One of the mechanisms that I put into place with any of our programs is a regular cadence of meetings. With our programs, for example, we do monthly sessions with executives, weekly sessions with Continuous Improvement (CI) Teams and bi-weekly sessions with some other groups.
Routines are important because there is no extrinsic forcing function for improvement. Looking for improvement and implementing improvements are habits that must be deliberate and developed within your management system. Some people might read this and think “this is just a lot of meetings and meetings are a waste of time.” Well, yes, this can be true, so let us talk a bit about meetings and effectiveness.
One of the problems I often encounter is a looseness or lack of clear objectives and agenda in regularly held meetings. While there is value in keeping things light and fun, there are only so many hours in a day. If every meeting starts with causal banter not much is accomplished and the value of the routine is greatly diminished.
Admittedly, I had two sessions just this past week where I had to keep pulling a group back to the topic at hand. The teams were working on improvements and it was going well. As a result, the sessions were relaxed. This is understandable, but cannot become part of the routine. To prevent this downward spiral my sessions are always facilitated and the facilitator always has a guide, either in the form of an agenda and objective or a task list that needs to be covered at every session. The pressure of getting through the plan allows the facilitator to pull people back and keep on progress, thus maintaining the value of the regular cadence.
A good facilitator and a solid plan is a start for effective meetings. The frequency needs to be considered as well. For executive level continuous improvement, I recommend monthly sessions. The metrics that we review are typically compiled and meaningful only once a month. Changes we discuss are broad in nature and the investments that we might make often require some background research that can take weeks. Also, I find that if executives meet less than once a month there is a lack of continuity in the improvements. Leaders forget what they agreed to accomplish, there is poor accountability to follow up on actions, and CI becomes a lower priority than the day-to-day fires and internal projects.
Monthly sessions for the executives are fine. However, out in operations, problems happen in real time. For operations level CI teams, daily or weekly routines are appropriate. For small teams, I recommend daily routines where the group can reflect on what needs to be accomplished, what is getting in the way, document problems in real time, and define actions that can be immediately taken.
For cross functional groups, I recommend weekly discussions. In these sessions issue logs can be reviewed, working discussions can be held to root cause problems, and actions can be laid out and reviewed for progress the next week. The daily grind of operations means that team level and cross function CI work needs to be frequent. Much like I mentioned for the executives, if the teams are meeting less often then we are just dabbling in improvement. People are not accountable and things do not change.
One exception I have found to establishing set meeting frequency is in broad improvement initiatives and projects. Years ago when I would run improvement initiatives we would typically set an hour once a week to work on the topic and make progress on actions. While it was a good routine, the reality was progress was often poor. Improvement initiatives are a bit different than other CI routines. They require deep dives, long discussions, and time for research. The uneven nature of the work often meant that weekly sessions were either too frequent, because there was not enough work accomplished, or not long enough, just as we got into the depth of things time was up. I have since found that a loose schedule of ad hoc meetings, driven by an overarching project plan, with focused Kaizen deep dive sessions works much better than a set weekly or monthly schedule of sessions.
My clients will often tell me that my team is valuable because we drive improvement routines and hold multiple levels of the organization accountable for driving changes. It seems so basic, but clearly without the basics we only talk about change and never actually execute on it. As consultants we pride ourselves on contributing good ideas and teaching new techniques. We believe that this is our main source of value. This all may be true, but continuous improvement requires a strong routine with meaningful working sessions. Without them your ideas and techniques never realize their intended value.
Matthew Kroll is the Principal and Founder of Chalmers Street Consulting: Continuous improvement has been Kroll’s passion for over 20 years. As a Master Black Belt, Kroll has been responsible for developing improvement programs that deliver millions of dollars in operation efficiencies and revenue enhancement. He has worked in a variety of settings from manufacturing to police departments, to healthcare. He has seen firsthand that every environment can benefit from the application of continuous improvement.
Chalmers Street Consulting is a business service provider on ShapeConnect, a B2B matching marketplace assisting companies with the selection of software and services to solve challenges and drive growth.