Sustaining Improvements: Lessons Learned
L. Vitalo and Joseph
Recently, a company we encountered began a lean initiative in its manufacturing
component. We were visiting the company on a related issue during which we uncovered
that the company had previously implemented a Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)
and a 6S initiative. Curious, we asked how they were received. We were told
that they had been received well by employees and they produced important benefits
at the time. We asked what was happening with them today. We learned that the
follow through on preventive maintenance regimens and 6S was poor. The two obvious
questions we raised were "why" and "how are you ensuring that
your new initiative does not end up the same way?" These questions raised
a concern. "If we were not able to sustain our last effort to continuously
improve, why should we believe that this new application of lean tools will
sustain?" This is a question that the steering team for any improvement
initiative should raise for itself, as decade after decade we seem to re-discover
and re-apply a newly branded version of an old problem solving method to get
better at what we do.
The company asked our help and we suggested a simple solution—"Let's
conduct a mining learning from performance session with the people knowledgeable
of what happened with TPM and 6S and use what we learn to ensure that the improvements
you develop in this new initiative sustain." The company agreed. The product
we produced—augmented with learning from other lean improvement efforts—provides
assistance to all people who seek to have the improvements they implement sustain.
Mining Learning From Performance
Our process for mining learning has just four steps. They are—(1) Judge
status, (2) Uncover reasons, (3) Extract learning, and (4) Set direction for
improved performance (Exhibit 1). Our acronym for the process is SRLD—Status,
Reason, Learning, and Direction.
We have applied SRLD at the individual or team level for over 10 years.
It is an engine of continuous personal development when applied at the individual
level. It works as an engine of renewal for initiatives performed by teams and
Using SRLD speeds the cycle time of learning, eliminates rework, and
offers a number of value-adding benefits. For example, it generates knowledge
we can immediately share with others. What people learn is not locked within
their behavior; it is recorded and available to others for their use. Since
learning by SRLD is both public and reproducible, others can review our
method, the information we considered, and verify our conclusions. This allows
them to develop their own conviction about its correctness.
As an open and documented method, you can do SRLD as a group. When
done as a group, it provides a means for engaging and involving people in sharing
their information and ideas thereby enriching the source material from which
you derive your learning and the value adding benefits it generates. Given that
SRLD's output is recorded, you can transfer the knowledge you generate
in many ways. For example, you can incorporate it into written work standards,
performance guides, and visual aids. You can use it to build training programs
that transfer your learning to workers throughout your company rapidly.
Finally, we have found that SRLD's efficiency in generating learning
and its systematic format for expressing a learning make it a rich supply system
of usable contents for best practice information systems. It avoids a common
problem these systems experience—namely, being clogged with contents that
range from mere observations to speculative musings all mingled together. Automation
may make access to these contents easy, but the utility of what you retrieve
Solving the Problem of Sustaining
Change: An Application of SRLD
We set our meeting goal and agenda and gathered the team together to begin
its work. Each team member was previously trained in Working With Others skills.1
These skills ensure a meeting free of waste due to miscommunication and discord.
As its first order of business, the team reviewed its goal and agenda. The abridged
statement of its goal was, "To better sustain the improvements we implement
by learning from our past efforts to sustain TPM and 6S so that our business
truly continuously improves." The team then set its ground rules for extracting
and applying what we would learn. It adopted some commonly used rules (e.g.,
one speaker at a time, leave nothing unsaid, use your Working With Others skills)
and added a few specifically for this assignment. First, team members would
assume responsibility for checking their facts with others not in the room.
This meant we would meet twice so that they would have time to speak with employees
in different work areas and at different job levels (managers, supervisors,
and non- and nonsupervisors). We all agreed that the problem was broadly based
and needed all the perspectives we could gather to ensure that we understood
the facts correctly. Second, we would push for verifiable information, not just
opinion. This too was important as it ensured some level of validity to the
learning we produced. It also provided us an objective basis for deciding among
conflicting perspectives. With our ground rules established, we reviewed our
work process (see Exhibit 1, above) and started our work.
Step 1 - Judge Status
Step 1 - Judge Status
- Record the task that was to be accomplished.
