Hiring for Skills VS. Experience: A Contemporary Approach.”

On September 26, 2023, it happened; I was asked a question while on stage for a panel discussion that I was not prepared to answer. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on productivity in the workplace through digital transformation, only 2 weeks before the event. When approached, I was provided a brief description of the panel and thought to myself, “I’m very qualified to talk about this topic. I have a completed digital transformation of the quality processes, from the shop floor to the top floor and out into the supply chain.” What I didn’t understand until an hour before was that the panel was specifically geared towards the human resource experience, a topic in which I didn’t have much exposure to. After confidently introducing myself, I was left to answer the question, “What trends am I seeing in the area of skills?”

Cue awkward pause and racing mind to even recall the question, let alone respond.

After a few seconds, I decided that I had something to say about the subject. The biggest recognizable trend that I’m seeing around skills is that there is a lack of emphasis on them, and companies are stuck hiring for experience vs. skills. Unfortunately, I had been passed up for promotion based on lack of experience in the role, even though their main objective was to enable the organization with technology and data. It was a tough pill to swallow, and I’m still convinced that I’m the best fit. Lately, I’ve had several conversations with job seekers that find themselves in the same position.

For highly skilled professions such as a brain surgeon, experience matters. I would prefer to be patient one thousand vs. the first patient after completing education. For other industries, many roles could be filled by looking at the skills required for a job and finding a person with those skills. 

In an article published by the Harvard Business Review1 there has been a shift in companies requiring a college degree to perform a job. Between 2017 and 2019, employers reduced degree requirements by 46% for two-year degrees or certifications and 31% for high-skill positions. However, 37% of companies still require degrees and certifications, even with the shortages of qualified candidates. However, limitations exist beyond the qualification of a degree or no degree. You can have the proper degree, but have experience in a different industry, or the work history is less aligned with the work history sought by employers. My recent conversations show a problem with the latter.

The lack of adoption of skills-based hiring concerns me for two reasons:

  1. Hiring Bias – Let’s say that a company needs to find a replacement for Joe. He’s a middle-manager in a service department. Joe has 15 years of experience, has several technical certifications, and turned wrenches while obtaining his certifications. When we talk about “finding a replacement for Joe,” our natural tendency is to replace him with the same experience vs. finding a candidate with the skills needed to perform the job well, creating a hiring bias. I have seen this repeatedly – the look-alike gets hired and the opportunity to have diversity is lost.
  2. Significant Talent Gap – As AI and technology becomes more prevalent in business, the candidate pool of experienced people goes down significantly. Again, by understanding what skills are necessary to fill new positions such as an automation engineer, you can find a candidate that can cross train into that role. Over the years, several people who worked for me learned skills required in AI or software. They smoothly transitioned into roles in those spaces with a distinct advantage: they understood the business they were serving and produced solutions faster than experienced software developers and data scientists. Unfortunately, if they had not already established the network and credibility, they would not have likely been interviewed.

If companies want to keep up in today’s environment, traditional approaches to hiring need to be re-evaluated.

Here are a few suggestions to start transitioning to skills-based hiring:

  1. Evaluate current job descriptions. Specifically, evaluate the qualifications section of the job description. Focus on the skills and competencies that are essential for the role vs specifying specific years of experience. Consider both technical and soft skills. When I’ve created job postings, I create a small list of qualifications and expand the nice to haves in a section called “Desired Characteristics.” Human Resource professionals or organizational development consultants can provide guidance and insights.
  2. Introduce Assessments during Interviews. Improve the hiring process by introducing assessments. When I ran a test area in manufacturing, it was important that people had basic electrical knowledge to do the job safely. A 10-question assessment was provided to evaluate the employees to determine if they had the basic skills required for the job. Similarly, when I was hiring data scientists, we provided a scenario with incomplete data to see if the candidate had curiosity to find the missing information.
  3. Unconscious bias training. Recently, I have attended several unconscious bias training sessions. While I like to think I am open minded to differences, I realized that we all possess unconscious bias. With awareness, you can course correct and be more objective. Going back to the Joe example above, hiring managers can talk about the skills they need for the job vs. finding Joe’s replacement. Simply using words like, “I’m looking for a leader who can coach service technicians into reaching their potential, with strong technical acumen and good communication skills,” can tamper the bias.

