All Blog Posts

Video: How COVID-19 Changes the Way We Work

Jason Greer interviews Roland Cavanagh, one of the foremost experts on continuous improvement, about how COVID-19 is changing the way we work now and into the future.


JG: Alright, well, today I've got Roland with me. So I've known Roland Cavanagh for, I think, if I look at the calendar right, somewhere around 17 years. He came in to do continuous improvement for a company that I was working for, and I actually turned into a groupie from that and was just fascinated, because it's the first time I'd ever heard of Lean or Six Sigma, and really, just started pestering him on a monthly basis, asking for a new stack of books to read. So today, I'm talking to Roland and we're gonna be talking through some different questions, specifically, around COVID-19 and how that changes the way we do work, and how it changes the way we look at Six Sigma and Lean and continuous improvement, in general. So, thanks for being on, Roland.

RC: You're welcome, good to be here with you, Jason.

JG: So, lets start with a question around making work visible. So it's possible that a lot of organizations are currently making work visible in the office place by having whiteboards or whatever showing the work that's going to be done that day, showing sticky notes moving across the board. Maybe it's a spreadsheet, whatever it is. As we move to the remote world and everybody's in their homes, how do we continue with that remote work, and maybe, for some people, even explaining what remote work, sorry, remote work, what making work visibile looks like and why we do it.

RC: Yeah, so let me take a stab at that. I'll start with, one of my views is that making work visible is really an element of 5S. So when you think about, particularly, things like shadowboxing, where you have a tool board and every tool has a place that's outlined or is cut out in foam and, if it's missing, it's very obvious. That's a strong element of just making things very visible to everyone around, is it here or not? When you get into looking at the work itself, an interesting example I worked on with my son recently who works for an aerospace company, they had a supply chain issue in getting parts for some of the repair work that they were doing. And it seemed like the fundamental problem was that things were hidden. And so what they did was shadowboxed the dismantled unit, so all the parts went into a slot, you know, here and there on this panel. And then, it went over to the supply chain people with empty holes in the shadowbox and it was not allowed to come back until the holes were all filled, which now meant that it was ready for reassembly and testing. That was a profound difference from using their, you know, ERP-type systems where they were just indiscriminately counting, well, we're 98% good on parts delivery, but we have 14 units that are all waiting for the same part.

JG: Yeah.

RC: So another example of, you know, visible work, what we tend to see more in office environments is being able to identify what work needs to be done. And so, in many cases, we've set up just bins of work. In fact, even in this electronic age, there's been times when we've printed a cover sheet off of a document package, or claim package or something and actually put them in a bin in a work area. And, you know, the purpose of that, partly, is to get people up out of their chair once in while to get one and to make it visible to all of the parties that, you know, they're each going up and getting another piece of work. And it's usually done in conjunction with a dry board. And so, keeping score on a dry board, keeping score of what's come in and needs to be worked on, you know, what's available and completed, and even, keeping track of who's at work today and any issues that might impact the ability to get the work done. Those dry boards have been proven very effective. And one of the important elements of these is that, when a person comes up and, you know, makes their tick mark on the dry board indicating that they just finished another one and they've retrieved another piece of work, that physical action of holding a marker in their hand and making a tick mark is emotionally very important for the individual.

JG: So how does that relate to today's world where we don't have dry boards anymore? How do we replicate that when everybody's at home?

RC: Yeah, so that's a bit of a challenge. One technique that's used frequently is using an online spreadsheet or using a webpage that can be updated. And that usually gives control to one person that is making the updates. So we lose the element of the individual getting their thumbprint on the marker as they complete their work, their piece of work. One technique that we did, actually, we did this a long time ago before the internet was really capable of supporting the volume of data that we're pushing now. We had an organization that had, basically, a production board, and the solution for that, getting that information out to their remote locations was to simply put an internet camera on it. And so, it was always displayed in a particular URL, and they could see in realtime any changes that were made to it as they proceeded. But again, the important element of that is that the person that completes the work needs to be able to make the change in the accounts, you know, to update the information on a board. And, you know, a worst case, that means they get ahold of somebody or they send them a note and say, hey, increment this box by one. Then, at least, they've made the public statement of, here's what I've completed.

