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by John J. Casey

Top 10 Keys to an Effective Read-Across System

1. Top management must have direct engagement with the inventory of great ideas.

2. There must be a routine process to review the best practices with a significant deployment group.

3. Use a well-respected expert to filter the good ideas from the others and help articulate the --who necessary elements of the implementation activity.

4. Develop a method to estimate the value of the implemented idea--especially annual dollar value.

5. For each good idea, find a passionate implementation leader--a “born-again convert”--who can enthusiastically describe the way it was and how the new way is better.

6. Create an easily accessible lesson file with the value and tips for implementation.

7. Create a method to elicit an “aha” moment for the employees of the receiving operation.

8. Create a reward system that motivates people to make changes and try things out.

9. Ensure that employees have some local operating freedom that allows the receiving plants to prioritize the order of implementation, and the ability to defer or pilot, on a small scale, the ideas that seem to have limited local utility.

10. Create a simple, visible method to track implementation and sustainability.

 

Working in the corporate world, where new ideas occur regularly, everybody talks about the “lessons-learned dream.” In business, the concept of uncovering best practices and then implementing them is like motherhood and apple pie: Who doesn’t love them? But making real improvements is often a pipe dream; it doesn’t actually happen very much. Why is implementing lessons-learned so hard? Why is it that everybody wants to do it but implementation progresses at a snail’s pace, if it happens at all? How in the heck can we win? What do we have to do differently? Is there a formula to make this successful?

In working with multiple companies on this process, I perceive that there are a few obstacles and enablers that, when placed in the proper context, may determine the difference between tremendous success and a frustrating waste of time.

The primary obstacles
In a business environment, people like to be in control and to operate within a comfort zone that assures them that they know what’s going on. Most people resist change, for both good and bad reasons. Unfortunately, effectively implementing a lessons-learned or “read-across” strategy is essentially asking people to change; therefore it’s resisted. Some of the primary obstacles include:

Insufficient need for change. The new idea may be good, but if the method isn’t perceived as being “broken,” why fix it?

Lack of adequate understanding. The new idea might be a clever concept that nevertheless doesn’t seem to offer the opportunity to make that much of a difference.

It looks like too much work. Making the change may mean a total overhaul of the way things are done, and if it doesn’t work, there might be a waste of time, effort, and investment.

Fear of failure. What if it doesn’t work, or just doesn’t work here?

Negativity or inertia. The incentive to sustain the status quo is greater than the incentive to change.

Not-invented-here syndrome. If it’s not my idea, it can’t be better.

 

In looking at read-across, you must accept the fact that hard-working, caring people who have great pride in their jobs and their companies share all of these concerns every day. It’s not that they’re not motivated, that they’re lazy, or that they just don’t care. These are great people with great work ethics. They also are the ones who have to deal with bona fide obstacles. How do you change their attitudes and get them to buy into change?

Let me describe a scenario that seems to have all the elements that make a read-across process work. Imagine that during a plant visit you notice a huge change in an operating method that’s yielding some significant returns. The employees are proud and fired up, and they know that they’ve implemented a much better method of production. Most of the time, the boss would see the results somewhere in the performance metrics and want to recognize the people for the improvement. The executive would end up seeing an enthusiastic group of people who is proud of its accomplishments; that boss would want to capture both the spirit of the team and the improved method, and would look for a way to transfer the knowledge elsewhere.

The catalyst
Most of the time, the executive would contact a trusted colleague who understands the basic principles of the new method. The boss would likely ask that expert to go over to this “island of progress” to verify that the ideas are solid and that the gains are sustainable and repeatable. Once the expert gets on site and confirms that the new process is solid, he or she typically looks for the key elements that make it successful. The expert knows that improvements usually can be analyzed in terms of tangible results, such as quality, cost, and profits. In this way, the expert can accurately determine the value of a great new idea.

The expert takes the time to write down the key features and implementation steps, and in short order, he or she defines a fairly comprehensive business case for the new methodology in terms of costs and benefits, as well as the most likely locations within the corporation to benefit from the improved process.

What is also present at the best practice site is a person who is really proud of the company or team’s accomplishment. He or she is turned on to the improvement because it works. In fact, he or she almost becomes an evangelist for the idea. It makes life better and he or she is motivated to share it.

With this knowledge, the sharing usually begins when the expert starts going to sister plants and articulating how the new method can help. At the recipient plants, the new idea is usually met with resistance to change, and plant management and employees trot out all the usual reasons why the change “won’t work here.” A missionary journey is usually needed to let the recipient plant’s employees view the new method for themselves. In successful situations, those employees go through a metamorphosis after experiencing a significant “aha” moment. This moment is critical. Recipients need to convince themselves that the new method is better and that it will fill a need that they have. Successful read-across processes include a multitude of ideas for implementation and freedom for the recipients to perform some custom tailoring of the new processes to the local situation. The recipient needs some freedom during the selection process to choose which of the many ideas to implement, as well as some control of the timing. This customization is essential. The person receiving the new information should be recognized for its successful implementation. It’s like an artist signing his or her work. Giving implementers the freedom to make these modifications not only increases their commitment to the implementation success, it also provides a method to achieve new heights, to raise the state of the art.

The reinforcement
To make the read-across process solid, the top executive has a duty to monitor and support the team in the implementation process. Smart executives will require a certain amount of improvement from each plant on an annual basis, and they will have the experts find an accessible place (like a corporate shared drive) to store all the great new ideas in a consistent business-case format.

If the total inventory of read-across ideas in the shared drive amounts to $2,500,000 worth of savings to a recipient plant, it would be reasonable to establish an achievable goal for each plant to copy a certain percentage (e.g., 20%-30%, or $500,000-$750,000) of new ideas into their plants’ operations on an annual basis, and then monitor the implementation of the transferable ideas. It’s also worthwhile to create a simple, visual monitoring system and to schedule the review of the implementation during routine planning meetings.

It’s easiest for the executive to have a visual management tool to monitor the progress of the implementation. All that’s needed is a simple chart that shows the new processes and their implementation status. What most companies miss are the criteria to monitor the implementation. Changes can be seen as natural steps that are trackable. Successful implementations have clearly defined phases with tangible criteria, for example:

Plant management commits to a business plan to implement the new process, with a local champion assigned to coordinate the development.

A champion, with a support team, makes a visit to the best-practice site with a documented implementation plan approved by plant management.

The process is implemented in a pilot location with a minimum of 30 days of actual use, and the benefits from the new system are documented.

The process is duplicated in at least two other pilot areas with a minimum of 30 days of use, and the documented benefits are reviewed and approved by an expert.

 

When these steps are followed, the duplication of ideas generally flows throughout the plants. A spirit of controlled change usually envelops the involved employees, and a multiplication of successful results begins. The process defeats many of the original obstacles. The freedom to choose, modify, and establish intelligent timing helps plant employees feel a greater degree of control. The annual expectation level tells employees that controlled change is expected and that lack of understanding, or the idea that improvement is too much work, is no excuse for not attempting to meet those expectations.

When read-across is viewed as a system, you will see the need for the support mechanisms. The key to success is not in the pushing and hoping; it is in establishing a complete operating activity that is blended into the daily operating practices.

About the author
John J. Casey is a supplier development expert working at the Whitehall Group LLC in Troy, Michigan. He is also the 2008-2009 chair for the American Society for Quality’s Automotive Division.