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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Developing a Continuous Process Improvement Culture, and Sustaining It

I have always heard, but never understood, that a process is a process is a process. This didn't click for me until about three weeks ago when I was teaching a Senior Leader course designed to introduce Continuous Process Improvement and basic problem solving to those senior leaders assigned to squadrons within the Maintenance Group of the Air Force Base I am assigned to.

This course, originally developed by the Air Force Reserve Command and lent to me for trial runs, was designed to teach the principles of Lean, learn how to identify Waste, understand how to complete the Air Force 8-step Problem Solving Model, and most importantly teach these leaders how to identify inefficiencies at their own level of control. As we neared the end of my very first class I taught the course to, it was time to brainstorm opportunities for improvement that could go back to their sections and implement these new tools learned.

It was during the brainstorming session one of the attendees ideas was to develop a CPI culture within his section. I quickly thought about this as the class tried to use a PIC chart to say whether his idea had a high or low impact on the mission and would be easy or hard to implement using his position of authority and tools learned. The class was quickly jumping to a High mission Impact, but a Hard Chance for implementation. It was here that it all clicked.

If a process is a process is a process, then I can use CPI tools to address developing a CPI culture. I had him verbally walk through the 8-step as I: one, tried to show the class that it isn't hard to do, and two, prove to myself my new understanding of the phrase.

Step 1: Identify the problem
This section leader did not currently have an environment within the section he led that fostered a culture of CPI.

Step 2: Identify Performance Gaps (quantify the Problem to prove it's existence)
I asked him how many ideas are discussed in his section, how many CPI efforts have been made. The answer: 0

Step 3: Set a Target
We figured one idea per person and three CPI efforts a year

Step 4: Root Cause
After we asked "why" a few times we learned that previous leadership was quick to dismiss ideas essentially shutting down the "Idea Mill." Furthermore, leaders felt bound by policy and directives that no one ever bothered to question or pursue their legitimacy.

Step 5: Brainstorm Countermeasures
We quickly devised a idea board that had pre-printed Idea forms that asked the employees what type of Waste was in their process. What type of S (from the 5S or 6S) would be affected? Then gave room for their Idea on the back of the form. All implemented Ideas would earn the person some time off; while a display board would track the progress of the Idea.

Step 6: Implement Countermeasures
We devised an action plan and assigned a POC and timeline of implementation

Step 7: Validate Countermeasures
The boards are currently in development and are showing promise with those assigned. It appears this one easy step will allow this leader to achieve his goal.

Step 8: Standardize Results
I quickly briefed the Maintenance Group leadership and now all units are looking into their own boards.

This showed the team that not every task is impossible to achieve. You just have to scope things down to your level of control. Finally, something we all learn as we help to facilitate change, is that there is always a lacking in sustainment. I briefed the class of why they, the senior leaders assigned to their units, were in attendance of this inaugural course. It all got summed up with this:

1. It takes our Senior Leaders to direct change. That course would have never happened if their commanders would of never had asked for it.

2. Process Workers must develop their improved processes. As the section leader, he knew a traditional Idea Suggestion program wouldn't work. Controlling the idea flow by forcing the presenter to identify the Waste in advance allowed Value Added Ideas to be presented rather than the traditional gripes of what type of hand soap should be used in the restrooms.

3. Finally, our Process Managers, those attending the course, are key to sustainment. This is part of that culture change where we empower at the lowest level, and ask our process managers to support and defend those process workers. This is no longer "Fire Fighting," but "Fire Prevention." This is tough to swallow for most as Fire Fighters are labeled as true heroes when they save lives and property by putting out fires; more so, then when handing out batteries for the smoke detectors.

It takes these three components working in harmony if you truly want to see sustainment in the development of a CPI Culture.


  1. Excellent Post Mark...really hit home for me...thanks for posting!...Billy

  2. Thanks Billy for giving me access to post. I have been teaching this sustainment model to unit senior leaders within all the squadrons of the Maintenance Group. You really start to see the light bulbs go off as they understand we aren't trying to take away their right to lead or set policies, or worse yet micromanage. We are just enlightening them on how CPI is developed, why it is developed that way and what they can do to ensure their people's time did not go to waste performing another event. In addition, they can take a break from the days of firefighting, and start looking at how they can prevent those fires. However, if a fire does break out, we know we can count on them to get it out quickly, as we turn to our SMEs to find out how to ensure it does not happen again.

  3. Here! Here! Excellent post. This becomes your foundational story as you go forward and conquer future groups and/or widen the scope of the effort in this MXG. Thanks for sharing.