Transforming Organisational Excellence with CI — Chapter 3: Tools of CI

Sunny Tan HC
12 min readJun 19, 2024

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Does everything look like a nail when holding onto a hammer, or do you feel like you have the power of Thor? Jokes aside, we might be blindsided by the tools that we have available. However, we are not limited by what we already know but by what we are willing to acquire.

If you have been following my writing on Continuous Improvement (CI), thank you for your continuous support and joining me on this journey. This is also my 100th article written on the Medium platform, and I hope you can continue to join me here and share your thoughts after reading it.

Welcome to Chapter 3: Tools of CI

This chapter introduces the essential tools and techniques that drive CI in organisations. I have used these tools when working with project teams to facilitate their CI Projects. By leveraging these tools, companies can enhance their processes, solve problems at their root, and consistently deliver value to their stakeholders, especially customers, delighting them.

We’ll explore the importance of standardisation with Standard Work, the investigative power of Root Cause Analysis, the hands-on approach of Gemba Walks, the efficiency-boosting Value Stream Mapping, and the innovative perspective of Design Thinking. I will give a high-level overview of these tools and share my personal stories without drilling into their specifics.

I. Standard Work

Standard Work is the foundation of CI, ensuring consistency and providing a baseline for measurement. By documenting and maintaining the best-known methods for performing tasks, organisations can achieve uniformity in processes, enhance quality, and identify areas for improvement. Standard work helps to ensure Reproducibility, where a different person or team can yield similar outcomes using the same process.

I shared an example of McDonald’s in a previous article, and you might also notice something similar about Apple. Apart from the Online store, Apple sells its products to us via the Apple Store, Apple Premium Resel,ler, and Authorised Apple Reseller. Have you noticed that they all looked the same regardless of which country or outlet you visit?

Introduction to Standard Work

Standard Work involves defining and documenting the most efficient way to perform a task based on current best practices. It is done step by step and includes all the measurements and resources needed to deliver the same consistent output. Standard work ensures that everyone performs tasks consistently, crucial for measuring performance and identifying deviations.

Creating and Maintaining Standard Work Procedures

To develop practical standard work, organisations should involve employees in documenting each process step, setting clear expectations, and regularly reviewing and updating procedures to reflect improvements. Before this, 5S needs to be performed to keep unnecessary items away, and members know where to find those items.

Benefits for Quality and Efficiency

Standard Work reduces variability, ensures quality, and improves efficiency. It also provides a foundation for training new employees and serves as a reference for continuous improvement. Quality and efficiency reduce waste, which eventually reduces cost.

Example Sharing

Standard work costs money and requires time and effort. Management might feel the team can be more productive by executing the job instead of spending time on administrative tasks. However, imagine that when the exact processes are not documented and followed, the output could vary, which increases quality issues.

If someone competent decides to leave the company, can the next person learn and deliver the same outcome?

I have seen teams mapping out their process and forgetting to include steps as they are unconsciously competent. The data you obtained is meaningless when they do not have a baseline and include consistent variation due to the lack of standard work.

You cannot improve what you cannot measure.

II. Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a systematic method for identifying the underlying causes of problems or incidents instead of just addressing the immediate “problem” the organisation sees. The key is to uncover the fundamental issues that lead to these symptoms, allowing organisations to implement solutions that prevent recurring problems.

How Companies Can Use RCA to Solve Problems

1. Identify the Problem: Clearly define the problem or incident that needs analysis. This includes understanding the symptoms and the impact of the problem by being at the venue where the problem is happening.

2. Collect Data: Gather relevant data about the problem, including when and where it occurred, who was involved, and any other contextual information. Get the data from processes upstream and downstream of the problem; this might uncover both direct and indirect causes.

3. Analyse the Data: Use tools like the 5 Whys technique or the Fishbone Diagram (Ishikawa Diagram) to explore the problem in depth. The 5 Whys technique involves repeatedly asking “why” to drill down to the root cause, while the Fishbone Diagram helps visualise potential causes across different categories (e.g., people, processes, equipment).

Example of 5 Whys Analysis:

i. Why are there paint defects? Because the paint thickness is inconsistent across the surface.

ii. Why is the paint thickness inconsistent across the surface? Because the spray nozzles do not apply paint evenly.

iii. Why are the spray nozzles not applying paint evenly? Because some nozzles are clogged.

iv. Why are some nozzles clogged? Because the paint filters are not being cleaned regularly.

v. Why are the paint filters not being cleaned regularly? Because there is no maintenance schedule for cleaning the filters.

4. Identify Root Causes: From the analysis, identify the underlying root causes of the problem. These are the fundamental issues that, if resolved, will prevent the problem from happening again.

5. Develop Solutions: Create actionable solutions to address the root cause. Solutions should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to the situation and time-specific, aiming to prevent recurrence.

