5 Key Steps for Improving Anything

Change in your shop comes with planning, clarity, and tenacity.

I don’t care how well your shop runs, there’s always room for improvement. You know this is true.
Some shops... well, they have more opportunity for improvement than others. The challenge is to constantly be doing something about it.

Let me break down the five crucial steps to make any improvement process successful – with the added bonus of being easy to implement.

#1: Vision

Let’s start with the most important step: Vision. 

Vision is the direction for improvement. Can you describe what success looks like?

For example, let’s say you want to improve your set-up times between jobs. Eliminating downtime is a great thing to do, so this activity can really make an incredible difference. 

But are you mapping out your target? You can’t just yell at your staff with a “You guys need to do better!” rant. That’s just going to upset people. Think about this from multiple perspectives and have a discussion with your team.

  • Company Will you invest in the right tools and training needed to accomplish the improvement? Is the vision of this improvement locked in from the ownership and leadership of the company?
  • Team From your crew’s perspective, do they know what they need to do and are they willing to do the work necessary to obtain the results and hit the goal?
  • Person For each person on the team, do they share the same vision and can they map out what they need to do as a teammate to accomplish the goal?

When you take the time to illustrate what success is going to look like, it’s easier to draw a roadmap to get there. The vision you create allows everyone to be on the same page.

This is a conversation, not someone barking orders from a megaphone. Your shared vision brings everyone together and unifies the effort.

Start with why something needs to change. If you picked downtime reduction as the process improvement goal, what does that mean? Why does it matter to the average worker in your shop? What is the importance of the goal?

Articulate that with your vision so everyone can comprehend why something matters.

#2: Values

Yes, our process improvement effort revolves around our company’s values. What do I mean by that? For starters, have you mapped these out initially for your business? Hopefully, you have, but if not, don’t fret. 

To accomplish our vision, we want to center our efforts around a set of core values that will allow the company to accelerate performance. These are concepts like honesty, integrity, humor, teamwork, unselfishness, self-discipline, self-respect, and accountability.

Why is this important to process improvement? Mainly because this is the fuel that will power the engine of the work. If you don’t have teamwork, how are you going to work together to solve any problem? Without accountability, will someone on the crew drop the ball next Thursday?

Think about these from different perspectives:

  • Company Our company values matter. In fact, we reward or discipline our employees based on our stated values.
  • Team Working as a team, the values our company celebrates are brought into the sunlight; it’s how we get things accomplished.
  • Person I can be counted on to work by the standards of the company’s core values, and I expect the same from others.

At the end of the day, professionals want to work with other professionals. 

What will the outcome be if the staff works with an overabundance of honesty, integrity, humor, teamwork, unselfishness, self-discipline, self-respect, and accountability?

What results might we have if they don’t?

#3: Methods

What are we going to do to make the improvement happen? Be specific.

  • Company This might mean buying some new equipment or consumables, or bringing in an expert to help.
  • Team What work will the team be doing differently? Want better results? Sometimes that requires doing the same work in a fashion that hasn’t been attempted before. That’s scary. What will the team need to do, and how will they be doing it?
  • Person What will each person’s specific role be in the new process? Are they okay with that? Do they have questions? What if on a three-person team, two people are successful, but one person struggles? Talk early about training and support for everyone.

The methods chosen to achieve the goal could have different levels of success. If one idea doesn’t work well, that doesn’t mean the idea was wrong... but maybe the method of achieving it wasn’t dialed in as it should be.

Can you do something a different way? Make a plan and try it. Give it an honest effort and evaluate the results.

Remember, you can always try something else.

#4: Obstacles

What potential landmines are out there that could prove disastrous for the project? You want to identify these early.

Have an honest dialog with your employees, vendors, and even customers, regarding your objective. Get different viewpoints.

  • Company What do different departments say or think about the improvement idea? It won’t make sense to improve something in one area but create hardships in another. Make sure every stakeholder is involved.
  • Team What is everyone afraid might happen? Many improvement ideas die because of unvoiced nightmares that come true. Get people to speak up! What do they need to be successful? Training, equipment, consumables, or help?
  • Person It’s been my experience that people fail because of three things. Time: they just don’t have enough of it so they take shortcuts that don’t work. Training: they said they understood, but really didn’t. Tools: they didn’t have the right tools to produce the outcome needed. Sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know. Get involved.

You want to discuss and map out where the potential challenges could occur within your improvement plans. Do this promptly. 

However, you can’t predict everything. There are going to be problems. This is where learning happens. Embrace failures and learn from them.

#5: Metrics

Data is your best friend when it comes to improving anything.

Why? Because when you measure where you started versus where you are now, you can chart your next steps. This is how you know if you are improving something or not.

You can’t trust a gut feeling alone. “I think we are doing okay” is foolish. It’s better to have trustworthy data to back up and prove that something is changing. So with your project, what are the key metrics you need to track?

Map these out with your key stakeholders. Talk about how you are going to measure, what you are going to measure, and when you are going to measure. Stay on top of this process and occasionally audit the numbers to make sure they’re accurate. Bad data is worse than no data.

  • Company Using data and metrics, can you map out and define the goals that make sense? At what number will the project be a fantastic success? Use this number to illustrate the route needed to get there.
  • Team Make sure everyone knows how the data will be compiled and what it means. Also, be sure to have the discussion on the metrics with a goal of improvement, not getting people in trouble. You want to use this project to empower and elevate your team. Not squash them like a bug.
  • Person How does each player contribute to the numbers being recorded? What can they personally do to improve them? How can they help others, and how does that affect the overall team performance? Clarity here goes a long way.

Try using a shared spreadsheet, such as a Google sheet. You want everyone on the same page and your numbers should be transparent.

Map Out Success

Using the five points listed above it would seem fairly simple to get things going. But, sometimes it’s not. It’s slow going. Problems happen. Crisis situations jump in the way. Team members don’t want to do the work or don’t understand why change is necessary, despite agreeing to everything earlier.
It can get frustrating, which is why you need the sixth bonus point…

#6: Persistence

Want improvement? Stick-to-itiveness is sometimes the key to accomplish change, more than anything else.

It’s not the first attempt that succeeds. Or the second. Third time’s the charm? Nope. It’s the tenth. Or even more.

That’s when it clicks. I’ve always loved Thomas Edison’s quote: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

How does your company rate on the persistence scale? Are you using your failures as disheartening reasons to give up or as lessons to be applied to get better?

Imagine what your company might look like a year or so from now if you took on a big challenge head-on and wrestled it to the ground with these six ideas. 

You worked on outlining a vision everyone could adopt, as it was in sync with your company’s core values. Your team not only rallied behind the methods to achieve the goals, but also outlined any obstacles they might encounter in advance. Key metrics were built into a dashboard using valuable data to track progress and suggest changes. And lastly, progress comes with hard work and the persistence needed to see the job through.

Where would you be then? Paint that picture and work to achieve it! 



Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, based in Mesa, Arizona. He coaches apparel decoration companies on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management, and sustainability. He is a frequent tradeshow speaker, author, and host of two podcasts, as well as co-founder of the Shirt Lab educational company. He can be reached at marshall@marshallatkinson.com.

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