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Delivering an improvement strategy

The Global Operations lead for a mid-sized software firm required a physical presence in Europe to open up the continuous improvement activity, being conducted at the Head Office, to the EMEA region. Upon starting the engagement the initial requirements were expanded to include the development of a comprehensive strategy for rolling out “Improvement techniques” across the engineering function.

Initial activity focused on exploring the existing approach to continuous improvement at the company and within the function. This revealed that the team itself had only been up and running for 6 months, and had completed one successful pilot with the patching processes used at Head Office. And crucially did not have a corporate mandate nor the backing of senior leaders in the company.

The skills of the team consisted mainly of quality management and Six Sigma expertise, and were concentrated on locating deficient processes, rather than efficiency improvements centered on team performance. The team was located wholly in North America and had no contacts or relationships built with leaders in Europe and India.

The approach chosen was to develop a sense of the services the team could provide, based on existing skill sets. Agree upon a framework for “selling” those services internally, to gain senior leadership support and generate a pipeline of activity that could maintain the team through the next
12 months.

Two key tactics were employed to achieve this. Firstly, a pitch book was created allowing for the team to engage senior leaders to clearly explain how the team fitted into the company mission. And secondly, on the back of the pitching the leaders were assigned a team member and regular 1-2-1’s were set-up with the leaders, alongside access to the Leader’s team meetings. Together these two tactics built the impression that the team was a readily available free resource that could be deployed to solve business critical problems.

The implementation of this strategy was tested by three challenges:

1. Excess demand: The original approach to senior leaders produced more problems/projects than the team was capable of delivering upon in the first 12 months. This gave the business leaders the impression that the team was not as credible as first thought.
2. Lack of Corporate imperative: As the programme of activity was organic, the senior leaders were distracted by corporate level issues and in some cases the enthusiasm and pace of change dropped off
3. Travel ban: Towards the end of the first 12 months the company announced a ban on all non- customer related travel. This impacted on the ability cement relationships with the senior leadership, and affected the quality of project delivery (one study suggesting 40% of the benefit would’ve been lost if not on-site with the improvement team)

Challenges 1 and 2 were addressed simultaneously, by critically appraising the pipeline to discard any projects/problems that weren’t linked to the achievement of corporate objectives. The third challenge was tackled by use of online collaborative tools and shortening and creating focus in team sessions.

  • During the two years that the strategy was in operation over 15 projects were completed, achieving the $1m benefits target. Perhaps significantly senior leaders from outside of the engineering function reached out to the team for support and improvement expertise, widening the scope and increasing the impact through cross-functional change initiatives.