This team activity demonstrates the issues associated with improving a process. Ideal team size is 10 to 15 people or groups of 10 to 20 people and time requirement is 20 to 30 minutes. You will need a ball (in a pinch, roll up newspaper and wrap tape all over it!), easel chart, two colored marking pens, stopwatch or watch with second hand, and two additional balls (optional).
Begin this activity in a space large enough for the team to stand in a circle and throw a ball around. Introduce this activity as a way to demonstrate the issues around improving a process. Ask the team members to stand up and gather around in a circle.
Explain to the team members that they are employees of the XYZ Company, and they produce a product/service. The ball you are holding is the product/service. The competition is fierce in this business. You have loyal customers, but there is tremendous pressure on your customers to look for top quality and competitive prices. They have come to you and asked you to improve the quality (fewer defects, quicker delivery, lower costs).
Ask all of them to put themselves in the CEO’s shoes. Ask the team, “What are you going to do?” The conversation will go off in all different directions, touching all sorts of solutions and improvements. After they have had time to talk, make the point that they are all talking about improvements when they don’t even know what the production process looks like!
Emphasize to the team that before you can begin improving the process, you must first understand it. And the process starts here, at the “warehouse.” Hand the ball to a team member. Then ask the warehouse to throw the ball across the circle to another team member. (Don’t forget to call their name before you throw it!) Continue to pass the ball until all team members have touched the ball ONCE.
Take the ball and explain that they have now defined their process. We start with the warehouse and then each person adds value by touching the ball. (Note: you may introduce the concept of an internal customer – that everyone is a supplier and customer in the value chain.)
Give the ball to the warehouse and ask him or her to repeat the process – using the same order. Reinforce that you add value to the process by touching the ball in the same sequence. Tell them that you are going to time how long it takes for the team to complete the process.
After they have passed the ball, post the time on a trend chart labeled “cycle time and defects.” Chart the cycle time in one marker color, and chart the “defects” – the ball being dropped – in another color marker. (You may also note the importance of having a baseline time. Without a baseline, you have no reference point for monitoring variation and improvements.)
Depending on how well they completed the first production run, you may want to have them do it again.
“Now that you understand the process, let’s try to improve the process.” Give them two minutes to identify what they are going to do to improve their process by 50 percent. At the end of two minutes, conduct another production run, and post the cycle time and defects.
Congratulate them on their performance. They probably hit the target by realigning the people to the work flow.
Ask the team how they went about improving the process. Typically, the team throws out all kinds of ideas and settles on one idea such as rearranging themselves. Make the point that continuous incremental improvement requires that they first identify the root cause(s) of the problem (too much time spent in passing the ball across the room) and then develop a strategy to improve. Also note that if you implement too many strategies for improvement at the same time, they will never really know which change is responsible for the results
(better or worse).
Tell them that the company down the street can do it even faster. Give them another two minutes to improve their process by another 50 percent. Reemphasize that everyone adds value to the process by touching the ball in sequence. (Note: reducing staff and/or changing the sequence is not acceptable).
Chart the progress, congratulate them and continue to challenge them to upgrade the process until they have it down to two seconds.
Debrief and Summarize
After you have completed this activity, debrief the process:
- What did you like most about this activity?
- What made the team successful?
- How did individual team members help each other?
- How did you make decisions?
- What would you have done differently?
- What did you learn from this activity?
- How might you apply these lessons to our team’s work?
Some typical comments include:
- There is a lot of chaos at first with people brainstorming ideas.
- Pick one idea and see if it works.
- You have to get close to each other.
- Ask for help. Help others.
- Everyone has to be involved and know what’s going on.
- Measurements tell us what’s important and how we are doing.
- Streamlining can be creative and fun!
Summarize this activity by emphasizing key concepts:
- Continuous, incremental improvement is all about taking one improvement at a time.
- Internal customers – quality is the result of the contributions made at every step of the process (a bad “pass” can lead to problems on the receiver end).
- Complexity – all those additional steps that provide opportunities for error, slow down the process, and add no value to the product/service. (Like calling out each person’s name before they pass the ball. It was a safety issue earlier, but now they have a smoother process with less chance for injury).
- Understand the process first. Then improve it.
After the first production run, all subsequent production runs will include three balls. Emphasize that as long as the production run includes all three balls being touched by everyone in sequence, they have met the basic rules. (Note: reducing staff and/or changing the sequence is not acceptable.)
If you like this activity, check out my book, Team Energizers, for 49 other team activities!
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