The suggestions above are those I have practiced doing. In doing some research on the topic, 

I’ve learned that blind hiring is a widespread practice. By removing names and other identifying information, you can avoid unconscious bias. Diverse hiring panels can provide multiple perspectives, ensuring that a candidate’s skills are evaluated holistically rather than through a singular lens. The last suggestion that sounded intriguing was to introduce feedback mechanisms. Obtain feedback from people hired and managers to get perspective on the skills-based hiring process as it matures.

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Embracing the Elements: My Icelandic Adventure

Embracing the Elements: My Icelandic Adventure

Guest writer Sara Hanks brings us the lessons she learned through vacation in “Embracing the Elements: My Icelandic Adventure.”

As I was unpacking after returning from my journey to Iceland, a quote on the hiking shoe box caught my eye, “It can be easy to forget how much beauty surrounds us, but <Insert Shoe Company> gets you to a place where you can enjoy the world around you.” The words struck a chord, as a beautiful summary of my experience and reflection of the lessons I had learned throughout the vacation.

Be Prepared

The first key takeaway was to Be Prepared. The 10-day forecast on the weather app on my phone, would not have prepared me for the elements we encountered. Several days were met with heavy winds and rains. At one point, the road closed due to high winds. When the road opened and we could drive through, there were several vans and trucks destroyed from being blown off the road. I’m grateful that my sister is always cold and warned me to pack with the worst weather in mind. The treacherous winds and heavy rains were no match for my waterproof hiking shoes, rain pants and layers of jackets. I enjoyed each moment because I was prepared.

Be Silly and Have Fun.

Be Silly and Have Fun, was a lesson I encountered in surprising ways. From running to see what treasures hid around the bend in the trail to being up close and personal to farm animals, I found pure joy. Trying to keep my balance in the wind, watching sheep being born, and petting the friendly Icelandic cows brought out a childlike sense of wonder and giggles. One cow decided to put my foot into its mouth. The small, whimsical moments made me realize the satisfaction of embracing the unexpected and amusing things in life.

Be Present in the Moment

Nothing taught me to Be Present in the Moment better than my hike up the stairs to the top of Skogafoss. With each step up the steep staircase, I was fully engrossed in the task at hand… get to the top, safely. When I reached the top, the view was amazing, as were the winds. Traveling back down the stairs was one of the most terrifying experiences of the vacation. Railings only existed on one side of the staircase, and they switched sides randomly. I found myself competing with the people climbing the stairs, especially when the wind gusts were greater than 30 MPH. All thoughts of work, LinkedIn notifications, and the incomplete chores were non-existent.

Get Outside

The lesson to Get Outside was driven home by a multitude of experiences. From riding an Icelandic horse to the stone beach, to boating around bright blue icebergs, each moment spent outdoors was a refreshing escape from the digital confines of everyday life. Oddly enough, I felt no knee pain during this vacation; I could run pain-free for the first time in years. I believe the constant movement in the fresh air was a big contributor. Now that I have all-weather gear, there is no excuse to avoid being outside.

Prioritize What You Love to Do.

Lastly, this trip reminded me to Prioritize What You Love to Do. I’m flexible and adaptable, so going along with others to do whatever, is not a problem. In Iceland, I rediscovered my love for adventure in the outdoors. Seeing geysers, making snow angels at the base of snow-covered mountains, hiking through a farm to a secluded waterfall, and being chased by a herd of Reindeer brought complete joy. It was a strong reminder that investing time in my passions brings both pleasure and a sense of fulfilment. 

