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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Lean Practices for a Cleaner Experience

“There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organization’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow.” –Jack Welch

As a project or change manager or sponsor, you’ve undoubtedly been involved in a change or two that aims to deliver something of value to your customers. Perhaps a new product or service? Maybe better prices or improved service? And consider how often you had access to current, meaningful and relevant information about your customers’ satisfaction with your current products, prices and services. It seems to me that that kind of information is an essential input for guiding a change to completion and assessing its achievements. Yet, all too often, that information, if available, isn’t shared with the people who need it the most.

That was the situation in this case. Fortunately, the change leader was an experienced Lean practitioner who understood the power of that information to reveal opportunities and change behaviours for the better.

The Situation

This commuter service ran 30 inbound and 30 outbound train trips daily to service a major metropolitan area. Its overall operations were managed by a primary contractor who subcontracted some operations, such as mechanical repairs and car cleaning, to other organizations. It was a massive responsibility. There were 3,800 trains operating in the area on any given day, including freight, passenger and commuter. On-time performance was critical, due to knock on effects to the other trains sharing the system. One problem could impact the entire system and leave millions of passengers, operators and commuters fuming. The primary contractor was fined for not achieving contract standards and fines could amount up to a hundred thousand dollars per month.

At the time of this story, the service was experiencing problems on multiple fronts. It had received complaints from neighboring communities about diesel fumes and the noise from engines and bells. In fact, lawyers for local residents were already targeting a shutdown of the central depot as a solution to these problems. In addition, the budget for fuel had been reduced by the municipality. Idling engines in the yard was a major consumer of fuel so changes needed to be implemented to use ground power for lights, heating and air conditioning when the trains were in the yard. As well, there were many complaints about dirty cars, and dirty restrooms.

The primary contractor had previously attempted to organize the yard for better fuel conservation, noise reduction and improved car cleanliness. However, there was no acceptable data available to quantify the existing challenges so no agreement had been reached on a way forward. The contractor then decided to run a workshop and include all functions (drivers, technicians, and cleaners) to develop a plan to address the challenges and avoid significant fines.

The two day workshop was held with seven managers who covered all aspects of the commuter service’s operations. It started with a list of what they were good at and what was important and ended with list of responsibilities and a personal business plan for each manager designed to close the gap. The workshop was followed by the formation of the Failure Review Board which included the contractor’s local general manager and a representative from Human Resources and a daily review with each manager to monitor progress, provide guidance and acquire outside assistance if necessary.  

Another benefit of the workshop was a tangible improvement in the teamwork, coordination and mutual understanding among the managers that carried through to their action plans and follow-on actions. Their frame of reference had been expanded. Perhaps their thinking wasn’t totally outside the box, but it was certainly expanded beyond their own departments.

It was as part of this search for expertise that Anders Nielsen was brought on board to help with the cleanliness challenge. Anders was a partner in Gardiner Nielsen Associates Inc., an organization that specialized in the implementation of Lean practices, including Deployment Planning, A3 Thinking and the 5S methodology, a workplace organization method that used a list of five Japanese words translated to “Sort”, “Set In order”, “Shine”, “Standardize” and “Sustain” to describe how to organize a work space for efficiency and effectiveness. With extensive experience on Lean practices, Anders took charge of the cleanliness challenge.

The Goal

Working with the cleaning staff and manager, to improve the commuter feedback scores on the organization’s commuter train service from poor to mostly positive in six months.

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The Project

Anders’ first order of business was to get an understanding of the challenges the cleaners were facing. So he did walkabouts with the cleaners: how bad is it, show me the process, tell me the issues that impede your ability to get the job done. He discovered that each train had one run in the morning and one in the afternoon or evening. Every locomotive and every car needed cleaning daily and the cleaning crew had a 30 minute window to clean the carriages of each train, with 4, 5 and even 6 double decker cars. He also reviewed commuter survey results from all the trains and discovered that riders cared about cleanliness as well.

With that understanding, Anders held a two day workshop with the 20 cleaners and their manager, arranged over the time when the trains were out of the depot on their morning and afternoon routes. The cleaners were asked to:

  • Draw a picture of a car
  • Identify all locations that need to be serviced
  • Specify each activity that had to occur at each location
  • Identify how long each activity took
  • List the equipment that was required to perform each activity
  • Identify the problems that were encountered
  • Suggest ways to improve each activity
  • Come up with a plan

The participants, unused to this kind of forum and hesitant at first, gradually warmed to the challenge.

