At TLScontact we are firm believers in the principles of Lean Management. They are a perfect fit for the culture of empowerment that we are seeking to foster across our organisation. Applying Lean Management thinking helps us to engage our employees in our continuous efforts to improve our processes and systems. And to deliver the quality and consistency that our government clients rightly expect from us.
Lean Management and the Six Sigma methodology have been around for several decades. Lean started at Toyota in Japan, a few years after WWII. It is a continuous improvement methodology that aims to identify and eliminate waste in business processes. Six Sigma, on the other hand, was introduced at Motorola in the US in the middle of the ’80s. Its data-driven approach focuses on eliminating defects and reducing variability in processes. Both approaches are complementary: Lean Management focuses on the continuous improvement of processes, while Six Sigma uses statistical analysis and structured tools to identify and eliminate defects.
This management philosophy fits perfectly with the culture of empowerment we have been implementing at TLScontact. Our teams are already focused on solving problems when they happen, and improving processes when they see an opportunity. What we wanted was to give them tools to help them in this endeavour. The essence of the Lean Six Sigma approach is that it puts the focus on addressing the root cause of problems. This way, we can move away from firefighting – solving problems when they happen – to a more systemic view that allows us to look at why the problems are happening in the first place. It is also a more positive and empowering worldview, as it primarily seeks to find the fault in processes, not in people. When something happens, we try to understand how the process has contributed to the problem, and how to adapt the process to eliminate this flaw, rather than seek to blame the individual who might have made a mistake. This approach allows us to develop built-in quality, where we get it right the first time, rather than inspected-in quality, where we need to check for errors and correct them after the event.
Support From Management
In order for such a methodology to work, support from management, especially senior leadership, is important, as an article in Harvard Business Review points out. Projects with strong support from the head office showed 35% greater improvement after a year than ones without that support. They were also less likely to backslide, with 79% performing above baseline after a year, compared with 61% of projects not driven by the head office. We have heeded that lesson: our initiative has been driven from the top. But instead of focusing on mere statements and encouragement to the staff, we have decided to train our people to use a proven methodology and coach them when they are using it. Once people have been trained and coached, they can in turn become trainers and coaches for their teams.
So far, we have trained six regional teams, and we have “regional champions” in South-East Asia that are already applying the methodology in their daily work. At the same time, we have coached our Continuous Improvement Team in the Lean Six Sigma methodology. They are now able to train and support our operational and corporate teams around the world. These efforts will ensure that the methodology trickles down through our whole organisation in an organic way, creating a genuine cultural shift.
One of the areas that we have been focusing on is the “A3 problem solving methodology” that gives people a framework to think and communicate about a problem they have identified. This eight-step methodology encourages people not only to describe the problem with precision, but also to use data to document their claims by evaluating its consequences. I call this “measurable problem statements”. It fosters a data-driven culture that helps us to understand and prioritise problems more efficiently, since we immediately start thinking in terms of quantifiable consequences. It also helps us to focus on measuring the impact of any proposed solutions: we quantify the gap between where we are and where we want to be. To this, we add the “Gemba walk” that is one of the cornerstones of Lean Management. In Japanese, Gemba means “the real place”. The idea is that managers indeed walk the floor and carefully observe what employees are doing, how they go about performing their daily tasks, but also ask them questions to understand what they are doing, the difficulties they are encountering, their ideas, etc. This in-person observation allows leaders to see the difference between what they assume is happening and what is actually happening. It complements any data gathered, to give a truly accurate understanding of a particular issue.
But why do we go to such lengths to ensure our teams become trained in this methodology of continuous improvement? It all boils down to trust. Our government clients are outsourcing sensitive administrative processes to TLScontact: they need to be confident that we are managing these well and have a clear overview of what we are doing on a day-to-day basis. Improving our processes instead of correcting errors when they happen allows us to eliminate what I call the “hidden office”: the extra time our teams need to spend checking and correcting data before it is passed on to the visa processing departments of our government clients. Improving processes means that we gain in efficiency by constantly increasing the built-in quality of our output. This is of the utmost importance for our clients: at the end of the day, they rely on the quality of the data we transfer to them. They base their decisions about granting or refusing visas on this data, so they must be sure that what they receive is flawless.
Naturally, this focus on built-in quality also benefits the customers that visit our visa centres. Not only do they get better and quicker decisions, but they also benefit from an enhanced customer experience. Finally, the Lean management approach has positive effects on our teams: by turning them into enablers of change, we reinforce their sense of purpose and belonging. This, in turn, makes them even more eager to build strong processes that benefit both our government clients and visa applicants, creating a win-win-win dynamic that benefits all parties.
Article written by
Greg Lane, Director of Compliance and Continuous Improvement