The quote on my shoebox perfectly described my Icelandic journey. Amidst the wild landscapes and memorable experiences, I had not just traveled across a country, but traveled on a journey of self-discovery. The joy, serenity, and renewal I found in Iceland shall be continued through these lessons.

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Navigating Innovation’s Lonely Road: A Guide for the Stuck and Stalled

Navigating Innovation’s Lonely Road: A Guide for the Stuck and Stalled

Guest writer Sara Hanks returns this week with a blog offering tips and tricks for those individuals who drive change in their organizations: “Navigating Innovation’s Lonely Road: A Guide for the Stuck and Stalled.”

Do you ever feel alone while trying to drive innovation or when you’re nurturing an idea that people haven’t completely bought into yet? You’re not alone. It’s a common experience for those of us who live on the cutting edge, pushing boundaries and stepping outside our comfort zone. The journey can often feel lonely, and it’s easy to get stuck.

I’m currently building a company from scratch, leveraging my experiences from 2012 to 2020 leading the digital transformation of all quality processes across engineering, supply chain, manufacturing, and services at a former GE business. The goal is to assist others in achieving similar transformations through consulting and software solutions. The vision is grand, but I often find myself feeling alone and, occasionally, uninspired.

Not too long ago, I found myself on a solitary drive to a Quality conference in Philadelphia. The long stretch of road ahead of me provided an opportunity for reflection. I was struggling with feelings of loneliness and a waning inspiration. I reached out and phoned a friend, venting my frustrations and sharing my self-doubt. It was a simple act, but it reminded me that I wasn’t alone in my journey, and that there were others who understood and empathized with my challenges.

As the conference unfolded, something remarkable happened: my passion reignited. I was surrounded by like-minded individuals, all of whom were striving for innovation in their respective fields. It was a powerful reminder that even when we feel alone or stuck, there are always opportunities to find inspiration and rekindle our motivation.

Here are a few strategies to help reignite your momentum and boost your drive:

Connect and Collaborate: Find someone who thinks like you, give them a call, and brainstorm ideas. Share your thoughts with them, explaining where you’re coming from and where you want to go. Don’t underestimate the power of collaboration. Partnering with others can often provide the extra motivation you need to move forward.

Expand Your Horizons: Attend a conference or a tradeshow where you can expose yourself to new perspectives and ideas. Listening to others talk about related topics can bring clarity to your own thoughts. Even when you think you’ve covered all bases, you’d be surprised at what you can learn from others who are just beginning their journey. As an example, after implementing a connected supply chain system, I found myself learning new aspects from those just starting out in the field.

Embrace Solitude: It’s important to find some time to be alone and give yourself the opportunity to focus on specific tasks or ideas. Inform your family, friends, or colleagues who might potentially interrupt you to respect your space during this dedicated time. Turn off your phone and make sure you’re giving yourself the time you need. If you find it hard to get started, try this trick: carve out an hour of your time, but only commit to working on your idea for the first 10 minutes. Often, getting started is the hardest part.

Have Fun: Last but certainly not least, remember to have fun away from your work. During the conference, I connected with cousins that I hadn’t seen in 10 years. We laughed at old memories and the exciting world of teenaged children. It was awesome. 

Feeling stuck is not a sign of failure, but rather a part of the creative and innovative journey. J.K. Rowling, known for the Harry Potter series, experienced a period of ‘stuckness’ during her writing process. She has spoken about the times when she struggled with motivation and self-doubt, despite having a clear vision of what she wanted to create. Yet, she persisted, finding ways to reignite her inspiration and bring her ideas to life. Today, her books have not only achieved phenomenal success but have also inspired millions across the globe. So, if you find yourself feeling stuck in your journey, try some of the strategies above. Even feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Mastering Nonconforming Material Management for a Leaner, Meaner Business

Mastering Nonconforming Material Management for a Leaner, Meaner Business

Guest writer Sara Hanks offers practical tips on mastering nonconforming material management for a leader, meaner (but nicely!) business.