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Charts like the one above were developed for each location showing activities performed, the personal protective equipment, such as gloves and face shield, required, the supplies and tools needed and the time for one person to completely service the location under typical conditions. Problems identified included lack of power outlets for vacuuming, repairs taking place after cleaning, thus dirtying the cars again, the time to travel between trains and  lack of the right supplies. The challenge was to determine how to clean properly in the time allowed.

Anders then lead the group though a series of problem solving exercises to develop new and improved ways to reduce the time required and increase the quality of the results. They considered individual assignments versus teams, locating cleaners to a specific area of the depot and assignments to a specific group of cars. They looked at changing the sequence of activities and locations serviced. They considered changing cleaning crew start times to match train availability.

And then they drafted a plan of action and tried it out over a week. Anders walked the cars with the manager, got feedback from the cleaners, reviewed rider survey results and shared those with the cleaners. Based on that input, they revised the approach and tried again. And again. The cycle of input, review, revise and test continued.

The Results

After 6 weeks, feedback from riders was much improved. Over 6 months, rider survey results went from poor and mostly negative to mostly and completely positive. Engaging the cleaners resulted in a continuous stream of improvement suggestions, from tools and equipment to assignments, processes and sequence of operations. Accepted process times reduced arguments based on opinion and emotion regarding how long tasks took and how to coordinate activities and produced greater commitment and collaboration.

But there were some missed opportunities:

  • Some routes were much more problematic than others in terms of cleanliness. Unfortunately, they were not pursued further.
  • There were opportunities to become more efficient, especially by reducing walking and transportation time. One suggestion to acquire a couple of golf carts to accelerate moving from train to train was turned down by the manager. He didn’t have the budget.
  • More could have been done to fully integrate all workers in the yard in the process of ensuring that clean, fully functioning trains leave the yard at the end of the day.

How a Great Leader Delivered

Anders was an accomplished Lean leader and practitioner who shared his knowledge and experience with the car cleaning team and helped them transform their rider survey results in six short months. Here are a few thoughts on how he managed the change and the challenges he faced:

  1. If people need to change what they’re doing for a change to be successful, they need to have a say – Managing change is all about helping the people affected by a change make the transition to a new way of thinking, seeing and doing. If they’re part of the problem, they need to be part of the solution. Anders gave them free reign to assess the problem, develop ways to improve the situation and timely feedback on how the change was progressing. They were the essential steps to this successful and sustainable change. According to Anders, “The most important lesson learned is that the people who do the job know it best, and are best placed to improve it (given the choice, and some help). The coach (me) should not suggest solutions, but listen, challenge, and then facilitate the implementation of the ideas.”
  2. People need to know how they’re doing – We perform better knowing how our efforts match expectations and contribute to overall goals. That’s true in our personal, family and organizational lives. In this case, while the consumer feedback on car cleanliness was important to senior management, the folks doing the work were never given that information. No one had ever shared the results with the cleaners. As Anders points out, “the voice of the customer rarely reaches the person who adds the value”. Once they were made aware, their individual and collective performance and attitude changed, and the results improved accordingly.
  3. Culture eats change for breakfast – Daryl Conner, the founder of Conner Partners, a firm focused on helping organizations manage transformational change, often used this adaption of a saying attributed to Peter Drucker to emphasize the importance of recognizing and working with a company’s culture to foster the effectiveness of a change. In this instance, the company’s culture was diverse and multi-dimensional. That added significant additional complexity to this change effort and ultimately muted the results achieved.
  4. The funding sources have to synchronize with the change impact – If the impact of a change is localized to a department or division, it’s reasonable to ask that unit to fund the effort. However, if the change affects multiple departments or divisions, or the entire enterprise, the funding needs to be supplied by the broader organization. Asking each department to pay for the change efforts within their organization puts the change at the mercy of each local manager’s perceptions and priorities and risks the entire venture.
  5. As a change agent, your influence is essential but finite – Anders was hired by a subcontractor to the primary contractor charged with managing the entire commuter service. He had limited knowledge of or influence on the other parts of the change. As such, he focused on his mandate – the twenty cleaners and their boss and the feedback from the thousands of commuters who rode the trains daily. However, the lack of a collective and sharing forum for the whole operation meant that Anders couldn’t gain insight into the broader challenges and wasn’t able to benefit from the other perspectives from the rest of the organization. That was a missed opportunity for the company.

So, if you’re given a small slice of a much bigger pie, do as Anders did and focus on your own accountabilities. That will help you maximize your contribution on that assignment. But keep an eye open for opportunities to contribute and leverage others’ contributions on the greater challenge. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and the Decision Framework right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, a favorite best practice, or an interesting insight that can make a PM or change manager’s life easier, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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