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Partnering with External CI Trainers – 8 Key Questions to Ask to Ensure a Successful Outcome

I was looking at some CI Leader (Continuous Improvement) job descriptions for vacancies advertised on LinkedIn recently.  What struck me was the long list of bullet points that go with the job.    The areas typically associated to these roles are Governance, Assessment, Compliance, Facilitation, Strategic Performance Management and Training and Coaching.  Further expectations are in the areas of process ownership and effective deployment of the organisation’s key processes.  Any one of these areas depending on the scale and size of the organisation could well be a job in itself!  Certainly, if you were looking to build these capabilities from scratch.  To be successful in the role you would want to pick your battles and or hire people with the right knowledge and expertise.

CI Leadership can be seen as internal consultant role, but one that is close to the business.  As such, to be effective in the role, the CI leader needs an in-depth knowledge of the business and the main leaders and stakeholders.  One area where this is less essential is in delivery of Training and Coaching CI.  The methods used in CI are for the most part well known and in the public domain.    A simple web search will return many examples of what the methods are and how they are put into practice.  There are two main schools on how to enable CI, Lean and Six-Sigma. Both if deployed appropriately enable people at all levels to make improvement and drive significant business outcomes. 

CI Training and Coaching is something that we as Leanteams specialise and it does lend itself well to a partnering approach where the training and coaching is delivered by trainers / mentors external to the organisation.  In considering if this the right approach for you as CI Leader we would recommend that you ask yourself the following questions. 

1. What are our CI needs and objectives?

In some organisations, improvement is the domain of trained experts.  We would argue that experts might be the right people to drive your breakthrough goals in key organisational processes.  The complexity and risks associated with these major changes mean that they need expert management and strong stakeholder engagement.  The risk with the expert only approach is that many of hundreds and thousands of incremental changes get missed.    Engaging the whole organisation with improvement means these ideas will be seen and acted upon.  Many minor small changes can easily bring incremental gains in the order of 5-15% improvements in productivity every year.  Achieving outcomes in CI and other mission critical performance elements such as workplace safety requires nothing less than 100% of employees (and incumbent contractors for that matter) to be part of the program.  That’s a lot of people to reach!

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2. Do we have an effective training and development methods?

We have come across many organisations and individuals we train that say something like…. “Yes, we have had training in Lean, but it was only a one day talk with PowerPoint slides”.   As we know effective learning requires both teaching and the opportunity to put what you have learnt into practice.  We see training without practice as waste.  Many organisations with successful Lean and Six-Sigma programs have a more immersive approach.  Training is structured to be experiential with a requirement to put some of what you have learned into actual practice in the workplace.  

Development of experiential training does not have to be customised to the workplace, but it must have elements that people recognise relevant in their industry. 

Rather than invest time in designing and developing the training, an external training provider can adapt their training around the issues in your organisation

The learn event that introduces your people to CI will deliver very little unless it is structured as team problem-solving training, which sets people up to have go for themselves.   Immediately after the training event, people should start improving an aspect of their work processes.  The improvement’s scope and focus will be agreed by the person’s manager.  Our view is that everyone’s attempt at doing this will mean overcoming a different challenge.  This is where mentoring and coaching really makes the difference.  Our experience is that there needs to between 4 and 6 coaching sessions for most individuals to frame an improvement to their work, complete some effective problem-solving and start putting their countermeasures in place.  For higher level training at Six-Sigma Green Belt or an equivalent level in Lean, it might need more coaching sessions.

All this can be a lot for a CI manager and leader to develop and it does need a coach with a clear accountability to get people through to the completion of their improvements.

3. Is CI training just like any other training?

CI techniques can be taught academically, but in our experience the application of the learning will be limited.  It is far better to teach and learn about CI and Lean through direct application to a workplace.  Lean is generally introduced and taught through creating a business simulation in which the trainees attempt (and fail initially!) to make improvements.   Doing this introduces the techniques and the human factors in teams making decisions about what aspects to leave as-is and what needs changing.  We use the same simulation “game” for our team training, but what happens when people decide how to apply the improvements is always different.   

Running a simulation game with a team and helping them see waste and reflect on what worked to improve and why is the best way to change what people perceive as waste in work processes.  Next step is to enable them to put the learning into practice.  Here, coaching and mentoring is essential to help trainees take the first step.  Our approach is to coach people through a Lean A3 or DMAIC type problem-solving process that will lead to a business improvement.  

The level and complexity of the improvement they choose to work on must be aligned to their level and role in the organisation.  For example, a manufacturing associate might choose a straightforward workplace organisation, for engineers you would expect them to attempt something with some element of process performance problem-solving.  For these first projects, we work with the individual to select and scope an improvement that can be accomplished in a just few weeks.