- Document your targets for achievement.
- Record the results you produced.
- Judge how well you realized your targets.
In this step, we identify that task that was to be accomplished, its targets
for success, how well its performers did, and where their achievement stood
relative to their goals (Exhibit
SRLD begins with identifying the task that was to be performed. Here,
the task was to sustain the application of 6S and preventive
maintenance (PM) (Exhibit 3). Next, we record the targets for success that
were set for doing that task, how well each was realized, and where
that achievement stood relative to our
goals. Not uncommonly, no one had actually recorded a target for sustaining
6S and performing PMs, but everyone agreed that the implicit expectation was
100% compliance—meaning, 100% of the designated work areas maintained
to 6S standards and 100% of the scheduled PMs performed on time.
Status of the Sustaining Task
application of 6S and Preventive Maintenance (PM)
- 100% of designated work areas have 6S implemented
- 100% of scheduled PMs completed on time
- 30% of designated
areas have 6S implemented
- 30% of scheduled PMs completed
- Performance of task is below expectations
Next, we recorded the results achieved. Compliance with 6S can be measured
using simple observations, but we also wanted to know whether everyone saw
same thing. For example, if people differed in their judgments as to whether
6S was being done
would tell us that one reason it was not being sustained was that people did
what constituted a 6S maintained workplace. As it turned out, perceptions about
6S were consistent. It was estimated that not more than 30% of the designated
areas were maintained
Direct observations supported this estimate.
As to PMs, we encountered an unusual situation. The department had an accounting
system that tracked and reported the completion of PMs. It consistently reported
that PMs were completed 100% of the time. In contrast, the estimate of completion
reported by people on the floor averaged around 30%. In this instance, the formal
accounting system turned out to be wrong. Our first-hand observations on the
floor confirmed the 30% estimate. A closer look at the accounting system revealed
that the system simply counted the number of PM authorization sheets returned
with "Done" checked off. It did not periodically audit the performance
of PMs to ensure the validity of what its PM authorization sheets reported.
Once you record your task, target, and achievement, you judge how well you
the task. A task may be judged as performed to expectation, above expectation,
or below expectation. Clearly, success in sustaining the application of 6S
the performance of PMs was below expectation (Exhibit 3, above).
Step 2 - Uncover Reasons
Step 2- Uncover Reasons
- Uncover why we accomplished as much as we did.
- Uncover why we did not accomplish more than we did.
- Organize the reasons by causes.
- Record the reasons.
With the status of the task clarified, we needed to understand the reasons
why the observed results were achieved (Exhibit 4). Each team member contacted
various other employees to share the perceived status and solicit their thinking
about two questions. The first question was. “What are the reasons we
did as well as we have done in sustaining improvements?” The second
question was, “What kept us from doing even better?” We always
pursue both tracks no matter what judgment we conclude as to status. The
reason is simple.
It is just as important to continue to do what worked, as it is to replace
what did not work. Do one without the other and you compromise your learning
your chances to improve your next performance.
When the team members reassembled, they shared what they learned from others
and what they understood from their own experience. As we collected the judgments
they had gathered, we asked for the facts that supported the judgments team
members reported. For example, if one reason for success was that people had
the knowledge and skills needed to do their 6S and PM tasks, we asked, “How
was that known?”
We used a set of causal factors to prompt thinking and organize the reasons
we uncovered (Exhibit 5). We developed them based on our own experience as well
as the prior work of Gilbert (1978) and Carkhuff (1983). We began with the reasons
why we did as well as we did in sustaining change (What Enabled
Success). Then, the team addressed the why we did not do better
in sustaining change (What Hindered Success ).
The team uncovered 26 reasons why sustaining 6S and performing PMs did as
well as it did and why it ultimately failed. Here are the highlights.
5. Factors That Enable and Hinder Success
- Physical capabilities relative to the task's requirements
- Desire or motivation
- Knowledge, skills, and proficiency levels of each relative to task
- Alignment with respect to the task's purpose and approach
- Status as existing and documented
- Status as to design (doable and effective as a method for implementing
- Resources (space, equipment, tools, materials, task inputs, funds)
- Expectation/Feedback information
- Assignment (Do what?)
