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Nuts and Bolts of Solutioning

Each improvement project undergoes two general phases, As-Is and Should-Be. Whereas the first stage is about understanding the problem, identifying and confirming the root causes, the latter one requires to turn the newly gained knowledge into impactful solutions that have a good chance to get implemented. Here are some tips for the solutioning stage.

Ensure Proper Analysis

When thinking about solutions for your problems, understanding the real root causes is a vital prerequisite. If you try to replace proper root cause analysis with some nice and fancy creativity tools that are not really designed to arrive at scientific root causes, that is worse than not analysing at all. Proper root cause analysis entails a thorough diagnosis of the underlying process with adequate supporting data. This usually leads to some short-term success often born out of the Hawthorne effect that is neither sustainable nor substantial. Analyse properly.

Get the Right Team

Not everyone who is good in dealing with data collection and its analysis is well suited for coming up with good solutions. Consider enriching the “As-Is Team” with people who have the capability and the motivation to think out of the box for your solutioning stage. Look out for colleagues who usually push boundaries, question norms and come up with unconventional ideas.

You might also want to consider involving the process stakeholders. They are more likely to buy-in and support solutions that they have helped to design themselves. Leaving them out might generate resistance. Include them.

Example: If you want to reduce the recruitment cycle time and you discover that your Deputy HR Director applies batching by going through all new recruitment files only on Fridays, one solution is very obvious. However, don’t forget to “sell” this to the Deputy. She may not like to be told that she is “one of the obstacles”.

Implement the Obvious

Some solutions present themselves as a result of the analysis. If the analysis shows that different ways to run the process have been used in the past of which one is clearly better, just go for that one after a careful assessment of the reasons why people depart from that way. Keep the solutioning pragmatic.

Balance Significance with Business Relevance

Almost always, project teams will be able to improve the process. And they are able to show a significant improvement proudly using newly attained statistical knowledge. However, statistical significance does not automatically mean that the findings are relevant to the organisation.

Example: If your team is able to prove that they have reduced the turn-around-time for a government application process from average 104 days to an average of 98 days, the question to ask may be “Who cares?” They have not spent hours and hours on working on this improvement project to come up with this minor improvement – that probably even goes away after a while of Hawthorning.

Generate New Solutions

In case the solution does not present itself, some powerful creativity tools come in handy. They support idea generation for innovating the way work gets done and – most importantly – help opening up the mind. These techniques almost never point out a very good solution immediately. The first phase is the phase of harvesting the low hanging fruits. Only after these non-exciting, in-the-box solutions are gathered, the better solution ideas will appear. This often happens when the team is about to give up, disappointed.

Hence, take the necessary time for this process. Coming from a business meeting having your head loaded with all the action items, joining a creativity session for half an hour before you run for the next meeting that will stretch you again is a prerequisite for failure – at least in the creativity session.

Take your time, generate a relaxed atmosphere and go for quantity. It is very unlikely, that one out of three ideas generated is a real break-through. Ten out of a hundred ideas might be really good of which one is the one that changes everything. Take your time for solutioning.

Apply Behavioural Insights

The strongest lever for process change in a non-manufacturing environment is the human being. This becomes obvious when you find root causes during your process analysis that pinpoint towards operators. Use this to your advantage.

Example: After discovering that the same process under exactly the same circumstances takes different time for different people and you can not explain this with a different level of experience, it is time to think about changing behaviour. Synchronising the processes for different operators by standardising milestones from assigning cases to informing the client about the outcome will apply a soft peer pressure, often good enough to get impressive results.

Be Selective

Having generated a hundred ideas with many good ones does require some filtering and prioritising. A rather sophisticated prioritisation matrix or just a four-blocker Effort-Impact-Matrix or any other tool can be used for that. The goal is: Keep focused, your resources are usually limited.

Example: A senior leader who deploys improvement projects in her organisation frequently, always requests her project teams to present only the three best solutions for implementation. The effect is remarkable: you are required to do a much more thorough filtering including a valid cost-benefit-analysis in order to arrive at the three you would go for. This would be less important if you were allowed to present ten.

Apply Common Sense

During the journey of applying the newly acquired knowledge, do always double check with your common sense switched on.

Example: As soon as you find a solution “training of staff” in the prioritisation matrix, you should ask the question whether this is helpful. After a process change, training of staff is most likely necessary but not a solution in itself. Training rather supports “real” solutions. The same applies to changing an SOP, running a survey etc. Distinguish between real solutions and catalysts, support tasks that make the solutions work and help sustaining their gains. Hence, don’t prioritise these items out.