It is great to be back with another blog post. While the title might suggest that I’m advocating for a “meaner” business, I’m not encouraging cutthroat tactics. Instead, let’s explore how to master nonconforming material management and make your operation leaner and more efficient. 

As an operations or quality leader, improving the nonconforming material management process is essential to reduce waste, enhance efficiency, and prevent recurring defects. We’ll delve into three practical steps to accomplish these goals and showcase an example from my personal work experience. Managing the nonconforming material process in a timely manner will avoid costly consequences.

Segregate and review defective parts daily.

Start with establishing a visible area to segregate the defective parts, as this will prevent the defective parts from being used in production or in your service center. Review the parts in the segregated area on a regular basis. Daily reviews are ideal to keep the parts top of mind. 

While I was the quality engineer of an electric motor manufacturing company, there was an issue where a part failed due to an electrical issue during the final test. The motor was set aside to make room for production. A day or so later, another similar issue occurred, and a day or so after that an electrical issue occurred with a component that went into the motor. Eventually, we discovered the root cause of the issue – the wire that made the electrical parts that went into the motor had a defect. The defect could pass several tests and go undetected; piles of parts have accumulated. If we reviewed the issue regularly, the root cause would have been discovered sooner, saving a lot of rework costs.

Define ownership and measure cycle time.

There are four major steps to a nonconforming material management process: identify/segregate, disposition the fix, execute the disposition, and verify the completion. Each phase needs an owner. In the execution phase, different teams own the step based on the disposition. For example, scrapped parts or parts that need to be returned to the supplier are managed by materials, whereas parts that require rework should be managed by operations. 

Once it is clear who owns which step, measure each step of the process. If the process is managed in an IT system, there are date stamps recorded as parts move through the process. These can be used to create the measurement system. Set goals for each step. If you are not sure what goal to set, try a 10% improvement over an established baseline, which can be determined by measuring the data for 8-12 weeks.

With the electric motor issue, the lack of ownership of each step extended the time to resolve the issue. The purchasing team was responsible to send the motor out to be torn down, however, the parts did not ship for several weeks after the root cause was identified because they weren’t held accountable. The accumulated defective parts sat in inventory – remember these are nearly finished goods, not supplied parts, so the inventory impact was significant. Additionally, the customer order was finite. We left the repairs to the last minute and used overtime to ship the parts on time. Measuring the process by the owner would have prevented the unnecessary cost.

Implement a Continuous Improvement Framework

My favorite continuous improvement framework is the DMAIC process, or Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. However, when it comes to continuous improvement for everyone in the organization, the DMAIC process may be too challenging to learn and adopt. A simpler, more accessible framework is the Plan-Do-Check-Act or PDCA framework. Here is a brief overview of the PDCA cycle: 

  • Plan – identify a problem that needs solving or an opportunity for improvement. Analyze what can be done, establish a goal and identify the steps needed to accomplish the work.
  • Do – implement the plan, on a small scale if possible.
  • Check – evaluate the results.
  • Act – Standardize effective solutions or iterate back through the cycle.

Encourage everyone to participate in PDCA projects. Create a reward system to promote engagement. Rewards can be simple, such as recognition during an all-company meeting, or celebrating with a small party. Company swag is good, especially if employees can wear it during work hours. Buying a jacket or a hat for completing a project is extremely low cost compared to the savings of the project. This approach helps in addressing the root cause of defective parts, which will impact the cost of quality over time.

In the electric motor example, we did identify a corrective action project to prevent a recurrence. In the wire manufacturing process, a preventive maintenance schedule was created to replace components likely to wear on a regular basis. The small cost of changing a roller is minute compared to the larger expense of reworking the finished product. I cannot remember if we celebrated with a pizza party or not, but in hindsight, if we didn’t, we should have!