- Method (How?)
- Results Expected (Achieve what?)
- Results Achieved (Accomplished what?)
- Success Realized (Performed how well?)
- Recognition/Rewards for correct performance
- Consequences for nonperformance
- Support from other interfacing roles and organizations
1. Front-line workers, supervisors, managers, and executives.
What Enabled Success
Workers were trained in 6S and in implementing
tasks and demonstrated skill in doing both.
The initial continuance in applying these methods was driven by
the energy and desire of front-line workers to improve their work settings.
Employees were enthusiastic about
opportunity to influence their work. Their initial commitment was reinforced
by experiencing a direct and immediate benefit from doing the tasks. Specifically,
by applying 6S, they worked in a clean and organized area and experienced
less frustration in doing their jobs. By implementing PMS, they avoided
the frustrations of breakdowns while working.
Initially there was good alignment among all levels of employees (front-line,
supervisors, managers). Upper management was involved and concerned. Supervisors
worked alongside line
helped solve problems encountered in applying these improvement methods
and obtain resources. They also scheduled time for the front-line workers
to perform their
6S and PM
People credited two features of the methods used to implement 6S and preventive
maintenance for its early success. The process required keeping notes about
problems discovered and the fixes made for future reference. It also incorporated
a means for communicating across shifts so that problems uncovered and corrections
made were passed along.
With regard to resources, the evidence suggested that the key enablers were
the delegation of authority to the workers to fix problems when they were
uncovered and to have a say in the way their work areas were organized.
What Hindered Success
The key factor that unraveled sustaining 6S and PM performance was the breakdown
in alignment among people. Management’s priorities, as expressed in their
feedback to supervisors, appeared to change. They ceased to address sustaining
6S and preventive maintenance—rather, they narrowed their feedback and
other communications to the issue of meeting production targets. With this
shift, supervisor support for workers doing 6S and PM tasks evaporated. Time
was no longer allocated to the tasks, resources were not provided, and the
cross-shift communication meetings fell away. This change in emphasis by management,
in effect, revised the incentive system operating in the workplace. The new
incentives reinforced a return to the way things operated before 6S and PM
Also, the information system reporting the status of preventive maintenance
became a “check-off the box” exercise and no longer provided
a valid reflection of the actual state of PM performance. Hence, the feedback
to management and supervisors was corrupted. Worse still, everyone seemed
to be aware of it—at least, when pressed on the issue. This too undermined
the motivation of workers, as they read the indifference to incorrect feedback
as further proof that sustaining 6S and PMs was no longer a priority concern.
The only feedback people got, once management’s priorities had shifted,
was in relation to meeting output targets.
A subtler factor was the failure of managers to address what was happening.
When asked, management continued to assert that they wanted the 6S and preventive
maintenance to be done, and they shared that they were aware of the drop
off in sustaining each. Yet, they did not systematically investigate why
existed or explore how to correct it. Neither did management recognize that
their push on supervisors for production results affected how supervisors
promoted and supported sustaining 6S and performing PMs. They assumed that
supervisors would continue with the prior goals as they pursued the new
They also expected the supervisors to “push back” if what they
were asked to do was not feasible. Managers did not read their supervisors
Rather than push back, supervisors and front-line workers alike read the
behavior of management as a return to old priorities. Those priorities were
a high rate of output. This confirmed their suspicion
that the 6S and PM tasks were no longer important and further undermined
motivation to persevere in doing these tasks.
Step 3 - Extract Learning
Step 3 - Extract Learning
- Form a learning for each reason.
- Verify that each learning contains all its required components.
- Organize the list of learning.
- Eliminate redundancies.
In the SRLD method, each reason for the results realized and not realized
is converted into a learning (Exhibit 6). It is this learning that guides improved
performance. We define a learning as the advice you would give someone else
doing the same task based on what happened. A useful statement of learning must
have three elements: the advice, the reason why it is important to apply, and
what benefit it will produce (Exhibit 7). The "advice" component tells
what you should do to be successful. The "reason" component tells
the advantage doing it will produce. The "benefit" component tells
the improved outcome that will result. The components educate and motivate a
reader and, together, increase the likelihood that the person will use the learning.
