Adding rocks to the knapsack: A roadblock to continuous improvement
A surefire way to defeat your improvement initiatives
There’s nothing wrong with tackling the low-hanging fruit, unless it kills the big improvement initiatives that can really make you better.
What’s more valuable to you? Ten promises or one promise fulfilled; $100,000 in stalled work-in-progress or a $10,000 check for an order that actually shipped? A thousand “wants” or one “got”?
In these cases, it’s usually the latter that has the most real value. So what does this have to do with improvement? A lot. In fact, a whole lot.
In the previous two columns I addressed two of the fundamental conditions that must exist for systemic improvement to occur: first, the will to improve and invest in that improvement; and second, finding what to improve so that investment has the highest chance of a significant return.
This column will expand on the “what” but approach it from a different angle. Anything but trivial, finding the “whats” requires expertise. But finding them is critical, and sorting the candidates by impact, difficulty, time, and investment requirements is even more critical.
So let’s assume you’ve done the work; selected one or two high-impact initiatives; formed an ad-hoc team to get them done; resourced the time, talent, and dollars needed; and created a simple plan and timeline as the working management documents. You’re good to go—or are you? Well, you are, if you don’t inadvertently defeat yourself.
How Long Will This Take?
My experience with small and midsized manufacturers has convinced me that many otherwise intelligently designed and resourced improvement initiatives turn into disappointments, usually stemming from the time it takes to implement them—from a very long time to never.
Last month we covered one of the reasons this occurs: prioritization of available time. “Do you want me to work on this project or get stuff out the door?” This has to be solved upfront.
Some companies have admirably assigned one or more people to nothing but improvement. Great! Now what could go wrong? Theoretically, not much should go wrong beyond the inherent time uncertainties that exist from simply doing something new. But in practice, there is a hidden syndrome that will confound your initiatives every time, even to the point of complete failure.
The Deadly RIK
I call it the “Rocks in the Knapsack” syndrome, or RIK. It’s deadly. This is the second-most common reason fabricators fail to accomplish systemic improvement. As discussed previously, the first is finding what to improve and properly resourcing the initiative. But RIK is a close second.
Here’s a typical example. After assessing a fabricator’s ability to improve, finding what to improve, and defining how to do it, I get a call from management saying they’re ready to launch, and they have assigned a talented individual to the two projects that will have a huge impact. I return and work with the key person on all the prep work, planning, and other details—and off they go. Excitement all around. Good stuff, indeed.
A month later I get a call from management on a separate matter, and I ask about the improvement projects. There is a lot less excitement, but the company still is steadfast that things are progressing. It’s then that I get the first tingle, the kind you get when a muscle is tweaked. Sixty days after that, I get another call. The tingle turns, as it always does, to pain.
Management wants to fire or reassign the individual in charge of the two high-impact projects. The initiatives have gone nowhere, nothing is improved, even simple assignments remain uncompleted, and the individual seems to have developed a bad attitude. Could I come in to figure out where they go from here, and how to get some movement going on these critical projects?
Here’s what I find: The attitude is indeed deteriorating, not much of consequence has been accomplished, and everybody has the evil eye. So I look for the root cause. What is getting in the way of things actually getting done? Talent? Support? Personalities? Actually, it is none of the above. The problem is my old friend RIK.
When I left the first time, there were exactly two projects that we had culled from dozens of candidates found from the “search radar” (observation), financials, and competitive needs. The impact of these two was in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars—big money for a $7 million custom fabricator. And they were absolutely doable without a lot of experimenting and adventures.
But RIK was defeating them. It’s an imperfect term I learned (the hard way) from a very smart and wise boss I worked for a long time ago. I, being a rather impatient and driven sort, had more ideas and saw more opportunities for improvement than any 100 people could accomplish, ever. I had at least one idea a day, and sometimes it was more like one an hour. There was nothing wrong with that.
The problem occurred when I loaded them, unfiltered, on an organization that was already loaded to the maximum. Nothing was getting finished. I was exhausting the resources I had available. It was an epiphany of sorts. I was adding rocks to knapsacks that were already full. If you keep doing that, the people lugging the knapsacks will collapse, or simply drop them. I think the MBA term is defocusing.
Returning to the example, the custom fabricator was experiencing the same thing. I reviewed the open improvement projects log and found that it had grown to a big number—a lot more than two. I calculated the actual time it would take to complete them if no more “rocks” were added. It was north of two years! I looked for any sign of prioritization. None. I looked for any sign that the filtering system we had installed was being followed. No sign. What happened?
The root cause was the owner who was me a long time ago: impatient, driven, full of ideas, operating in a highly competitive and unforgiving environment. He was getting lots of ideas on his own and from others in the organization on how to improve lots of things. He had invested in a dedicated improvement resource. That’s all good. But he kept dropping these ideas on that resource. He was inadvertently adding rocks—lots of them—without knowing the consequences. Along the way he was killing his two major projects and was close to losing his resource. He was amazed when I told him of these findings—as amazed as I had been when I was in his shoes years ago.
Few Boulders, Too Many Rocks
What makes the RIK syndrome so dangerous is that we’re usually not adding boulders, the big projects. Those we can see and assess easily. The projects that were added were often low-hanging fruit, nothing of the size or impact of the two star projects. But there were a lot of them, and the priority changed according to the day.
Any project, low hanging or not, requires time for examination and planning, even if implementation time is nominally short. And changing priorities requires stopping one thing and starting another, then stopping that and going to another. That’s very bad news for actually getting anything finished.
It’s a disaster in production, unless your business is creating WIP and overdue orders. It’s the same in improvement initiatives. In production, when you keep adding “orders” to a constraint activity operating near capacity, WIP will rise and so will cycle times, to the point of flow stalling completely. Even worse, if you keep tearing down and re-setting up, almost nothing actually trickles out the door. The exact same thing happens when you overload improvement resources that are, almost by definition, constraint activities operating near or at capacity. Nothing gets done, morale deteriorates, and you’re worse off than if you did nothing.
The remedy is the same one as in production: discipline. You must have a procedure for determining what goes into the improvement process and when it goes in, and you must let things that are already in the process get finished before you add new ones. If you overload it, it will stall. If you overload it and keep changing the priority (focus), it will fail.
Look out for the rocks in the knapsack. They often hide under the descriptors of simple, quick hitter, and the overused low-hanging fruit. There’s nothing wrong with projects that fit those descriptions—unless they kill the ones that can really make you better.
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.