Most companies I meet have undertaken some form of Lean Six Sigma activity. However, it is unfortunately common for many companies to make some progress, hit a plateau and then get distracted when things aren’t going as quickly as they were before. This whole phenomenon is a bit like hitting traffic on your way home from work and abandoning your car on the side of the road because you’re not driving as fast as you wanted.
I commonly hear from small and medium-sized business owners that “We’ve hit the wall”. The “wall” means the inability to scale or grow the business with the same resources. The quick hits and easy cosmetic changes may have been made such as training, 5S and visual management boards. However, when it comes to changing systemic practices and behaviours to fundamentally shift business performance, the task seems overwhelming. Sometimes the “wall” manifests itself as chronic overtime. Other times, it means not providing the same level of quality and personal customer service when you started the business as costs need to be managed. Regardless of what “wall” you are hitting, these are signals that the processes that got you where you are today are insufficient to get you where you want to go tomorrow. You need to think differently about how to operate the business.
Diane Fu is a weightlifting coach in San Francisco who tells her athletes, “When you hit that first plateau and you’re not improving as fast as you were before, congratulations – you’re no longer a beginner”! You then strive to be competitive as an intermediate and then advanced.
So many organisations stop at the ‘beginner’ level when it comes to embedding continuous improvement and apportion fault on the methods not working. Progress can be fast initially as the low hanging fruit is plentiful. The closer you get to your goal, the slower things get. So it’s not a sign you’re doing something wrong, it’s a sign you’ve done things right. A plateau is a mark on the road, letting you know you’re heading in the right direction, and that you’ve made a lot of progress. It’s the perfect time to look back, which is key to acknowledging success and gaining learning for the future.
So now it’s up to you. When you hit a plateau and recognise it, do you allow focus to slip and more “urgent” tasks to creep in? It’s important to think about why things aren’t going as quickly as they were before so you don’t slip backwards, taking employee morale and commitment to improvement backwards at the same time.
When you focus on the journey instead of the destination, the plateaus come and go. If you keep tracking, adjusting and challenging the next level of progress you will continually improve.
When you hit the wall, remember to …
- Look back and recognize how far you have come and the progress made
- Set yourself the next target. Describe it as a condition rather than a metric alone and don’t make it impossible
- Ask what your team need to reach that next level, as their needs may be different
- Refresh the focus and communicate the next challenge clearly
- Drive the improvement with the same, or more determination you did to reach the first level
If you feel your improvement journey has stagnated and would like to discuss how to inject new pace, please call for a free chat.
Gavin Jones, New Potential