We use a standard format to guide people in producing consistently complete
items of learning. Exhibit 7 includes an example of a complete statement of
a learning in our standard format.
7. A Complete Statement of a Learning
||Tells what you should do to
||Tells the advantage implementing
the advice will create
||Tells the improved outcome
the advice will produce
“Do...” [State reason] “because...” [State benefit] and that...
of a Learning From Analyzing the Sustaining of 6S and PMs
sure that performers of a task experience an immediate benefit from doing
the task because that will sustain their motivation and that motivation
will drive continued task performance.”
For brevity sake, we will summarize the key items of learning here. To view
the complete list of the learning the team developed, click on this link:
List of Learning.
How to Ensure Improvements Sustain
Make sure all employees (front-line workers, supervisors, managers, and executives)
are aligned and motivated to do their tasks. Unaligned or unmotivated people
do not sustain change. Be certain that everyone with a role to play has the
personal resources needed to do it well. This means they must be equipped
physically (energy, strength, coordination, etc.) and intellectually (knowledge,
skills, and proficiencies), and must possess any other personal characteristics
needed for success (e.g., willingness to push-back should matters go awry).
Make sure the improved process is completely documented. To be complete, the
method must include guidance for preparing, doing, and assessing performance
of the improved process and for registering its results. Make certain that
people report any problems they encounter in implementing the improvement
and share their ideas for overcoming them. This will uncover and clear obstacles
to the continued use of the improved process.
Be certain that performers of the improved process derive a benefit from
doing it. This benefit should flow from the task itself—e.g., reduced
machine breakdowns remove a waste-related frustration
in getting one job done or an orderly workplace improves the
peoples’ work setting. This immediate and direct reinforcement will
sustain their motivation and energize their continued use of the improved
Be sure that the new process has no adverse impact on people. Recall in
our 6S and PM examples that supervisors pressed performers on producing products.
You cannot expect people to implement a new task, in this case 6S and PMs,
when doing so detracts from their ability to satisfy a competing and higher
priority task and makes them subject to negative feedback.
Another avoidable worker frustration that can erode sustaining an improvement
is the failure to build in coordination across functions and across shifts.
Everyone affected by a new improvement must be continuously informed
about its status and the development of solutions to problems in sustaining
its use must be
As to setting, provide people the resources they need to continue to
implement the improvement that has been made. Be certain people have the
authority to make the decisions needed to implement the improvement. Ensure
they have the time and information they require to do the task. Be
certain you provide them information about any problems they might encounter
and any fixes that have been introduced. The failure to provide this information
to all parties results in them experiencing the frustration in implementing
the improvement and, later, the added anger of knowing that it could have
been prevented, if people had only shared what they knew.
Be certain that there are explicit expectations for doing the new task and
targets defined for how well they are to be accomplished. Be sure that
to workers about their performance is valid and regular.
With regard to supervisors and managers, make certain that sustaining the
improvement is an explicit expectation of their jobs and that they are provided
the resources needed to meet that expectation. Also, make establishing
and maintaining an accurate feedback system one of their responsibilities.
Ensure that supervisors and managers are accountable for producing results
on these expectations. To set expectations and ignore whether they are being
realized is wasteful and destroys the credibility of every initiative.
Carefully align the incentives within your company to reinforce the performance
of the new task. Be sure that recognition and rewards are provided equitably
based on verified performance. This requires that your performance feedback
systems supply valid information. It also requires that your managers and
supervisors have the discipline and courage to use objective data as the bases
for crediting performance and counseling nonperformance.
Step 4 - Set
Step 4 - Set Direction
- Select learning for immediate action.
- Define an action for using each selected learning.
- Organize the actions.
- Integrate actions where possible.
- Assign actions to people identifying a date for each action's completion.