JG: Yeah, that makes sense. So you and I have worked together on a lot of continuous improvement projects over the years. My background's more in data analyses and things like that. Do you see that, as we move into this new remote working, how do we use data and continuous improvement to make ourselves better? What are those opportunities that we may not have had in the past that we do now?

RC: Wow, that's a deep question. So, you know, a basic tenet of Six Sigma, which is where I've spent most of my continuous improvement career is getting data. You know, in God we trust, all others bring data. Been a favorite remark of mine. As data has become more ubiquitous, we are able to get more information out of it. But that's the challenge, is taking this huge abundance of data. I mean, most companies have major CRM and ERP systems that have huge quantities of data in that, but find it very challenging to get actionable out of it. But we're getting better at that now, and being able to combine data from different sources in ways that allow us to understand trends and directions, and then, use that to make decisions and take action.

JG: So my next question, I've been talking to a lot of continuous improvement people and they're really thinking about how this new remote work changes what they do. So in the past, we've put people in a room and mapped our sticky notes of processes and really tried to take people on an adventure to improve a process. Now that we've got people working from home and we're working on technology, how do that change? What are some tools, what are some ideas that we can use to continue that continuous improvement growth that we've got in organizations right now?

RC: Yeah, so let me respond to that first by talking about the background of many of these tools that we use. A really important element of the tools that we use, even process mapping with stickies on the wall, comes from, you know, in the 40s and 50s, from sociotech design, getting people's hands on the work and getting them together to make decisions. You've all been to the folks that developed WorkOut for GE, that really focused on how you manage the energy and the emotion and the interpersonal activities during these meetings or events or kaizens as they flow. And so, the tools that we use, really, all other ones, even silent brainstorming, and affinity, and process mapping, are all tools that were very carefully designed to encourage people to interact, and to interact fairly. So they're designed, for instance, silent brainstorming, designed to neutralize the loud voice and give an opportunity for the quiet person to have the same input, because they probably have value and we wanna keep them included. These are elements that get lost when we put people on Zoom. For instance, we get seven or eight or 10 people and we're trying to manage their interaction. We've lost the ability to put people together, two people together, sidle up next to them and have a private conversation, get them back into the group. We've lost the ability to watch body language, the folks that cross their arms and are clearly withdrawing or mad about something. And so, we've gotta figure out how to bring that back in, how to make that a part of it. A big one for me is making sure that we actually can see everybody, that we're not doing telephone meetings, because those allow all kinds of bad behaviors. But more than that, to actually emulate the design of a lot of these facilitative tools that we have so that they could be, so the basic principles can be accommodated remotely.

JG: Very good. Yeah, I think that's gonna be something we learn for the next couple of years, how to make that happen, and I think we're gonna get it right. I think it's gonna take a little time for us to figure it out.

RC: There's been a lot of attempts and, you know, things like Google Docs, and Office 365, and some of the other ones that are intended to be multiply collaborative so people can work together, hypothetically. But, typically, you see the usually, you know, imbalance in participation, things like that, that when we're facilitating a live meeting in person, we can manage and get can some balance.

JG: So I work for a technology company, Far Reach. And so, we go into companies and we help them design mobile apps, or we help redesign work structures and processes using technology. So how do we design a website, for example, that captures work and moves work through an organization? How do we integrate multiple CRMs together? What are some examples you've seen in your work of technology driving efficiency?

RC: Oh, wow, every time we turn around, technology, is it driving efficiency or is it supporting And I'll spin it the other way around just because, you know, I'm a strong believer in understanding what the elements of work are that need to be accomplished and reducing to only the things that add value, and then, automating it so that we get the efficiency from only doing the necessary bits, and then, we further can make it more streamlined by automating so that we're not, for instance, moving data from one point to another.

JG: Yeah, that's a great point. Yeah, I like that answer. Thanks for changing it around. I appreciate it. So I had somebody else ask me a question this week. You know, I think everybody's a little on edge and worried about their job, they're worried about their company, they're worried about the economy and what this looks like. As we drive continuous improvement, how do we reassure people? And this is something we've done for years and year and years, but how do we reassure people throughout this process that we're not after their jobs. We're after creating a more efficient process and, honestly, just better understanding our customers to deliver the right thing. How do we reassure our employees through that process?

