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Is too much information causing your employees to make mistakes? That was the case in a number of Six Sigma improvement initiatives that I studied in aircraft manufacturing and repair companies. I discovered that the companies’ use of sophisticated Six Sigma tools often created information overload for their factory workers. These workers faced hundreds of pages of training material to review and were expected to do extensive data interpretation and analysis. This, in many cases, created “brain overload” for many of the workers involved — particularly because they also had to deal simultaneously with complex daily operations. Over time, the employees became overwhelmed and started making stupid mistakes. As production performance slipped and safety issues surfaced, they simply opted out of Six Sigma and steadily regressed to the old ways of working.
And the problem isn’t just Six Sigma. In a number of companies that I have observed in recent years, countless ongoing improvement activities resulted in a massive amount of information being made available to employees. For example, at one company, new product designs had replaced many existing parts with new materials. These benign changes generated more than 47 pages of instructions and engineering drawings that could cover an entire office floor. At the same time, the maintenance department was implementing a total productive maintenance (TPM) program, so the machine maintenance schedule varied greatly from month to month. The TPM program was well organized, and all activities related to implementation were meticulously described in 69 pages of text. Meanwhile, the human resources department had updated its 23-page safety program manual. A newly formed sustainability program to make the manufacturing process environmentally friendly developed a detailed 42-page plan and a 31-slide PowerPoint training program. And the information technology group was finishing up an enterprise resource planning implementation manual with more than 200 pages of instructions and reports. But the legacy system was running in parallel, and the duplicate reports caused many problems. The production schedule was often erratic or wrong, part numbers were incorrect and many orders had insufficient information. One frustrated employee said, “Our manual system was slow and we made 10 mistakes every day, and now the ERP system is fast — and we make a thousand mistakes every day.”
The lesson for executives? Having a number of simultaneous improvement initiatives puts unnecessary information overload on those implementing the programs, because hundreds of pages of training slides or manuals have to be reviewed, understood and acted on for each initiative. Executives need to simplify or consolidate their improvement initiatives into one or two at a time. That will create a process simpler to understand and easier to drive from the bottom up.