Your direction states the actions you will take to improve your next task
performance. You set direction by selecting from the learning you produced,
those that you can
incorporate before you next do your task. How many action items you specify
depends on whether you alone will be carrying them out and how much time you
have to prepare. Ultimately, you will apply all your learning, and it may be
possible to do that in your next cycle of performance. If not, you need to
on your most critical learning so you make your greatest gain possible in task
success. Exhibit 8 presents the activities we do to set direction.
The team implementing the SRLD was charged was charged
with using their learning to improve sustaining future improvements. The team
defined three actions that would fully apply all it learned. The first action
was to build
a check sheet (Sustaining
Change Check Sheet). The check sheet listed each learning
derived from their SRLD. The second action item was to produce a plan for
sustaining improvements as part of each of the team’s future improvement
efforts. In building
the guide, we hitchhiked on the team’s work by building a generic seven-step
process for sustaining future process improvements (Sustaining Change Planning
Guide, Exhibit 9).
The third action was to test each plan the team built by applying the Sustaining
Change Check Sheet the team developed. This step allowed each
team to verify whether it was using the business's learning about how to
sustain. In this way, the business would ensure that its future efforts to
sustain improvements would produce better results than its previous efforts.
and second actions were to be completed within two weeks. The third action
was to be implemented at the very next instance the team built a plan for
the improvements it made.
Sustaining Change Planning Guide
|Instructions: Create a plan
for how you will sustain use of the improvements you made. Include
each of the following six steps. Add details to
each step that record what you will do, who will do it, and by when.
Use the “Tips” provided with each step to prompt your thinking
about the details you should specify.
||Document the business improvement.
and schedule the documentation of the improved method. Specify that
it should identify what is to be done, when, by whom, where, how,
and why. Detail how you will pilot test the method by asking performers
to use it and provide feedback on its completeness, effectiveness,
and ease of implementation. Record that you will use this feedback
to fine tune the method and your guidance for doing it. Once drafted,
test your documentation using the Sustaining Change Check Sheet and
adjust it to incorporate any features that are missing.
||Measure whether the improvement continues to be
used and produces results.
how you will measure both the performance of the improvement as
and the results it produces. Record how you will make status on each
visible to all people involved in sustaining the improvement. Detail
how you will audit periodically the measurement system to ensure
||Align enabling systems.
how you will ensure that your enabling systems (e.g., appraisal
feedback, recognition and rewards, and incentives systems) each support
sustaining the improvements. Record how you will make certain that
time, materials, authority, information, and other required assets
are supplied as needed. Check your readiness by applying the Sustaining
Change Check Sheet. Correct any deficiencies you uncover.
||Prepare people to sustain the improvements.
how you will prepare people to sustain the improvements made. Address
how you will ensure everyone is aligned with and motivated to support
sustainment. State how you will ensure that they have the personal
resources to do their roles well.
how you will credit correct performance and ensure that it is done
||Ensure improvements sustain.
Record how you will detect failures in sustaining the process improvement.
State how you will involve all parties in uncovering the causes
for failures and generating remedies. Explain how you will ensure
that you act quickly to remove barriers to success.
||Continuously improve in sustaining the process improvement.
Record that you will conduct periodic renewal sessions to reflect
on how well you are sustaining each process improvement. Use these
sessions to extract new learning, set a direction for greater achievement,
and reinforce everyone's alignment and energy. Specify that these
meetings occur monthly until sustainment is established, then quarterly.
Detail how you will involve all the people responsible for sustaining
Byron, J.S. and Bierley, P.A. (2003) Working With Others. O'Fallon,
MO: Lowrey Press.
Dewey, John (1910) How people think. Lexington, MA: Heath. Available
online at: http://spartan.ac.brocku.ca/%7Elward/Dewey/Dewey_1910a/Dewey_1910_a.html
Gilbert, T.F. (1978) Human competence. New York: Mc Graw
Carkhuff, R.R. (1983) Sources of human productivity.
Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press, Inc.
With Others skills are clarifying, confirming, constructive criticism,
and hitchhiking. These basic skills enable people to efficiently understand
the ideas and information another person is sharing and add their ideas to it
in ways that build toward better solutions together (Byron and Bierley, 2003).
Published February 2008; Revised July 18, 2022
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