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Breakout Groups During Improvement Events

A common tool in the lean world is the kaizen event.  This is where a cross functional team meets for 3-5 days all day to improve a process.

The days are long, not only for the participants but also for the facilitator(s).  Participants hate sitting around a conference room for multiple days straight.  It is difficult to concentrate and people become bored quickly.  It is hard for facilitators to keep the energy up during this time also.

This is where breakout groups come in handy.  Using breakout groups gets everyone engaged and can get the team up and moving around.  If there are participants who don’t like to speak to a bigger audience, the smaller groups give them a chance to give input without feeling uncomfortable.  Also, it can give the facilitator time to gather their thoughts and re-energize during the session.

Breakout groups can be used in different ways.  For an event focused around a business or transactional process that is hard to see, a rotating chart can be a good option.  Have everyone write their improvement ideas on a post-it note.  One idea per post-it note.  Give the team a few minutes to write them down.  Then have each person come to the front, read their idea and stick the post-it on paper hanging on the wall.  Group the post-its by similar ideas from individuals.  After you have all the ideas, split the large group into smaller teams and give each team an equal number of ideas to discuss.  Use a flip chart.  Have one idea per flip chart page.  List the idea at the top and then write the benefits on the left side and the challenges to the idea on the right side of the chart.  When all the teams are done, have them rotate to read what the other group wrote and write any additional thoughts they have on the idea.

This is just one way to get people up and more engaged.

If the improvement event is in a manufacturing area, a typical breakout group is going out and actually moving the work area around to the improved design.  Simple, effective and the process is ready to run right after the event is over.

It is important to balance working as a group and breaking out into smaller groups.  When done well, it energizes the group and the facilitator and allows everyone a chance to give input no matter what their communication style is.

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Don’t Shortchange An Improvement Opportunity

The kaizen event is a great way to start to get people engaged in improving processes.  The kaizen event is an improvement event that focuses on a particular process during a dedicated and concentrated period of time.  Typically, these events last 3-5 days depending on the process that is being improved.  During the events, it is asked that the participants dedicate their full attention to the team.

Dedicating a full 3-5 days to work on a single process seems like a lot to most people.  Especially, people who have not participated in a kazien event.  This leads to a fun game of “Name That Tune” starring the kaizen event.  Managers will push back and ask if the event can be done in less time, “What about 1.5 days?”  One time I even had someone ask if we could do a 5-day event in 4 hours.

Speaking from experience, the timeline for a kaizen event is something that should not be negotiated.  Plan the minimum amount of time needed and stick to it.  If it is a 3-day event, don’t plan it for 5 days and if it is a 5-day event don’t squeeze it into 3 days.  This is a stake in the ground that a facilitator and leader should not move.  As the facilitator it is your responsibility to make sure the event is a success and you can’t do that if you are compromising the timeline right off the bat.

Some things that can work in negotiating the kaizen event, is to leave an hour or so at the beginning and end of the days for people to check email or get a chance to catch up on their day-to-day stuff.  Even planning several 1/2 days instead of a couple of full days.  This works well when improving a business process in an office area.  Another trick that works sometimes is to put a 1-day break between the 2nd and 3rd day if needed.  This gives people the chance to think about the work they have done so far and usually re-energizes them for the 3rd day.

When it comes to facilitating and leading improvement changes don’t shortchange yourself on the timeline to make people happy.  If you change the timeline then you should look at changing your scope.

Does anyone have any other helpful tips?

Signals May Be Just That

This week I learned a valuable lesson about body language and signals.  They may mean nothing at all.

I was involved as the person being judged.  When I sit, especially for long periods of time, I find it quite comfortable to lean back with my arms crossed.  I mean absolutely nothing by it.  I finally had someone tell me they felt I was not engaged and standoffish.  I found this to be odd, because I was asking questions and trying to gain clarity during the entire meeting.  The person then let me know that my body language made them feel uncomfortable.  That is when it clicked.  I let them know it had nothing to do with them.  It was a comfort thing for me, especially in a cold room.

Just by chance a couple of days later, I was taking a course on facilitation.  Again, long days in a chair and I sat leaned back with my arms crossed a lot out of comfort.  When the instructor started talking about body language and reading the room she used me as an example.  She pointed out I was sitting leaned back and with my arms crossed.  She mention most people might think I am not happy about what is going on or engaged BUT that wasn’t the case.  She could tell I was engaged because of my head nods, the questions I asked, and my participation.

The instructor’s point was body language is just a signal to keep an eye one.  You should take everything into consideration and if you have a question about it don’t assume the negative.  In private, ask if everything is alright and how things are going.  You might find something outside of work is causing the distraction or you just might find out there is nothing wrong at all.