Taking continuous improvement to the next level: Interview with Union Pacific's Lynn Kelley

Lynn Kelley

It's relatively easy for process professionals to find ways of making improvements to processes in our companies. But it can be more difficult to know what we can do to improve how our company improves.

Often, we're too focused on being external change agents and making change happen in the organization that we don't look enough at how we're doing our job, says Lynn Kelley, Vice President of Continuous Improvement at Union Pacific Railway.

In this interview, Kelley discusses why the profession needs to take a harder look at what it does and how it does it and offers examples of what she's done at Union Pacific to test the waters.

The following is a transcript of video interview conducted earlier this year. Watch the original interview: "Moving the dial on continuous improvement"

Note: this transcript has been edited for readability.

Are you looking for ways to take continuous improvement to the next level?

PEX Network: Let’s start with a big question: what does continuous improvement mean to you?

Lynn Kelley: What continuous improvement used to mean to me was a bunch of tools and a methodology. However, I've evolved in my career to the point that continuous improvement really means that we’re engaging all employees. In fact, at Union Pacific that’s the forefront of our definition: engaging all employees in continuously improving their day to day work.

When you get everyone involved in owning the continuous improvement of their own area, that’s when you really start to "flow". So, I no longer believe that it’s a million tools and a rigid methodology. There is some structure around continuous improvement. But more than anything, it’s getting the hearts and minds of the people.

PEX Network: I find it interesting because you think that companies need to continuously improve how they continuously improve. What do you mean by that?

Lynn Kelley: So often in our field we look outward and become change agents for the corporation. That’s great and it’s part of our role. But we have to make sure that on a regular basis - whether it’s annually or every 18 months - we have to take a step back and we have to get some type of internal voice of the customer. We have to then listen to our internal customers and we have to implement change. We really need to have that responsibility to our internal customers to move ourselves forward.

PEX Network: What does this look like in practice?

Lynn Kelley: There are a couple of elements. The first thing is getting the internal voice of the customer. We’ve done it in many different ways: you can do it through surveys, you can do it through interviews, you can do it through focus groups. But the most robust is a little bit of a blend of both quantitative and qualitative. That’s part of it, but not all of it.

The other thing I really believe in is exposing the continuous improvement department to things outside of our field, outside of our world. We’ve had this whole lean philosophy for a long time, we’ve had six sigma for a long time and we had TQM before that. The question is, what’s next? It’s not that these methodologies will go away. The question is how can we build on their foundations.

What I tell my team is that somebody has to figure out what’s next. So why not us? And what is next for one company may be totally different for another company, and it may not come from continuous improvement. It may come from reading fantastic articles about creativity, for instance. So part of what I really like to do is to have my people read books and listen to other experts and really think about things outside of our world. That combined with Voice of the Customer really does give us a really nice foundation for thinking about what’s next.

PEX Network: Could you give me an example of something you do or have done at Union Pacific Railway to really achieve this?

Lynn Kelley: When I first started at Union Pacific Railroad, which was about 18 months ago, I had a series of interviews and gathered in data from over a hundred people. Over the course of my first few months with Union Pacific I was just trying to meet all the people that head the different departments as well as those out in the field. I made it a point that every time I met somebody I would ask them what are the best things about continuous improvement and what are the things that you wish we could do differently and that we could improve.

After each of those, I went back and I typed it in an Excel spread sheet. Then we started taking it back to the team and we affinitized all the responses. From that we came up with two concrete things that our internal customers said we needed to do differently.

One was to address the sustainability of our projects. So we put a very robust process in place now that helps us sustain after we close a project.

The second thing is they wanted more of us. The last thing I wanted to do when I started my new job is to say "okay, we have to hire more people". That’s probably not a good idea. So instead we put together mentoring programmes so that when somebody says that they want more of us we can go back to them with an offer to mentor a member of their team - we’ll bring them up to speed and then they’ll have their own resource. So, those were two concrete things that we did based on that internal Voice of the Customer.

PEX Network: I think it’s funny that continuous improvement professionals would sometimes have a hard time continuously improving. Why do you think it’s so difficult?

Lynn Kelley: I've often wondered that myself. Naively, when I first started talking about this, I just assumed everybody would subscribe to the idea that we need to continuously improve how we do continuous improvement. But there was resistance.

I think that resistance stems from a couple of things. I think it’s firstly the fact that change is hard for all of us. It doesn't matter if we’re changing other people’s behaviours or our own. So you can be a change agent but when you look at your own world it’s still probably difficult to make change happen. They say about 20% of people will resist, no matter what, and I think that probably holds true even for ourselves.

Secondly, I think the very nature of what we do – the belief that variability is bad - forces us to drive consistency. Driving consistency means that we put in common practices, then in the last step of DMAIC is control. We control the solution so that it sustains.

The problem is that we do put in a lot of things to drive out inconsistency and this creates a culture of doing things the same way. Then, when we think about what we are going to change, if we’ve been driving consistency out there, then it’s a challenge for us to then say well now we’re going to change that.

In addition, if you think about your methodologies - whether it’s DMAIC, whether it’s Toyota A3, eight step problem solving process, whether it’s PDCA - we try to deploy a common methodology and then we turn around and say "now we’re going to change". You don’t want to become "flavour of the month", so there is a tug of war going on there between the need for consistency and this whole idea of change.

I think there’s a happy medium and it’s very hard to find, but I think it’s important we try because we tend to just go to with the consistency side of the coin. It’s important to challenge our teams to say we’re going to build on our foundations, so that we’re not flavour of the month, and we’re going to take us to the next level. Then guess what? Then next year we’re going to take us to the next level, and continuing that process internally is really critical.