Translation Project or Replication Project?

An improvement project has just been completed at one of your sites.  As the team provides their final report out to the sponsor, they highlight a number of ways the project was successful:

  • The process improvements have resulted in work that is faster and easier.
  • It takes fewer resources and adds more value.
  • The hard savings are significant.
  • The new work methods reduce the risk of injury.


At the end of the presentation, the sponsor turns to you and says, “Let’s replicate this same project at the other five sites.  There’s no reason we can’t garner the same benefits by simply implementing these same changes, right?”

Why there is no such thing as identical processes

translation projectIf only we could copy the project and create a blueprint, then another team could put these identical changes in place.    All we need to do is determine the process steps that were followed and provide detailed documentation to the implementation team. With this road map, it should be a straightforward task.

Unfortunately, true project copying or replication is uncommon. Why?

  • Processes that were installed or implemented at the same time almost always develop individual performance attributes over time.  It is not surprising to find so-called ‘identical’ production lines within the same building to be operating at widely different OEE values. (Overall Equipment Effectiveness – an operating metric that includes availability, performance, and quality).
  • Measurement systems are often different.  This could mean that the instruments, software, or units of measure are not identical.  In addition, the operational definitions could vary.  (How is a defect defined, for example?)
  • Different cultures exist among processes – both between sites and within sites. How work gets done is partly a function of who does it and where it is done.  Are the work standards that were written for similar processes the same?  Are they actually a part of the standard work for both processes?  It isn’t likely.
  • Leadership among the sites is often profoundly different.  Strategic direction and priorities are driven by the local leaders.  One site may need to emphasize quick turns and short runs, while the other site may have a customer base that allows for longer production runs.

This doesn’t mean that we cannot leverage what was learned in the initial project.  But instead of always thinking about how to replicate the effort, many times it is helpful to frame up an opportunity to translate the project.  Let’s compare these two terms and see why translation is often a more accurate description than replication for what we are really trying to do.

make an exact copy of; reproduce.
move from one place or condition to another.


For the reasons cited earlier, it is difficult to truly replicate a successful project or improvement.  However, many times we are able to effectively translate it – with some planning.


Speaking the language of translation
Translating success is the central theme of  Scaling Up Excellence“, by Hayagreeva (Huggy) Rao and Robert Sutton.  The authors use a metaphor of two prominent world religions to compare how organizations approach how to scale up.

Some leaders strive for a (near) exact version of the original work, with little or no flexibility in how it is implemented or expanded to other parts of the organization.  This is analogous to strict adherence to the doctrines of Catholicism.  Others are open to more flexibility in how the scale up occurs.  In these cases, the leader’s expectations are more aligned with Buddhism – where you are encouraged to follow the general principles of the religion, but are not concerned with rigid guidelines.

We should insist on a Catholic-like approach when it comes to replicating certain processes (proven best practices that ensure quality or safety).  In this case, we want to implement as much standard work as possible.  On the other hand, we emulate Buddhism when we translate a successful project.  In this case, we are seeking to incorporate certain general principles.  We allow more flexibility in how the changes are implemented locally.

Regardless if the objective is replication or translation, the following questions can be used as a guide to gain insight from the original project.

  • What was the defect?
  • How was the measurement system validated?
  • What was the baseline performance?
  • What was the performance improvement?
  • What “critical X’s” were identified?
  • What solutions were implemented?
  • How much change was required to put the solutions in place?
  • How are the gains being sustained?

translation projectAn ideal candidate for replication or translation is a project that has one or more techniques or solutions that we can either use “as is” or change slightly to solve a similar problem.  One of the key advantages of standing on the shoulders of people who improved a similar process or solved a similar problem is that we can speed up the implementation.  In our experience, replication & translation projects can take up to 30% less time to complete than the associated parent project.  We often use the learning from a completed DMAIC project as the basis for a subsequent Rapid Action® or Kaizen event to accomplish the same results in another part of the business.  The team has to brainstorm and find the best solutions.  However, they are starting from the perspective of “I know what I want to do.  I’m just not sure how I want to do it.” 

Managing change

Even if you have a good idea of what solutions can be replicated or translated to improve a similar process, this alone will not assure success.  You still need to consider the factors for implementing any change, including a sponsor who champions the change and a project leader who engages those affected by the change.  Without the commitment and support of these stakeholders, even perfect solutions are at risk of not being accepted.  Instead, the group can fall into the “not-invented-here” syndrome.  (In other words, if we didn’t come up with the idea, then it really can’t be that good).  This is a topic for another blog post.


There is a huge opportunity to learn from others and apply what was learned to similar processes.  It is important to understand the difference between a replication opportunity and a translation opportunity. The former is the right choice when standard solutions are required for critical, consistent outcomes – like those needed to meet safety or quality performance standards.  The latter should be viewed as a way to take certain concepts or solutions and apply them à la carte to save time in solving a similar problem.


About David Galloway

Dave Galloway is Founder and Principal of Continuous MILE Consulting, LLC. He blogs about leadership, continuous improvement, safety, and innovation. Dave enjoys coaching others to higher levels of performance.

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