6. Implement Solutions: Put the solutions into practice, ensuring they are effectively integrated into the organisation’s processes and systems. One might face non-compliance during an audit when this administrative loop is left out.

7. Monitor and Review: After implementation, monitor the situation by referring to the data used to identify the problem to uncover any reoccurrence. Review the effectiveness of the solutions and make adjustments if necessary.

Example Sharing

A CI Project team was trying to solve an issue in their area of responsibility. I found that the solution the team identified was lacking, so I decided to relook at their RCA. After applying the 5-Why analysis to their problem, I realised that the root cause goes beyond their current process; it resulted from the process before.

The RCA process is not complex; it could be so simple that it misleadingly suggests it cannot solve the problem. The best approach to solving the problem is to keep it direct and simple.

III. Gemba Walks

A Gemba Walk is a practice originating from Lean management. In it, managers and leaders go to the actual place where work is done (the “Gemba”) to observe processes, engage with the team, and gain a firsthand understanding of the work. The term “Gemba” is Japanese for “the real place,” emphasising the importance of direct observation in identifying issues and opportunities for improvement.

How Companies Can Use Gemba Walks to Solve Problems

1. Preparation: Before conducting a Gemba Walk, it is crucial to have a clear objective. Understand what specific process, area, or issue you focus on and prepare any necessary background information.

2. Go to the Gemba: Physically go to where the work is happening, such as the factory floor, an office, or any other worksite.

3. Observe and Engage: Observe the processes in action. Pay attention to how tasks are performed, the workflow, and any obstacles or inefficiencies. Engage with the team to understand their perspectives and gather insights on potential issues.

4. Ask Questions: Ask open-ended questions to the team about their tasks, challenges, and suggestions for improvement. This helps in understanding the root causes of problems from those who experience them daily and probably insights into what can be done to solve the problem.

5. Identify Issues: Use the observations and feedback to identify specific problems or areas for improvement. Look for inefficiencies, waste, safety concerns, or deviations from Standard Work or Quality definition.

6. Collaborate on Solutions: Collaborate with the ground team to brainstorm and develop potential solutions. Their involvement is crucial, as they have practical insights and are more likely to support and sustain the changes they helped create.

7. Document Findings: Document the observations, identified issues, and proposed solutions. This documentation will help track progress, ensure accountability, and give background information should further improvement be necessary, especially when there is a change in the team members.

8. Implement and Follow Up: Implement the agreed-upon solutions and monitor their effectiveness. Follow up with additional Gemba Walks to ensure the improvements are sustained and identify any new issues.

Example Sharing

In the Four Stages of Competence, one goes through the psychological stages of Unconscious Incompetence (Ignorance), Conscious Incompetence (Awareness), Conscious Competence (Learning), and eventually Unconscious Competence (Mastery).

I once requested that a CI Project Team draw out their workflow to maintain equipment. After that, I asked for a Gemba to go to the actual place where they performed their tasks. When I observed them performing their maintenance tasks, I noticed that something they had done was not documented in the workflow.

This was one of the many instances in which I observed something different in the actual place compared to what was documented. When an individual is at a mastery level, they might miss something because they are getting used to the mechanical motion of doing certain things.

Thus, a practitioner must go to the actual place to observe and ascertain the process so we don’t miss anything crucial.

IV. Value Stream Mapping

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a Lean management tool used to visually map out the entire process of delivering a product or service from start to finish. It helps organisations understand the flow of materials and information, identify inefficiencies, and uncover areas of waste.

Visual Representation

VSM visualises the entire workflow, allowing everyone to see the process from a macro perspective. This holistic view helps us understand how different parts of the process interconnect and where inefficiencies lie. It is to know how the value flows within the organisation.

Identify Waste

VSM makes it easier to identify waste when all the processes are mapped out visually. Waste in Lean is any activity that does not add value to the customer. VSM highlights bottlenecks, delays, unnecessary steps, and other non-value-adding activities.

The 8 Wastes of Lean
There are 8 Wastes in Lean Methodology, which can be remembered by the acronym “TIMWOODS”.

a. Transportation — Unnecessary movement of materials or products, which does not add value.

b. Inventory — Excess products or materials yet to be processed, tying up resources and space.

c. Motion — Unnecessary movements by people, such as walking or reaching, that do not add value.

d. Waiting — Idle time caused by delays, waiting for materials, information, or equipment.

e. Overproduction — Producing more than is needed or before it is required leads to excess inventory and increased storage costs.

f. Overprocessing — More work or higher quality than the customer requires, leading to unnecessary costs and time.

g. Defects — Products or services that are not right the first time, causing rework or scrap.

h. Skill Underutilised — Underutilising people’s skills, talents, and knowledge.

Streamline Workflow

Once the wastes are identified, VSM helps design a streamlined workflow. It allows teams to eliminate unnecessary steps, optimise the sequence of operations, and ensure a smoother flow of materials and information.