Take inspiration from my electric motor example, where timely root cause analysis could have saved money and contained the issue. Don’t let nonconforming materials pile up and obscure underlying problems. Instead, tackle them head-on with proactive measures that involve the ENTIRE team. By doing so, you can avoid missed deliveries due to quality issues and foster a culture of continuous improvement.

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What’s More Beneficial, AI, or Stakeholder Analysis?

What’s More Beneficial, AI, or Stakeholder Analysis?

Guest writer Sara Hanks continues the conversations about widely accessible artificial intelligence in this week’s blog post: “What’s More Beneficial, AI, or Stakeholder Analysis?”

The advances in artificial intelligence are creating a lot of buzz these days, with the launch of several image creation software tools and ChatGPT. It reminds me of one of my first Artificial Intelligence projects from 2017. In this project, the AI algorithm was able to read a PDF, extract important information and convert it into metadata, which is data stored in a specific and structured way. The model performed well, and the engineering team was excited to turn it on. However, when it came time to install it on the server, the IT infrastructure team denied the installation. The project was killed. We had failed to include all the stakeholders in the project communication.

Stakeholder management is a critical aspect of the success of a project. Managing people in projects that don’t work for you, or worse are your senior leaders, can be challenging. I’ve found that an interest and influence matrix is a good tool that can be used to think through the complexities of managing stakeholders. For each stakeholder, you assess the amount of interest they have in the project, as well as their influence or power over the project. Essentially there are 4 quadrants of the matrix: high interest/ high influence, high interest / low influence, low interest / high influence, and low interest / low influence.

High Interest / High Influence – Work Together

Stakeholders with high interest and high influence have a significant impact over a project’s success. These are the people that need to be engaged. If the person is a peer, then they should be on the project team. If the person is a leader, then they should be involved in the decision-making process in a project. Additionally, when issues or changes arise, it is important to inform the stakeholders. In the event there is an issue, I recommend proposing solutions to show that you’ve thought through it some.

High Interest / Low influence – Keep Informed

The stakeholders in this category may not have high decision-making power, but they are still interested in the project’s outcome. When people are interested in the success of the project, they can be evangelists of the project. It is good to keep their interest by keeping them informed. 

Low Interest / High Influence – Keep Satisfied

 These are the stakeholders that could be lurking in the corner, waiting to come out and throw up a roadblock. I go out of my way to keep these people satisfied by leaning into what I believe are their biggest concerns. Don’t hide anything from them and when you communicate, be sure it is concise.

Low Interest / low Influence – Monitor 

The low interest and low influence stakeholders have little interest and should be communicated with sparingly. However, it is good to see if they have moved into a different quadrant. Sometimes their reality changes and they either become interested or suddenly have more power. 

Once you’ve assessed the stakeholders, you can create a communication plan accordingly. A communication plan may include meetings, email updates, newsletters, and direct conversation. 

Here are some best practices with meetings:

For the high interest / high influence quadrant, I hold a core team meeting on a regular basis that fits the timeline of the project. For projects that span 6 months or more, I try to meet on a bi-weekly basis. For shorter projects or software related projects, I meet more frequently. In these meetings, we review the project plan, discuss proposed solutions to issues and risks, as well as assign and follow up on tasks. With the leadership team, I hold meetings less frequently than the core team meeting. In addition to the content that comes out of the core team meeting, highlight areas that require decisions or escalations. In these sessions, it is valuable to create a standard template that can cover all the topics and use it consistently.

I invite the Low Interest / High Influence stakeholders to the core team and leadership meetings. While there is a cover your behind element to it, I believe it is best to be inclusive of this group. During the meetings, lean into the concerns this group of stakeholders may have. Not only will you drive engagement, but you’ll establish credibility as well. 

For the High Interest / Low Influence stakeholders, I prefer to copy them on the meeting minutes and inform them of project status on a more informal basis. Water cooler talk, or an impromptu message through the companies chat is an effective way to keep people informed without taking too much of their time. 

