Imagine you are a river, meandering round huge boulders, slowly working your way to the sea. But how can you get there faster? Would you straighten your course or remove the boulders to improve the flow of the river? If you chose the second option. That is to say: look for the blockages, then you are using Lean and Six Sigma systems thinking. So let’s not meander but get to the point. Perhaps being an Improvement Practitioner is the role for you!
What Is an Improvement Practitioner?
But what is an Improvement Practitioner? You may think it’s a made-up title. Like Customer Experience Enhancement Consultant – shop assistant; Vision Technician – window cleaner; or Media Distribution Officer – newspaper seller!
Yet it is precisely what it says it is. Somebody who improves the practices of where they work. At the heart of this role, therefore, is being able to understand an organisation’s parts and connections to help everything work together, efficiently, seamlessly, reducing waste.
There are other titles for this occupation. Perhaps Continuous Improvement Manager or Process Excellence Manager. But they are the same. Improvement Practitioners use a blend of Lean and Six Sigma which are project and change management principles and tools to identify and lead the delivery of change across organisational functions and processes. They are found in all sectors automotive, banking, engineering, food products, IT, property, retail, and telecoms.
Lean & Six Sigma
Both Lean and Six Sigma methodologies owe their origins to improvement initiatives in the Japanese and American manufacturing industries of the 20th century.
Six Sigma was introduced in Motorola in the 1980s and is a set of tools and strategies that were created to limit defects and variability with two methodologies based on the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, the foundation for continuous improvement.
Lean is derived from Toyota’s 1930 operating model, “The Toyota Way”, and was originally called JIT – Just In Time. It focuses on the removal of waste defined as anything that fails to add value to the customer, revolving around: transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over processing, defects. The seven wastes that are killing business efficiency.
Accordingly, there is a lot of Lean and Six Sigma thinking in manufacturing and the automotive industry has it built into its production lines. Wander round Jaguar Land Rover’s factories, for example, and you will see key motivational words on the walls. Production lines are timed to the limit. If they are too fast, mistakes can be made; too slow not enough cars come off the line and profits are reduced.
What Does an Improvement Practitioner Do?
Typically, Improvement Practitioners lead small projects and/or play a supporting role in a larger programme tackling issues that may require swift problem solving or re-occurring challenges that require in-depth analysis and the implementation of a range of effective and sustainable countermeasures.
For the organisations that have this role, it’s a key part of their operations because they are the focal point for all stakeholders and responsible for communication throughout a project. They identify opportunities, diagnose issues, propose solutions and help implement change and are expected to lead and coach, share best practice and ensure momentum and motivation.
Dave Otter is the director of organisational development and leadership at IceCreates based on The Wirral. IceCreates works with a range of organisations like healthcare providers, councils and housing associations using Lean practices to create greater resilience.
He said: “It’s all in the word ‘lean’, it’s about trimming an organisation’s fat. Lean and Six Sigma systems can be applied to anything. It’s about defining an outcome and making it happen.
“For a while I lived in the Lake District where from time to time there are serious floods. It was thought that having deeper and straighter riverbeds was the answer. But that actually might have made it worse, increasing the flow of the water. So now they are building in meanders in upper levels of rivers and flood plains to control the flow. That’s Lean thinking.
“You can apply this basic principle to anything, it’s not about slowing it down or speeding it up, it’s about finding the solution to make your process work optimally.”
How Will You Be Trained?
As an Apprentice Improvement Practitioner, you will have a vast and exciting education, including learning the business value of Lean and Six Sigma, practical problem definition and solving, process mapping, data analysis, root cause analysis, experimentation design, measurement systems and Kanban. A workflow management method designed to help you visualise your work and be agile.
Apprentice Improvement Practitioners are also trained to understand compliance; team formation and leadership, project management, presentation and reporting and change and project management.
Dave Otter said: “This is a highly interesting job and certain attributes come to the fore. Having an eye for detail is very important and it helps to be analytical and a task finisher.
“This is both a job for the self-starter and someone who works well as part of a team, meaning you have to be adaptable and seek your own continuous improvement too. And finally, you will stand out with strong communication skills.”
So, if you fancy being continually challenged, embracing new situations and constantly meeting new people, then this is for you. As the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu wrote: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” It was true in the sixth century and it’s true more than 1400 years later.