Guilt Free Continuous Improvement with Cardboard and Sticky Tape

Good News! I’ve found a way of not feeling guilty about ‘over’ enjoying myself during the sort of team building events where I have to build the Eiffel Tower out of cardboard, pipe cleaners and sticky tape. Many people will have participated in similar exercises (with variable degrees of enthusiasm) but I suspect that most will be left wondering, “What on earth did that have to do with work?” Well, I’ve found a real world application which is tried and tested, high impact and ‘return on investment proofed’, continuous improvement (CI) technique.

I saw it during an IdeasUK network visit to a manufacturing company where it was presented as part of their CI approach. It involved Lean Process re-design and lots of cardboard and sticky tape. This is what I learned.

  1. As part of their CI approach the organisation routinely reviewed each of their processes. A dedicated team supported local teams to carry out a review of what they did daily and develop improved new processes.
  2. The review started with some data collection and process mapping. There were lots of familiar CI tools used; observe the process, eliminate waste, identify improvements etc. Plenty of flipcharts with process maps and actions were produced, all good solid CI activity.
  3. Now the good bit. The team then created a scale model of their ideal process, using cardboard and sticky tape.  This was fantastic to see and walk through. The team included the smallest detail to ensure the process worked for them. Who better to do this sort of process design than the people who actually know how it works.
  4. The next stage was to build a working prototype and test it for a month. To illustrate the value of this stage I was given an example of how things changed between cardboard scale model and the final construction. A 6 foot plus team member had been on holiday during the cardboard mock-up stage and their place had been taken by someone significantly shorter. The impact of the difference in height became obvious during the prototype stage and adjustments were made. Problem solved.
  5. Finally the process is fixed and routine manufacturing resumes until the next scheduled process review, or some other trigger.

Obviously there is a lot more fine detail involved in this CI activity than outlined here. What I wanted to emphasise was the impact of building the full-scale model using cardboard and sticky tape.

In many improvement activities it is quite common for people to jump straight from good idea to full-scale implementation. The cardboard model is helpful in a number of ways:

  • It allows for a pause to ask the really challenging questions, “Does this really work?” This is potentially less confrontational and more productive than reviewing someone’s ideas written down on paper;
  • It allows people to interact and develop the solutions as they build the model. Better solutions are allowed to emerge as ideas are tested and refined;
  • It engages the people who really know the process;
  • It’s more realistic team building than recreating a French Architectural Icon on a training course; and
  • It’s really good fun.

I know some people may say “…but this is manufacturing, this approach would never work in public service delivery (we are different, we are special)”  All I would say is, why not have a go, cardboard and sticky tape are for life, not just for team building.

So what’s the PONT?

  1. Fully involving the people who do the job in the design of the process they operate is the most effective means of achieving continuous improvement.
  2. Prototyping /scale models are great ways of involving people and testing new ideas.
  3. There is a purpose behind many of the things we do on training courses and team building; we just need to understand what it is and bring them back into work a bit more often.

Picture source: Thanks for the use of the cardboard Eiffel Tower image.

This picture shows how far you could take this approach…. there are a surprising number of ‘cardboard office’ images on the internet.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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