“Remote working will only increase the need for Continuous Improvement,” says Gerard Poolman, Shell

Gerard Poolman, Manager, Continuous Improvement, at Shell’s Integrated Gas Division discusses the importance of Continuous Improvement and outlines his recipe for success

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Alice Clochet

“If you do not have a Continuous Improvement strategy, your future is at risk.”

PEX Network caught up with Gerard Poolman, Manager, Continuous Improvement. He discusses the importance of CI strategies and shares his advice on how best to implement a successful program, and explains how Covid-19 has impacted CI initiatives at Shell.

Poolman has more than 20 years of experience in supply chain, purchasing, negotiations, sales, marketing, HR, finance and IT. He has worked for companies such as Procter and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson and Maersk before joining Shell.

Poolman will discuss Shell's journey toward winning the Kaizen Award for CI at BPM Live, taking place online on 29 September – 01 October. You can register for the event here. 

PEX Network: Why is it important for businesses to have a CI strategy?

Gerard Poolman: If you do not have a CI strategy, your future is at risk. The pace of change nowadays and the pace at which inventions become obsolete is increasing. You can get marginalized and cease to exist unless you continuously improve and prove you adapt.

CI is more than just doing a few projects here and there. It is engrained in the business strategy of an organization to make sure it adapts to external factors and maintain its customers’ satisfaction.

PEX Network: What do companies need in order to have the best start to their CI journey?

GP: If you do not have someone in-house who has experience with CI deployments, please get one. Companies should take CI seriously and hire a full-time high-level experienced person to oversee its transformation agenda, because if they do not they run a serious risk to get marginalized.

I say this because I only started to truly understand the realities of CI when I started doing it full time. My master black belt and previous experience solving problems for companies had given me a good foundation, but only when I worked on CI full time did I realize I had so much more to learn and I was still making mistakes.

PEX Network: In your experience, what are the main challenges organizations face when trying to implement CI?

GP: The first challenge is that they think they know CI. You can read a book about it and Lean Six Sigma and it all looks very simple, to the point that you might put an existing employee who is good at solving problems as CI manager as part of their job.

In my opinion that is not going to work, because this person might have the necessary skills, but they do not have the experience. What makes CI so difficult is that it is about formulating a strategy for the longer term, it is about how to adopt to ever changing customer needs and how to become nimble and agile.

It is also complex because it is at the crossroads of financial, commercial and company culture interests and CI professionals need to be aware of all of these elements. They need to be seasoned professionals who have served at a reasonably high level in the corporate world to be able to connect to all the stakeholders and change the company culture into a CI culture, an aspect which is often overlooked.

When organizations choose someone who does not have the necessary skills to drive cultural change, how will they manage it? Their CI journey will not have the stamina because it takes several years to make it happen. Many studies have shown that seven or eight out of ten CI deployments fail. They can be successful at first and generate a lot of enthusiasm but after three to five years they fail. Toyota is a good example of success, because the CI culture is still present in the company.

PEX Network: How has Covid-19 impacted the creation and implementation of CI programs in organizations?

GP: Talking from my own experience, when Covid-19 hit us really hard and everyone had to work from home, the first reaction of managers was to pause CI as their priority was to manage the crisis.

It felt like the end of CI until I realized that eventually we would come stronger out of it. Organizations would recognize that they need CI even more than before because there will be more remote working and less traveling.

I realized that we needed to improve our ability to deliver the CI ways of working, thoughts and philosophy virtually. At Shell we have several courses but they were designed to be conducted in a classroom setting. I took the initiative of delivering these in a work-from-home setting.

In my personal case, I have seen that the demand for CI has accelerated the need for a digital revolution. Remote working will only increase our need for it as well, because organizations still need to have visibility over what is happening, map their processes and see their KPIs.

The need for visual management is increasing. One thing I always do on a call when troubleshooting issues with clients is I ask them to show me the charter of a project or a visual representation of the issue at hand . When you jointly look at the same data, it is easier to understand where there is room for improvement and where you can engage them in the improvement process

PEX Network: What do you expect to see in the CI space in the next few years?

GP: I see an increase in digitalization, the need for big data improvement, the virtualization of our context and our offering, e-learning and virtual stand-up meetings. Organizations will need to hire professionals that are able to coach and build trust and respect with people that they have not even met.

There is a good future ahead for CI professionals provided they have the basic skills of good listening, coaching and creativity in their ability to come up with solutions.

They should also have digital and virtual skills and be able to ask the right questions and get the right information from people to be able to help them and guide them toward solutions. If that fails, people will lose interest and trust because everybody is maxed out and stressed by the high demands nowadays, and they will only give CI only one or two attempts before giving up on it.