Leading the pack at SouthernX

Progressive Overload: In Business, as in Sport

Last year, I published a quick blog post titled “Improvement takes Practice.” The premise of this piece is that if leaders seek improvement in their business results, then they’d better ensure they and their team are allocating time toward improvements. However, there is another side to this coin, which is overwhelming teams with improvement demands and activities, without any demonstrated ability to sustain improvements consistently in the past.

As a competitive cyclist and endurance coach, I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that consistency is king. I also know that high performance levels typically require a high level of training load. In less than two weeks, what is arguably the world’s most popular bicycle race on gravel terrain, Unbound 200, will take place in Emporia, Kansas. Over 200 miles of big rocks, little rocks, sand, mud, heat and wind will be the order of the day. Most of the top competitors have just completed their final training blocks, which are averaging 30-40 hours per week of bicycle riding for two to three weeks. However, it is years of training and building up to consistently riding 20+ hours per week that enables the strongest athletes to handle those even bigger weeks in preparation for the big event. Put a new cyclist on a bike for even 8 hours per week, and the result will probably not be good. Overwhelming fatigue, sleep disruptions, soreness and injury are all possible, if not probable. Continue with that kind of “overload” and the average person will experience worsening consequences related to chronic overtraining. In addition to physical symptoms, the motivation to continue will be squashed, and it is likely that person will burn out and never return to training.

In business, we often see leaders getting convicted about improving business results and pouring a ton of activation energy into new initiatives. Meetings are scheduled, Kaizen events are lined up, new measurements are rolled out, and expectations for a quick return on investment abound! Commonly, this surge of activity and new expectations are piled onto employees who are already overwhelmed with daily firefighting and doing their best to process orders using weak or broken systems. Improvements are needed, but push too far past the team’s current capabilities, and the results will be similar to our cycling example: fatigue, burnout, employee turnover and even worse.

Sound familiar? Like quick fix diets and online courses promising to make you an expert in just a few hours, it seems we sometimes fail to appreciate the journey from where we are to where we want to be. One of the most common questions I hear when helping a new client embark on an improvement journey is, “will this be another flavor of the month experience, or will it be different this time?”

As with endurance training, consistency is king, but the key is practicing and establishing routines that ENABLE consistency. Pile on too much too soon, and consistency is shot right in the foot. The concept of progressive overload begins with understanding the current capabilities of the athlete, and then adding just a little bit more than their physiology is accustomed to in order to achieve an adaptive response that makes that athlete stronger. The body also requires sufficient periods of rest to allow the adaptations to take hold. In time, the athlete becomes capable of handling higher workloads, ultimately achieving higher performance.

Guiding businesses to drive change and establish a continuous improvement culture is similar to serving as a coach to endurance athletes. Too little action, and no progress is made. Employees lose confidence and fail to get on board. Too much, too soon, and sustainment is a pipe dream. Burnout sets in and activating future improvement initiatives becomes even more challenging. The business’s current capabilities and challenges must be assessed, and a thoughtful plan developed to begin building consistency AND momentum. At Long Run Business Services, we have a track record of doing just that, as well as guiding execution of the plan to achieve real and lasting improvements. Don’t hesitate to reach out if we can assist in your improvement journey!

Get Real (with the Schedule)!

Sales are on the rise, backlogs are growing, and additional capacity is needed before late orders start piling up. The team should be able to fulfill all orders on time but is only completing about 75% of the daily schedule on average. More overtime is scheduled, and more promises are made that the overtime will cease as soon as the late orders are cleared up.

Commonly, when businesses are struggling to meet order demand, it is because their plans are not realistic in the first place. Continuing to schedule mandatory overtime is analogous to telling the team that “the beatings will continue until morale improves!” The most crucial step we can take in a situation like this is to reset and provide the team with a schedule that we are confident they CAN make.

When we are not capable of producing at our “set” production rate for an extended period of time, we need to dig in and understand what has changed and where improvements can be made. Increased product complexity, reduced machine efficiency, or a less tenured workforce are just a few of the possibilities.

Releasing a schedule based on the demonstrated, achievable production rate conveys that leadership has realistic expectations and opens the door to identifying genuine issues and potential countermeasures. Sure, the order shortfall will still need to be made up, but even scheduling additional overtime at the achievable rate beats chasing an unachievable rate that inevitably pushes the team into overtime. In fact, often we see an initial increase in production rates as the scrambling to meet an outdated number is reduced.

In one case, I worked with a client whose baseline efficiency was calculated at 47%. The production standards were set in the early-1960’s and we were kicking the project off 50 years later. How could it be that in 50 years, the demonstrated production rate dropped by more than half? It turns out that the CNC machines, which were state of the art when installed, had been poorly maintained and were lucky to produce at half of their design rate. There were not enough welding machines to go around, so some employees were waiting for others. Enhanced safety regulations had impacted workflow on the floor and increased product complexity was resulting in a shortage of certain consumables. And with all of this and more going on, employee morale was at an all-time low.

We based new production targets on the recent, achievable baseline and started soliciting and executing upon improvement ideas. A TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) program was initiated for machines. Investments were made for new welders. We collaborated with employees on a new shop floor layout. Kanban and Vendor Managed Inventory were implemented for consumables. Most importantly, we began celebrating the little wins and rewarding employees for identifying and driving improvements. This is by no means easy work, but it is rewarding work, and it begins with realistic expectations.

Improvement Takes Practice

As a competitive cyclist and coach, I know that athletes need to spend time training in the areas that they want to improve. Carving time out of a busy schedule can be challenging for athletes training for an event or personal best, but it isn’t uncommon for recreational athletes to spend 6-8 hours per week training to develop their fitness and skills. Elite level athletes – yes, even those with families and full-time jobs – typically spend more than 12 hours per week training. What’s more, the training time per week needs to be consistent week after week to see any improvement at all. The bottom line? Improvement takes practice.

However, when I look inside small- to mid-size companies, it is rare to see any deliberate allocation of time for improvement activities… and it isn’t due to a lack of improvement objectives! New businesses spend time on growth, while established businesses spend time servicing day-to-day orders. In larger, more established businesses, we start to see meetings scheduled for improvement activities and discussions, but rarely will we see a set number or percentage of hours targeted and measured to achieve improvements.

With time targets in focus, imagine how dedicated improvement time can drive waste out of the system and result in even more available time for improvements. The effect is like turbo-charging your business, using the available energy sources to accelerate your results. Countless words have been written about how to make improvement efforts most productive, but isn’t the starting point to dedicate some time in that direction?

What about the business leader who is ready to consider how time is spent within their organization? Typically, we would start with an open and collaborative workshop comprised of a few team members. After setting some definitions for a few categories of activities, we can conduct some simple time-tracking for a short period of time to gain further insight into how employees are spending their time. Even the initial workshop goes a long way toward creating a common language among participants, and often results in a few immediate changes as team members become more self-aware of how they’re spending their time.

If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, and how your team might benefit from its application, don’t hesitate to reach out for further discussion. I always value connecting with local business leaders like you.