Assessing each of the stakeholders for their interest and influence can be useful to dissect the complexity that comes with managing different people in a project. By putting people into the 4 categories and creating a communication plan that aligns with the category, you’re sure to offset risks and alleviate challenges caused by people being surprised.

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Making It Happen from the Middle

Making It Happen from the Middle

Guest writer Sara Hanks talks about how to continue to make changes without a top-down ability in “Making It Happen from the Middle.”

For nearly a decade, the digital transformation projects, and teams that I led were funded from corporate. Although there were aggressive cost-out targets that came along with the program budget, it was clear that the initiatives were selected at the top of the organization and disseminated down. When the team encountered resistance to change, an escalation a couple layers up settled the dispute quickly. The blunt object from the top paved paths that would otherwise be a challenge.

In February 2019, our division was sold to another company. Their IT strategy was not the result of a CEO initiative and the concept of functional teams supporting IT projects was foreign. The program funding that was allocated to the digital transformation was distributed to the functions and my team was mostly disbanded. What remained was a small team of project managers tasked with leading continuous improvement efforts. The top-down ability to drive change disappeared and we had to innovate and influence others to accomplish our work. It’s been nearly 3 years and I can say that change is still possible, but it looks different.

If you find yourself in a similar job scenario where you need to improve the business without much direction, or you are in middle management and seek to make things better, these tips can help.

Ask Questions to Find Problems

Chances are that there is no shortage of issues within a business. If you don’t have a specific problem in mind, then seek to find one though interviews with your teams or your co-workers. Ask about what keeps them up at night, or what do they find the most frustrating. You may need to dig deep using a 5-why approach. In this approach, you ask why several times until you get to the root of an issue that can be solved. When you get to a solvable problem, ask what they have done to fix the problem previously. This will give you a sense that the problem is worth solving, and what has been tried in the past.

Break Projects into Pieces

In project management, the work is broken down into work breakdown structures or WBS. The WBS defines the overall scope of the project and breaks down the work to plan the schedule, resources, and budget. In a scenario where the project is not tops-down, or the project sponsor is not defined, you can think about splitting the project into minimal viable projects. For example, if there is a project to improve the ergonomics in the office, rather than focus on the entire setup, select one element to focus on. Finding funding to provide ergonomically friendly keyboards is easier because of the lower cost and effort. Once the keyboard project is finished, propose adjustable chairs, or monitor stands. Little by little, the incremental efforts add up until eventually enough has been funded that the standing desks are more agreeable.

Look for Low Cost, Low Code IT Solutions

Recently, I met another business transformation / continuous improvement leader from a similar sized company. He was in the same scenario with little direction and low budget. By working with the organization to find problems to solve, he leveraged the Microsoft Power Apps suite to create apps himself to solve the problems. There are several options for low code/no code software development. IT experience is not required and there are plenty of training videos on YouTube.

Be Patient

Chances are that if you have the ambition to drive change from the middle, you are results oriented. I personally struggle with patience and constantly seek instant gratification. It’s important to level-set your expectations from the beginning that things take longer when driven from the middle. If work is out of your control, move onto something else while you wait. For example, I used a change request process to implement some changes in IT. The project was put into the queue and wasn’t executed for 7 months. My team moved onto other projects while we waited. Eventually, the IT team caught up and we had solved 2 different problems in the meantime. Be patient and keep going.

Think Like a Marketer

I didn’t understand the power of connecting with my audience, aka my leaders until it was too late. My passion is infectious, and I mistook energy for buy-in. When I presented machine learning results and interactive diagnostic tools, my leaders appreciated the passion, but didn’t understand what I was saying. They didn’t know what to do about it either and couldn’t help me clear roadblocks. It is extremely important to spend time understanding your stakeholders and tailoring your message according to their style. The manager who didn’t care for my data analytic detail, was more interested in who I was working with and what were the results. I could have saved us both time by cutting to the chase and letting him know what he wanted to hear, or what he needed to hear to willingly help.