RC: Wow, that's a loaded question. So this is one that I've wrestled with my entire consulting career, because we get clients that clearly have an objective of reducing the workforce, and even if that is the objective, how you present it and how you manage the process can have a significant impact on the willingness of people to be involved or the willingness of people to be involved in the future. So we, typically, we've learned and we counsel leaders that if there is, you know, whatever the expected outcome is needs to be communicated to everybody so that they're aware. If the expected outcome is that some of you won't be working here, tell them. And there will be a few that'll make martyrs out of themselves. There will be some that can be incented to contribute, and some that need to be incented to stay. But that's an easier process in the long run for the organization than keeping it a secret, doing some things to change the work, and then, turn around and terminate a bunch of people, because you'll never get away with that the second time and you'll end up with a rats nest in the future.

JG: Yeah, no, that's a great point. Transparency is becoming a very normal attribute that we see in mission statements and vision statements in organizations. But whether or not they actually do that is another thing. So here's just another example of where it's necessary.

RC: Yeah, and, you know, it all depends on what the desired outcomes is. If, in fact, we're going to try to become more efficient doing this kind of work so we can take on more of it, that's a great message to give out. If it's, we're gonna take on more, make this more efficient so that we can, you know, displace some folks to other areas where we need more capacity, that's a great message, too. But as I've said, even if the desired outcome is a reduction in force, it's way better to be honest about it and to, because we've seen some awesome participation from people that know that, at the end of this activity, they're gonna be moving on. But they're willing to participate because they've been treated honestly.

JG: Yeah, it's a great point. So I've only been in continuous improvement for about 17 years now, but I've seen the lineage of continuous improvement, you know, starting with all kinds of different theories and whatever throughout the age. What are some of the pieces of all of that, Six Sigma, and Lean, and theory of constraints and, you know, I'm sure it goes way further back than that. What are some, what are the general keys to continuous improvement?

RC: So WorkOut, for instance, sitting in self-confidence. Those were the primary directives that we always spoke about when we introduced WorkOut to an organization. I believe, those still hold true. Another element that we've already spoken a little bit about is participation and, and then, facilitating their participation so that they get equal time, and so, everybody gets a chance to contribute. Because, ultimately, what you'd like is collaborative solutions that are supported by all of the participants.

JG: Yeah, that's great. So what do you think are, maybe, some trends that are coming in continuous improvement that people should be on the lookout for?

RC: Let's see. A negative trend that we've been seeing recently, and it's always been present to a certain extent, a negative trend that we're seeing, to try to get things done faster and with fewer people, and even, to the extent of, you know, reverting to more what I call the industrial engineer model, where there's one individual that's running around trying to design or redesign process and create efficiencies, et cetera, and then, to try to implement those even though everyone else is not involved and still skeptical about it. So I think it's, the two negative trends are speed and lack of involvement.

JG: Yeah, that's a great point. Makes a lot of sense. Cool, well, Roland, thanks for your time today. I learned a lot, and I'm sure everybody else will, as well. I think that, in this world, maybe, we should do this again here soon, and we'll come up with some more questions and let's just talk through this. Everything is changing so fast that a brand new conversation in a week will feel like two years ago. Anything else you wanna add? Tell us a little bit about your company, too, as we kind of walk out, and how you can help people.

RC: Okay, thank you. Yeah, we've got a little boutique consulting fire, The Cavanagh Group. We have a dozen associates that we've worked with for a long, long time, primarily, focused around, as Jason has described, continuous improvement, building on and using WorkOut, and Lean, and Six Sigma tools to help clients develop collaborative solutions to business problems. And we've been in many, many different industries and been doing this for a long time. And, as we say in our tagline, "With integrity and a sense of humor."

JG: That's great, that's great. Cool, well, thank you very much, and we'll talk to you soon.

RC: Alright, thank you, Jason. Nice chatting with you. Cheers.

JG: Cheers.