It is important to note that VSM is not a one-time activity but part of a continuous improvement cycle. After implementing changes, the new process is mapped again to ensure improvements have been achieved and to identify further improvement opportunities.

Example Sharing

I didn’t start my CI journey in a manufacturing or production environment, but I dare to use the VSM I acquired in July 2022. Mine was more oriented towards process mapping, and I used that in the office to map out a process that needed to be streamlined.

Using this approach, I mapped out the flow of the information and documentation and tagged each process with an action owner and the typical time taken. Then, it became apparent that a specific process took the most time. We then collect evidence on the time taken for that process in multiple instances and approach the owner to discuss how we can improve the timing.

Lastly, the team implemented measurements to monitor the solution’s effectiveness. Fortunately, this approach helps to minimise the long turnaround time on most documentation, with some exceptions due to other unforeseen circumstances.

After acquiring the know-how of a new technique, it is essential to apply it. I might not be a guru after knowing what to do, but without application, one cannot determine what’s lacking and how to improve.

Be daring to try!

The article below discusses how Amazon uses VSM to streamline operations and reduce waste.

https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/14/2/713

V. Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a human-centred approach to problem-solving and innovation that prioritises understanding users’ or customers’ needs and experiences.

Unlike traditional problem-solving methods, Design Thinking is more flexible. It focuses on creativity, collaboration, and user feedback for practical solutions.

Can Design Thinking Help as a CI Tool?

Although Design Thinking is not a typical CI tool, it complements it by providing a structured yet creative approach to innovation that focuses on the customer. Here’s how Design Thinking can enhance a company’s CI efforts:

1. Empathising with Customers — User Empathy involves gaining deep insights into customers’ needs, frustrations, and desires. This user-centric approach ensures that improvements and innovations align with customers’ wants, leading to more meaningful and practical solutions.

2. Defining the Problem — This step involves defining the problem based on user insights. This helps ensure the CI initiatives address the correct issues, reducing the risk of solving symptoms rather than root causes.

3. Ideation — Teams brainstorm a wide range of ideas without judgment. This encourages creative thinking and the exploration of unconventional solutions, which can lead to innovative improvements that might not emerge from traditional CI methods.

4. Prototyping — Prototyping involves creating simple, tangible representations of ideas to test with users and gather feedback. This iterative process allows companies to refine their ideas based on real user input, ensuring the final implementation is more likely to succeed.

5. Testing — Testing prototypes with actual users provides valuable feedback on what works and what doesn’t. This step ensures that the proposed solutions are validated by users before full-scale implementation, reducing the risk of failure and costly rework.

Benefits of Design Thinking in CI

a. Customer-Centric Innovations: Ensures improvements align with customer needs, increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty.

b. Reduced Risk of Failure: Early prototyping and testing identify potential issues before full-scale implementation, saving time and resources.

c. Enhanced Creativity: This approach encourages out-of-the-box thinking, leading to innovative solutions that traditional CI methods might overlook.

d. Improved Collaboration: Fosters a collaborative environment where diverse perspectives contribute to problem-solving.

By integrating Design Thinking into their CI journey, companies can enhance their ability to innovate and continuously improve in ways that are deeply attuned to customer needs and expectations.

Example Sharing

I was incorporating design thinking into my delivery to customers in the food industry. I would join the customer in their working environment to understand what they were going through, ask them why they were doing specific tasks, and describe their challenges.

After that, we will run through the workflow with all the stakeholders, share our observations, and define the problem. During the session, we will facilitate the brainstorming process to determine all the possible solutions and weigh them against the metric defined by the customer.

Next, we will go into the prototyping stage, where we will develop a quick prototype to allow the end-user to “operate” and “feel” what a solution might look like and how that might be in their native environment. After gathering their feedback on this prototype, we will proceed with the full-scale development of that particular module.

Once a specific function is available, we will push it out for the end-user to trial run in their native environment to uncover other gaps we might miss. These will be built into the next sprint and progressively developed into the final product.

Summary

I hope you are not overwhelmed by the tools I have shared in this article; they are just a tip of the mountain of tools one can deploy in their CI journey.

However, it’s essential to avoid becoming overly fixated on the tools and ignoring the actual problem, where we should focus our attention. A tool is just a tool we use to solve our problem as long as it enables us to get closer to where we want to be, which is a better state than yesterday; it’s an appropriate tool that we can use.

I will source different case studies to share with you in the next chapter on how companies use CI to move forward, remove waste, and even pivot themselves progressively.

Past Relevant Article

  1. Transforming Organisational Excellence with CI
  2. Transforming Organisational Excellence with CI — Chapter 1: Introduction to Continuous Improvement
  3. Transforming Organisational Excellence with CI — Chapter 2: The Foundations of Continuous Improvement

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Sunny Tan HC

Continuous Improvement | CX | DX | Ex- Technoprenuer | Project Manager | Vacathoner | Medium Writer | Member of CVMB-IPMA