Rubber Band Woes

Member Forum by Khaled Mabrouk
Industrial Engineer’s column for IIE members to share their perspectives (February 2011)

Productivity programs often suffer from the “rubber band effect.” This happens when the initial results of your lean, Six Sigma or OEE efforts evaporate as time passes.
Such results are predictable when IEs focus on the wrong measures. This can be as simple as putting the spotlight on the number of green or black belts generated in a year. Not only does this not lead directly to improvements, it tends to drive people to get certified as a resumé enhancer, not for process improvement. As leadership spends more money certifying people without improved profits, support for process improvement drops.

Similarly, the number of projects completed in a year means nothing if the projects don’t improve the bottom line. Concentrating on dollars saved within a department can have similar results if the projects drive additional costs to other departments.

Leaders sometimes don’t understand that most productivity tools have technical and cultural aspects. Installing tools that require front-line support in a culture where the front line and management are at odds requires changing behavior.

Starting work force engagement only at the front lines also can doom your efforts. Front-line workers are smart. They will not buy into a work force engagement program that does not change the executive team’s behavior.

However, IEs have a number of ways to avoid the rubber band effect. First, the leadership team must own the productivity program. The team should review the productivity program as often as it reviews financial numbers. This shows that leaders take the program seriously, generating support from the ranks. A more important benefit is that such review and discussions will make sure the program delivers results that leaders value.

Second, measures that evaluate the program’s effectiveness need to migrate from effect-oriented data at the highest levels to causal-oriented data at the front lines. This will help the program generate sustainable solutions that deliver quantifiable results.
Third, assign someone who reports to the leadership team to own the program. Direct reporting allows this person to tell leaders about behavior they need to change to support the program and what additional resources are.

Fourth, the productivity program must drive process thinking at all levels of the organization. This includes mandating process mapping of all critical processes, using visual management techniques to support standard work, and generating a consistent understanding of what defines value-added, non-value-added and business-value-added.

Make sure you use control charts when looking at data so you can steer the organization away from overemphasizing point-to-point changes. This increases both the understanding of variability by all team members and the ability of team members to recognize process behavior patterns, reducing variability to increase process speed.

Last, work force engagement needs to start at the top. Many organizations focus such efforts on front-line and midlevel managers. Starting at the top makes it easier for work force engagement training to stick on the front lines.

If we approach them thoughtfully, productivity programs can improve the bottom line significantly.

Khaled Mabrouk is a process improvement leader for Sustainable Productivity Solutions. He received his B.S.I.E. from Purdue University and has been a member of IIE since 1985.