Everyday Innovation

“iPhone, Google, Samsung Mobile Phones and other products” are usually mentioned when it comes to innovation. It seems that innovation is strongly connected to new products everyone can see and even experience. The talk about Process Innovation is rather limited or left to the “process specialists”.

Lean Six Sigma and Innovation

Over the last decade, companies and organisations in nearly every industry all over the world have introduced Lean Six Sigma to increase customer satisfaction and to deliver impressive results. An outstanding example is General Electric, the company who has made Six Sigma as popular as it is today.

Another term that has drawn tremendous attention in the business world is Innovation. On the one hand, Lean Six Sigma works towards very low variation in processes with high efficiency. Innovation, on the other hand, seeks to find undiscovered, uncertain territory. Such efforts are rather inefficient. Innovation requires risk-taking, making mistakes and learning from failures.

Can a corporate culture be developed on both key thinking patterns in order to get the best out of Lean Six Sigma Efficiency and Innovative Solutions? Does it make sense to think Innovation Six Sigma?

Seven Habits … – Habit 3: Drive Continuous Improvement

Working with management teams of our clients often takes them away from their business for a few days. They frequently get in touch with their teams at home. Sometimes I involuntarily eavesdrop their part of the conversation. “How is it going? Is everything ok?” is a very common question they ask their teams. When they get some kind of “yes” they feel much better.

Continuous Improvement Needs to be a HabitMy old professor at the university, we called him Ho, had the habit of having tea with the whole team of his assistants in the morning whenever he was around. I cannot say that these sessions were my favourite pastime. Yet, I have to say that these sessions had been a great learning experience. Ho would never ask a question like “Is everything ok?” Instead, his preferred question was “What are your issues? What is new?”

Not knowing the context of his enquiry, I once replied somehow like “No issues. Everything is ok.” For him this was a very cheap answer and Ho countered immediately “So, you don’t have issues. It either means you don’t work or you don’t change anything; you did not try anything new since we met last time. The day you stop improving what you do and how you do it is the day you start falling behind.”

The day you stop improving what you do and how you do it is the day you start falling behind.

Besides the request for continuous improvement and change his question implied that he did expect problems. Ho encouraged us and indirectly sanctioned issues and mistakes. He made the continuous search for better ways part of our business life. Ho never blamed someone if something went wrong. Instead, he expected us to name the issue, own it and suggest a solution. The worst crime one could commit in business life was the crime of not trying to get better every day.


Continuous improvement does not start with massive Lean Six Sigma or Innovation initiatives. To the contrary, continuous improvement needs to be part of the DNA of an organisation if you want to ensure that your aforementioned initiative is successful and lasting. Here are some simple tips that will help incorporating the habit of continuous improvement into the normal business life:

  • Ask for the change, not for the status quo. A question like “What have you improved since last month?” repeated during your business update will help sending the right signal. Over time you will get good answers.
  • Tolerate issues. Ask for solution ideas instead of searching for culprits. This will remove fear of failure that cannot be avoided in a dynamic environment. Discussing these with the whole team can be a great learning experience for everyone … after initial hesitation.
  • Enrich your set of KPI’s by upgrading the often under-represented Balanced Scorecard section Learning & Growth with some powerful short-term indicators. The KPI “one suggestion per year” does not help moulding an innovation culture. Encourage by incentives rather than procedures. You will get what you measure.


Contextual Thinking – The Key to Success in Communicating Innovative Proposals

You may have heard and read much in the last few years regarding creativity and innovation. Or you may even have attended a creativity workshop that you found interesting and fun that has helped you come up with some new ideas. Now your current employer may be requiring innovative input. However, you find that your suggestions are mostly ignored or frowned upon. This is mainly because nobody has told you the „The Secret of Contextual Thinking”.

Contextual Thinking - Improvement and Innovation Mindset

Improvement and Innovation Mindset

You may have heard and read much in the last few years regarding creativity and innovation. Or you may even have attended a creativity workshop that you found interesting, fun and helped you come up with some new ideas. Now your current employer may be requiring innovative input. However, you find that your suggestions are mostly ignored or frowned upon.

This is mainly because nobody has told you „The Secret of Contextual Thinking‟.

In the case of creativity and innovation, not only do managers have different ideas of what they mean, but they find it difficult to express them in a consistent manner. This results in resorting to clichés such as out-of-the-box thinking, or ideas producing bottom-line results. If there is such a variety in opinion, what can you do as a potential or current employee to provide the required creative and innovation input?

Seven Steps to Develop Contextual Thinking Skills

1 Do not get excited about it (or at least control your excitement)

Your innovative idea has flaws that your managers and colleagues see a mile away. However, they seem to be blinded to the financially rewarding innovative insights that you find obvious.

