They were testing the lot again to verify part quality. This small/medium business, SMB, machined precision parts for medical devices implanted within the human body so quality protocols were strict. However, bad parts weren’t consistently isolated and individual part tests weren’t always well tracked in the quality management system. The company had recently won a substantial contract with a prominent medical device company. Manufacturing capacity needed to expand but teams were struggling to meet quality standards. The thought of adding volume in the current situation was creating anxiety across the organization.
CNC Operator at a SMB business transformation
SMBs are resource constrained and often don’t have personnel with external experience to draw on. A transformation project manager brought into this type of situation needs to provide governance, project management techniques, tools and templates that add immediate value to decision making and project execution.
This company needed to quickly reduce wasteful testing and improve overall quality so our first step was to hold workshops to identify root cause issues:
They needed to transform their quality program, manufacturing process and information systems so two strategic goals were proposed.
To successfully meet these strategic goals with limited resources, the transformation program approach and structure would need to be efficient.
We established an overarching project management office (PMO) to monitor the multiple projects and workstreams needed to accomplish these goals. We created a regular program cadence with bi-weekly team meetings and workshops. Finally, the CEO and senior leaders would be updated during normal staff meetings to stay aligned on the transformation without extra calendar time. Other important considerations for the governance structure were:
Resource constraints can make it difficult to focus SMBs on long-term transformation goals, however, SMBs are extremely agile when compared to larger organizations. They often have a single location so communication flow is rapid and they are innately more focused, responsive and efficient in completing critical work. One key element then to successful SMB transformation is to leverage these strengths and focus teams on the most important work.
When day-to-day activities consume an organization’s attention, they struggle to make time for in-depth discussions to resolve complex issues and to communicate decisions to the organization. Transformation leaders can facilitate this engagement and transparency by providing a dedicated workspace where these conversations can take place and where decisions and progress can be made visible.
This team space was used for all cross-functional team meetings and Workout Sessions. Through these meetings, we engaged stakeholders from multiple departments and utilized traditional process improvement techniques to document physical workflows and system data flows. We held design sessions to create solutions to the quality management system and process issues identified and we held Workout Sessions. These were targeted meetings with all the necessary team members to work through a specific problem or make a cross-functional decision.
All documentation was posted on the walls or on whiteboards for team members to see. In addition, status reports for the overall project were updated and posted weekly so teams would be aware of what work had been completed and what was in progress. At any point in time, a team member could walk into this room and see what was happening with the project and what work was expected from them before the next workshop.
Although a SMB may not perceive value in documentation, the transformation project leader knows it is critical for aligning teams on the problems to be solved, the cross-functional solutions to be designed and the decisions to be made. Where possible, it is helpful for the project manager to take on the documentation burden to allow the team to focus on their tasks. Through our cross functional workshops, we created the following documentation:
Once the future state solution was approved, we established several additional implementation workstreams.
The transformation project manager brings value by providing clear documentation of team findings and solutions, breaking work down to the task level, and sequencing tasks based on urgency, complexity, and dependencies between workstreams. This supports a detailed plan to focus team members on the critical tasks needed to be done at any given time.
Keeping progress visible is one of the most important roles for the transformation project leader in any organization, but especially in a resource constrained SMB. I consider this to be the key success factor for this specific transformation. Updates were provided to the CEO and senior leaders twice per month and included project status and discussions on solutions and decisions made through workout sessions. We used a consistent set of 4-5 slides which included:
The slides presented to senior leaders were also posted in the dedicated workspace for transparency and alignment.
We return to our manufacturing teams struggling to meet quality standards and being informed that production is going to start ramping up. Team members were desperately looking for solutions. After our initial workshops, we focused on eliminating the test data chaos. Modifications to basic workflow and data entry procedures and quick win system improvements were made. These changes in the first couple months were crucial to stabilize the situation but still left the organization in an inefficient state. Manufacturing teams were still working hard.
We then tackled more complex work that required skilled resources and the implementation of new software. For this phase, we realigned the workstreams from 5 cross-functional teams to 3 workstreams reporting directly to senior leaders in Quality, Manufacturing and Engineering. This allowed senior leaders to prioritize and complete work independently while acquiring the software and skills needed. In areas where shared decisions were required, we used a cross-function forum.
Within six months, equipment calibration and manufacturing procedures were rewritten, the physical environment and workflow was changed, production waste was reduced and manufacturing teams were trained on the changes. The pressure on Manufacturing declined substantially. The focus could now shift to more systemic issues in Quality and Engineering to support long term quality improvements and company growth.
Within nine months, the company had updated Engineering policies and part print standards, implemented new Quality system software, and identified additional process and system enhancements. The transformation scope had been mostly been realized and the company had the knowledge and tools to make further changes:
Senior leaders had also learned how to better engage employees to find new opportunities and take the organization to higher levels of performance.