Over the years, I’ve seen many people fit the grumpy co-worker mold. Always mumbling under their breath or complaining about things continuing to be a pain. Things don’t need to stay the status quo. I have had several surprising successes on projects this year, including $2.5M in funding, because of the tips described above. Make incremental, intentional, small changes and eventually you won’t believe how far things have come.

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Where to Start with Data Quality

Where to Start with Data Quality

Guest writer Sara Hanks builds our foundational knowledge with her blog post on data: “Where to Start with Data Quality.”

Fall is my favorite season for two reasons – beautiful scenery and the National Football League. This year, I joined a fantasy football league for the first time. The league uses the ESPN fantasy football app, which is great because it contains analytics that make it easy for a novice like me. Each week, my team is matched up with another and there is a predicted outcome for each player as well as the team overall. I can use the predictions to decide who to bench or trade. This is possible because there is a ton of high-quality data that feeds the algorithm.

According to Joseph Juran, quality means “fitness for use.” According to Philip Crosby, it means “conformance to requirements.” Data quality encompasses both definitions – it needs to be able to provide insights to make decisions real-time. Here are 10 elements to consider with data quality:

  1. Accuracy – the data needs to be correct
  2. Complete – the data does not have missing values
  3. Consistent – the data needs to be defined the same across all IT systems
  4. Valid – the format of the data needs to match the data structure, such as a date field
  5. Singular – the data should not be duplicated
  6. Seamless – the data needs to move from one system to another without compromise
  7. Repeatable – if two people are recording data, they both record the same thing.
  8. Preserved – the data needs to be retained according to the retention policies
  9. Compliant – the data needs to adhere to privacy laws, and internal policies
  10. Accessible – the data needs to be democratized in a way that people can consume it, according to their skillset.

To achieve a high level of data quality, the data needs to have a clear owner. The owner is most likely responsible for executing the process. For example, the customer information is owned by the sales team, and the supplier data is owned by the purchasing team. The IT team must support the data owners because they can ensure that there are proper controls in place to detect issues with moving and storing the data.

Getting started with a data quality plan can be overwhelming, so it is best for businesses to prioritize the data first. I recommend starting with the fundamental, foundational data for your business. I like to consider this data the cost of doing business and understand that data quality is just as necessary as closing the books at the end of the month. The next area I recommend tackling is all the data used to generate operational KPIs. Finally, focus on the data necessary for transformation efforts.

Once the scope of the data quality plan is set, it is good to create a baseline of the data quality. An audit of the data can help data owners understand the baseline. The audit is a deep dive into a sample of the data to get a representation of the overall data. During the data audit, the data owner will need to get hands on with the data, as well as interview people to understand the accuracy of the data. At the end of the audit, create a metric around how much of the data is considered defective. The audit findings facilitate recommendations and plans to improve the data quality.

At a minimum, the data quality plan must include a process around ensuring new data is created with high quality. The process needs to define who has authority to create the data, and it needs to define the process to update data.  

Improving data quality takes time and resources, so start small and drive incremental improvements over time.

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Creating Solutions to Reduce Waste

Creating Solutions to Reduce Waste

Guest writer Sara Hanks takes readers through the process of finding solutions that work for a team in “Creating Solutions to Reduce Waste.”

Although it has been 15 years, I remember the day clearly. It was my first opportunity to participate in a manufacturing Kaizen event, facilitated by a Japanese Sensei consultant. 20+ participants were divided into smaller teams of 4-5 people, with each team focusing on an area of the shop. I was selected as the team captain, as I was the most vocal person. After a couple days of analyzing the waste associated with the current state, we were instructed to identify solutions. I shared my perfect idea for a solution and the team agreed with the recommendation. My competitive side wanted to be the first team to accomplish the task, so I was relieved that the team was onboard. 