4. What level of internal expertise do you have to deliver the training?

For a CI program to truly embed into the organisation, the training and coaching should be delivered by the people who are part of the organisation.  This aligns to the Lean principle that Leaders are Teachers.  The issue that often arises at the start of the program is that this capability to teach the content is not present.  A CI Lead therefore could take it upon themselves to deliver the training and the coaching.  This could mean having to recruit more CI experts and potentially make them part of the standing organisation.   

An effective approach is to bring in external experts on a transitional basis to deliver the training and coaching necessary to build CI capability, particularly in the early stages of Lean adoption.  This can “prime” the organisation with enough expertise and experience to deliver Lean and 6-Sigma training. 

Over time, the organisation can adapt the learning systems and coaching programs to their own needs and qualify their own trainers and coaches

5. What parts of the capability building program should we keep “in-house”?

There are many generic aspects to Lean and Six Sigma that can be taught by external experts.  Our view is that as Lean Experts and Coaches we should not act as consultants and provide the solutions to the people working in the process.  Rather our role is to educate and coach on the application of the techniques and help those being mentored extend their capabilities.

One vital aspect that must be managed by the organisation is recognition of the progress and success of individuals that successfully apply CI principles and techniques that make a difference for the organisation.  Our experience is that highly impactful programs can be delivered though our LeanEssentials training.  This training aims to give people enough knowledge to identify an improvement opportunity and find countermeasures that make a difference.  The presentation and celebration of the achievement need to be led internally and must involve senior leaders and the participant’s managers and sponsors.  A ceremony to recognise the achievement with a “certificate” should form part of the package.

6. How will we know the programme is delivering business benefits?

At the start of the training programme, you build an inventory of everyone in the organisation.  Based on your capacity and ambition, you set a realistic time bound target on how many people you want to train at different levels on CI.  Certainly, all the management team and leaders need to be trained as part of the first wave.  Meeting the capability building targets alone will not show that the program is successful.  Our recommendation is that as part of the certification process, each candidate attempts to quantify the business benefit of their improvement. 

As coaches, we encourage people to actively consider what the impact will be of the improvement they intend to make.  Quantifiable business improvements fall into two main categories, hard and soft savings.  The hard savings are generally easier to measure and have cash value in terms of material costs, reduced inventory levels needed to serve customers, energy saving, direct labour costs etc.  Focusing only on these types of savings to measure the achievement of improvement may be a good way to kill your program.  A great many of the improvements that people want to start making focus on wasted time in their team’s work process.  A time value can and should be placed on these types of improvement even if they will not show up immediately in the P&L.  But they will show up later, perhaps through better staff retention or in releasing people to more higher value work.

When we work with companies, we use a tracker sheet to record the details of every trainee’s improvement and our coaching meetings.  The same tracker also captures the value of each improvement.  Our experience is that virtually everyone on our Essentials training makes some level of impact, perhaps a few thousands of savings in avoided “waste time”.  But out of every cohort taken onto the programme, there are people whose initiatives make saving that run into the tens of thousands.  Together these cover the training investment costs multiple times over. 

7. How should our CI program evolve over time?

Delivering CI training with internal resources is undoubtedly the most cost-effective method.   We know of organisations that draw their trainers and coaches from people who are not necessarily specialised in Lean and Six-Sigma.  In effect the training and deployment program is managed by a few Lean Experts and “Masters” who manage and certify the trainer and coach community.  Getting to the stage where this is possible may take a few years.   

The advantage of using external trainers is that you don’t have to reinvent the training content, individual coaching management system and benefit capture reporting.  Our view is that programs can be accelerated by working with a partner whose main focus is the delivery of high-quality training and coaching.  

8. What should I look in choosing the right CI training partner?

Whether you need a CI training partner to start-up or reinvigorate the CI approach or choose to engage one as an alternative to adding expertise to your own standing organisation team, you should consider the following:

  • Have they a track record in successfully delivering CI training programmes? For this they must have worked with similar types of companies and industries.
  • Are they consultants or trainers? Consultants will do the improvement work for you, trainers / mentors will enable your people learn and improve themselves.   
  • Have they the scale and capacity to take on your program? Some providers are limited by the number of associates for specific geographical areas.
  • What preconditions do they insist on? Our view is that we will not start unless there is a clear leadership direction to adopt and practice CI.  Training CI without Leadership direction is waste.
  • Is their approach adaptable to your specific needs? For instance, can the training and mentoring only be delivered in class or face-to-face meetings or is virtual delivery and engagement possible?  It is critical that any training simulation relates to processes that happens in the company rather than something generic.  
Alex Gibbs - Lean Mentor & Coach is a professional and committed Transformation Leader at Lean Teams Lean Business Training Consultants

Our approach as Leanteams has been shaped by what found to be successful when working with leaders in industry and what we have found to work for clients.  If you would like to know more about us and what we can offer as a CI training partner, then we would like to hear from you.

This post was written by Alex Gibbs, Lean Trainer, Mentor & Coach.  View his full profile and watch a video of Alex here.

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