2 Do not get frustrated by rejection (or at least control your emotions)

This comes with the territory. Instead you can deflect negative criticism by asking for constructive input: How would you improve this idea? How can we overcome this hurdle? (people usually do not give much feedback, but if they do, it can help you improve your idea and keep them quiet for a while).

3 Start asking some appropriate questions

Your aim is to know what your managers understand by creativity and innovation. What is their “box” when they use the “out-of-the-box” expression? How do they see the development of the products and processes and the technologies supporting them? This step is essential in discovering “the secret”.

4 Continue to collect relevant information

What is the market or technological trend that you can use to back your future innovation? Which innovations from other players in the industry or similar industries in your country or abroad come to mind? What are your customers looking for? How can you meet their current challenges?

5 Generate many ideas

Stretch your mind to go beyond the 2nd best to the best option. Once you have generated many options you will get a better understanding on the different innovative possibilities facing you. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling said “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away”.

6 Be selective on your ideas

How does your perfect solution look like? You will start building a series of criteria that will guide your selection and future building up of a valuable solution. (This is crucial to find “the secret”).

7 Start building up ideas into solutions

You can proceed by identifying potential flaws (your colleagues will volunteer to help you do this) and refining your idea to remove those flaws or turn them into leverage points. The weakness of an idea can become its strength in a different context. For instance, the product Post-It™ was the result of a failed attempt to create stronger glue for paper.

Six Guidelines for Making People Accept Your Creative Input

Some basic guidelines to adopt when giving creative and innovative input are as follows:

  • Start small. By providing small feasible improvement suggestions you can start providing quick benefit to the company.
  • Consider the resources you need in terms of knowledge (what do you need to know) and manpower (who can help you). For instance, following up on competitor’ product history, usability reports or global technological trends in similar or different industries can help you gather insights for your innovative input.
  • Persevere and persuade. The innovation process may not be easy. You need to become a diplomat, be careful communicating calculated risk, testing periods, and never oversell your proposal on excitement.
  • Don’t listen to your VOJ. This is the small Voice of Judgment critical to all novelty in ideas even before they have been deliberately analysed and selected. As Einstein once said “If the idea is not absurd at first, there is no hope for it”. The process of making sense or connecting the idea to reality is a separate one.
  • Remember that suggestions need time and have their time. Some of them may flourish at a later date.
  • Learn from every mistake as much as you can. The more you learn, the more your managers will appreciate your work (these lessons will be applicable in future innovation initiatives).


Finally, use “the secret of contextual thinking” from the first to the last moment of the process. This is simply stated “the ability to perceive, understand and value creative and innovative input from the other’s (your manager) perspective”. You may even get to the point where the ideas that you produce resonate so much on your managers that they will themselves carry them out. This ability builds up through insightful questioning and deep listening but it all starts with the intention (desire) to discover and understand deeply the cultivated (reasoned) viewpoints of others (try practicing with friends or relatives).

The leverage to “the secret of contextual thinking” is that the more you build trust in the existing managerial paradigm on creativity and innovation, the more you will be able to stretch that paradigm to enable the company to see beyond to the possibilities of new business models, markets or even redefining one’s industry. Are we not after all in a “City of Possibilities”?


Can Our Staff Innovate?

Innovation has drawn tremendous attention in the business world over the last decades and seems to be up on the radar screens again. The character of Innovation has changed over time from the traditional research-based theory towards the knowledge-driven approach that is based heavily on our social networks. Innovation has made its way from the laboratory into all parts of business life.

Increase Productivity – The Leadership Challenge

“We need to increase productivity!” What sounds very reasonable on a country scale could be damaging on a company level.

Now, after nearly two years of recession the economy is back on track, i.e. companies of all sectors sell more. This is good news, isn’t it? It brings our productivity to new heights, meeting and even surpassing the levels we had seen before the recession. Stop! This is not really good news. This is expected news. Every company – well managed or not – will be able to show these figures. The question is: have companies used the time of low productivity to expand the productivity potential in preparation for the future?

Innovatively Leveraging on Six Sigma Framework

Some time ago, I was facilitating a Six Sigma project group involved in solving a process challenge. This group had been working on defining the parameters regarding recruitment policies. This included the allocation of cubicle, phone number, password, printing of name cards, email, pass card, etc for the new hires. The process involved seven people, taking about five months to complete. The team had dutifully performed all the analysis required, used the necessary tools and come up with detailed process delays corresponding to different positions to be delivered to the new hires. It all pointed out to be a ‘people problem’. “If Mr X and Mrs Y did their job properly we would not have any delays” was the assumed concluded answer to all the problems.

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