The Sensei, along with the leaders, would spend time visiting each team. When they stopped to check in with our team, I proudly shared our perfect solution. The Sensei was not happy, and I was mortified to be corrected in front of my leaders. He explained the 7 Ways Idea Generation methodology and requested that we return to brainstorming. My team generated 6 more ideas and used criteria such as impact and effort to down select to a single idea. It turned out that my perfect idea was not the final decision of the team.  

Hey, failure is one of the best instructors! While I learned a few things that day, the most important lesson was the power of divergent thinking. Specifically, divergent thinking from a diverse group of individuals will create the best solutions. In my process mapping and continuous improvement action workouts, I use creative thinking exercises, silent brainstorming, and an evaluation process to select the best solutions. 

Leveraging Creative Thinking for Developing Solutions 

“It turns out that creativity isn’t some rare gift to be enjoyed by the lucky few—it’s a natural part of human thinking and behavior. In too many of us it gets blocked. But it can be unblocked. And unblocking that creative spark can have far-reaching implications for yourself, your organization, and your community.”

Tom Kelley, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All 

When it comes to solutions, we tend to default to the ideas that have already existed. It’s hard to think outside of the box and be innovative because people tend to stop at the obvious solution. Introducing unrelated, creative exercises into an action workout can unlock creative thinking and help create new ideas. One of my favorite ways to spark creative thinking is to solution the worst possible idea first. Creating the worst idea does two things: 1) removes barriers by allowing the craziest of ideas to exist and 2) loosen up the team and help them feel more comfortable brainstorming ideas. 

There are several exercises available on the internet, so I recommend selecting 1-2 that fit within the context of the solution building. A coloring activity may not work for a meeting that is conducted virtually, for example. Once you’ve warmed up the group using one of these exercises, brainstorm solutions. 

Silent Brainstorming for Idea Generation Equality 

Silent brainstorming is used to generate ideas individually, while everyone is quiet. Participants can think without distractions or influence from other people. Groupthink is avoided and everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to the solution. If the group is in a conference room or other common area, sticky notes are a good place to record ideas. Limit one idea per sticky note. If the group is located remotely, then ideas can be written down digitally. Remember the intent is to brainstorm without sharing, so make sure the ideas are captured locally vs. a shared platform. I recommend at least 30 minutes of brainstorming to ensure people can think their ideas through. After the silent brainstorming is completed, everyone can share their ideas with the larger group. As the team shares ideas, similar solutions emerge, which can be combined into single solutions. Once the solutions are identified, it is time to down select the idea. 

Selecting the Best Solution 

Selecting the best solution can be done a few different ways. Here are three examples:

  1. Impact – Effort matrix: the ideas are plotted on a grid. The ideas in quadrant 1 are no-brainers and the ideas in quadrant 3 can be discarded. The others are open to discussion.
  2. Voting: with voting, each person receives 7-10 votes. A person can use all their votes on a single idea or spread them across multiple solution ideas. Voting should be silent to prevent groupthink, as with silent brainstorming. The ideas with the most votes are selected for implementation. If the cost to implement the solutions vary, I recommend taking the top ideas and assessing them in an impact – effort matrix. 
  3. Assessing each solution against a set of predefined criteria. The criteria can include impact and effort but are expanded to assess other requirements. Safety, compliance, security, and quality may be included. Typically, the criteria are defined up front in the project charter as critical to quality items, benefits, or both. For each idea, score the idea against the criteria – I prefer a 1, 3 9 scale to differentiate the most applicable items. The total score for each idea is calculated – the highest scored ideas should be implemented.

After the solution(s) are selected for implementation, create a set of action items, owners, and dates for the critical next steps. Schedule follow-up meetings to ensure the actions are closed and identify any unforeseen roadblocks. Most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy implementing the innovative solutions that you and the team created!

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