Before You Make A Huge Investment In A Massive Training Effort, Make Sure You Know How It Fits Into The Big Picture

Too often, companies march dozens of teams through process improvement training only to discover later that their investment of time and money has poor ROI. Before you start your massive rollout there are a few things to have in place that will improve your ROI greatly.

Over time, large-scale improvement initiatives take on a variety of names such as lean, six sigma, breakthrough teams, tiger teams, quality circles, etc. There’s certainly a place for you to consider each of these at your company. One common early step in any program is to launch a big training effort to get everyone to understand the mechanics of your improvement approach.

Lean has “Lean 101” and then specific lean tools such as value stream mapping, standard work, 5S, SMED, Kanban, and many others. Six Sigma has green belt training, and later black belt and master black belt certifications. There can also be training sessions in team work, problem solving, team leader, facilitator, and train the trainer sessions for any of the above initiatives. Plus you have consultants and trainers to teach and guide you. All of this is a huge deal!

Companies know they need to embark as some sort of improvement journey or they risk putting themselves in danger as their competition becomes more global (notice the impact of Amazon on small, local book stores), and a competitor arrives on the scene that can serve customers cheaper, faster, and with better quality and design features. The problem is, unless you put a few critical elements in place before you start, you risk sub-optimizing your ROI. I suggest you consider the following before you invest too heavily on what may be the wrong improvement projects.

  • Communicate your purpose, vision, and goals
  • Develop an integrated strategy
  • Define specific priorities
  • Clarify how improvement teams fit


Communicate Your Purpose, Vision, and Goals

All activity in your company should align in some way with your purpose, vision, and goals. For the improvement progress you’re about to launch, make the connection obvious so your team is not left to connect the dots on their own without your input. Be clear about the purpose, vision, and goals of the program, too.

Your communication might sound something like this:

“Within the company’s purpose of providing the best products to our customers, and the vision of industry-leading lead times, we are launching a new set of lean initiatives. These initiatives will help us cut our lead-time in half, our costs by 20% and create capacity for new product growth.

“Our goal is to get everyone trained in the basics this quarter and provide advanced training for the first project team whose goal is to have product line XYZ reduce its lead time 30% by March 31. We expect to also save $X during that time.”

This way, everyone has a clear idea of why the training is launched and what the expected results will be.

Develop an Integrated Strategy

Too often, large-scale training programs kick off with the right intentions to achieve massive process improvement, but without pre-planning about the best way to utilize the resources once they’ve received training. Training the implementation team, management sponsors, process owners, and support resources makes more sense when it’s clear what the implementation plan looks like.

As you decide your initial project areas, consider potential impact, ease of implementation, the probability of success, and the need for building a foundation for future project areas. When you review all the potential changes you’ll need to make, the problems that need to be solved, and the operational and financial impact in the different areas it’s easy to become overwhelmed and send everyone out to “go improve something”. A better idea is to map the sequence that will maximize the impact.

Define Specific Priorities

The natural next step once you have the strategy clear is to itemize specific priorities. Once trained, your team members will see the processes differently and notice opportunity EVERYWHERE! The problem is you won’t get the ultimate return if people launch a bunch of independent improvement projects that are not linked to the strategy.

A few years ago I was called into a discussion with a company that has multi-billion dollar revenues. They were proud of their Lean Six Sigma initiatives and the individual projects they launched each year showed saving that tallied millions per year. The issue they asked me about was that their financial statements didn’t reflect the savings – they couldn’t connect the individual projects’ savings to any improvement in profit and didn’t understand why.

The problem was that they were not working on priority projects that when implement built an integrated solution with a new level of performance. Instead, they allowed the students to select their own projects and work on what they thought was important. They reduced cost on paper in an isolated area, but didn’t make fundamental changes to capture the savings. The cost just moved to another area.

The better answer is to have a clear set of priority projects that are the by-product of the larger vision and integrated strategy. The sequence matters, as do the targets set for the teams based on business needs. Tackle your priority projects and unlock your full potential, and have courage to make the changes that actually hit your financial statements.

Clarify How Improvement Teams Fit

With aggressive expectations for improvements on projects that have strategic importance, team members can now appreciate their role within the larger picture. They realize they are critical elements of a business strategy that will move your company forward, not just students in a class.

As you consider team members, team leaders, management sponsors, process owners, and support people the depth of training required becomes clearer. It’s likely that some of the training will be within a classroom setting but much of the real benefit comes from applying learning and principles to make and sustain real process change under the guidance of trained experts. Your improvement teams will feel accountable to deliver results when they see their role to implement the strategy, not just learn some cool skill in training sessions. With all this in place, you are now ready to launch your training.

Reflection Questions

Answer these questions for your company.

  1. When you have launched big improvement programs?
  2. How much thought went into planning the training?
  3. How well did you communicate how the training and improvement program fit with your purpose, vision, and goals?
  4. Did you have a larger, integrated strategy? Was it clear how the training supported the strategy?
  5. Were you clear about the priority areas to improve, or did you let students select their own improvement areas?
  6. Did you make sure improvement teams understood their role within the bigger picture?