by Beth Crowley
When most people are asked “What do you do?”, the answer is simple: I’m a teacher, a lawyer, an accountant. These job titles are well known across companies, industries and countries, and the questioner usually nods his or her head and can ask appropriate follow-up questions like “what kind of law do you practice?” or “what level of education do you teach?”
For those of us with a career focused on Continuous Improvement, answering that question becomes a bit more complex. I used to try to explain the concepts of Lean and Six Sigma, but most people aren’t very interested. Now I say, “I help organizations find wasted time and money”, and I’ll use an everyday example like an organized garage to illustrate lean thinking. My Job Titles have ranged from Logistics Coordinator to Continuous Improvement Leader to Corporate Lean & Technical Training Manager to Vice President of Global Operations, but the goal has always been the same: find ways to increase material flow, improve quality, reduce inventory, improve on-time delivery, reduce cost. Even though I was always focused on Continuous Improvement, the day-to-day activities in each of these roles were very different.
I graduated from Michigan State University with a Business degree in Materials and Logistics Management (pre-Supply Chain Management) in the late 1980s. At that time Supply Chain Management wasn’t widely accepted and there weren’t many entry level jobs that matched the classes that I studied. My first full-time position was as a Manufacturing Engineer on a Team tasked with increasing throughput on existing electronics assembly lines. Our team was not made up of degreed engineers. Our goals and responsibilities were very different than that of traditional Manufacturing Engineers. We were focused on Continuous Improvement (at the time it was labeled Just-in time/JIT) and material flow: the right material at the right cost & quality at the right place at the right time. The traditional manufacturing engineers were focused on the actual process of assembling the product: the parts list, the sequence of assembly, and the tools required. Even though both positions were titled Manufacturing Engineer, the job requirements were very different, and the standard definition did not describe my job. This type of evolving resource need within the supply chain had been previously unchartered territory from a Human Resources perspective.
Over the last few decades global competition has increased the need to streamline (continuously improve) all business operations. Every customer demands safer, faster & cheaper products and services without sacrificing quality or delivery. Previously held assumptions about profitable business models have been and continue to evolve. Within the manufacturing industry, centralized Process Optimization & Control is no longer the sole responsibility of the Engineering department. Problem-solving expectations have been incorporated into every Job Description. Topics like Lean and Six Sigma and Kaizen and Operational Excellence and Blackbelts and Operating Systems and Continuous Improvement are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing to those outside of a specific company. Can Talent Acquisition professionals be expected to know everything about every type of evolving role? Does a Continuous Improvement Leader in Year 1 need the same skill set as a Continuous Improvement Leader at the same site in Year 5? Absolutely not.
A Quality Engineer, whether working in automotive or consumer products, performs the same basic function throughout his or her career. In sharp contrast, the role of a Continuous Improvement Facilitator grows and evolves as a traditional company starts to learn and practice these new skills. When change is new, like when children are little, an organization going through change needs active daily support. As teams move through their journey, they learn and grow and become more independent while still making progress toward their goals. At the same time, the type of coaching that is required also changes. The role of the facilitator must adapt to the changing needs of teams as they mature and begin to function at a higher level with less intervention. This concept can be thought of as the Life Cycle of a Continuous Improvement Facilitator.
In biology or business, a life cycle is a sequence of events or development stages that an organism goes through from the beginning to the end of its useful life. A life cycle always includes an introduction/development or birth, maturity, and decline/end or death. Resources and support vary as the organism learns and matures. Similarly, as a traditional organization learns to experiment with new ideas without the fear of failure, the type of leadership and facilitation skills required evolve with it.
A TRADITIONAL company can be defined as one that uses a Command & Control leadership style with a culture of “we’ve always done it this way”. Many Leadership Teams in traditional organizations practice one-way communication to their employees. In the early days of introducing change, the task ahead may seem insurmountable to the current team. This is when it is necessary to find a very experienced Continuous Improvement Facilitator, one who has worked in many industries, in different parts of the world, facilitating improvement in both manufacturing and service organizations. At this stage, it is necessary to build the foundation from which the organization will evolve and grow, not only from a resource standpoint but also reporting relationships, training and development, communication, processes, procedures, etc. In addition, there is often an entire Leadership Team who needs to be convinced this is the right thing to do, and then led through the steps they need to take to actively support good changes.
It is very normal for employees of a traditional organization to deny the need to change, actively resist, and loudly express the many reasons why change can’t happen. Employees might even vilify the Continuous Improvement Facilitator because he or she represents change. It is important to have an even tempered individual in that role, one who thoroughly understands resistance to change and how to effectively deal with it. He or she needs to be an excellent communicator with all levels of an organization, able to influence without direct authority. Not only is this person going to help an organization set the tone and plan for the next 3-5 years, but he or she is also coaching and guiding the next generation of leaders. Getting the appropriate skill set and personality for this initial role is critical to the growth of the team.
A LEARNING company has a leadership team who clearly communicates a company’s goals, and teams understand how they contribute to meeting those goals. The culture is one of exploration and experimentation. Employees are willing to try new things and learn from the results. Improvements are coming not only from highly structured and facilitated Improvement Events but also from individuals and teams learning to see and eliminate waste in everyday processes.
A learning company is in the Implementation and Execution stage of making change happen. The framework has been developed, a Training & Development Plan is being executed, Workplace Organization and Visual Controls are obvious in both manufacturing and office environments. Employees are starting to understand and take ownership of their own work. At this stage, the foundation has been built and new processes need to be documented. The role of the Continuous Improvement Facilitator evolves from one who needs a wide depth of knowledge to a more structured, process-oriented, project management role. The goal is to institutionalize new processes and procedures, incorporate Continuous Improvement loops and continue to follow the plan. This position is an excellent “promote from within” opportunity and another way for leadership to show how employees can benefit from change.
A LEADING company has created a culture of problem-solvers, where employees are considered the process experts and actively encouraged by Team Leaders to find better ways to accomplish their goals. Continuous Improvement is no longer considered change but instead drives a series of new normals. Leadership rarely intervenes in employee decisions because “the process is the boss”.
A leading company has incorporated the desired change into the DNA of the company. The Continuous Improvement Facilitator role now grows from “Implement” to “Maintain & Support”. This is by far the least complex stage, the end of the life cycle, as teams mature and the need for Continuous Improvement facilitation decreases.
So, the next time that you’re staffing a Continuous Improvement project or replacing Continuous Improvement resources, make sure that you consider these very important data points before developing the Job Description:
• Where is the team with respect to Continuous Improvement maturity? Are there
processes and/or a structure to support the evolution?
• Where is the team with respect to Change Readiness? Do the teams accept
change easily/happily? Or does the current culture support “because we’ve always
done it this way”?
The extra detail will be invaluable in helping the Talent Acquisition professionals find the right Facilitator at the right time for your project or full-time resource need.
Beth Crowley loves Coaching Organizations through Cultural Transformations! I have a passion for Operations and Continuous Improvement & I thoroughly enjoy the opportunities and challenges of the journey. Beth worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies, guiding them on the path to better effectiveness of their people & processes.
Experience & Expertise includes: Lean Leadership, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, Change Management, Project Management, Training Development & Facilitation, Public Speaking, Value Stream Optimization, Leadership Coaching, Operational Excellence, Process Improvement, Waste Elimination, Operational Assessments, Program Management, Strategy Development & Implementation, Train-the-Trainer, Continuous Improvement (Kaizen) Event Planning & Execution.