If it were easy, everybody would do it.
In fact, the very thought of reading these words would be laughable.
Spoiler alert: It’s not easy.
What’s not easy? Well, a lot of things.
But in this case, I’m referring specifically to the implementation and ongoing maintenance of continuous improvement, and more specifically, how to engrain such a program into your business.
Many business make the admirable decision to adopt a program of continuous improvement, and they do so with the best of intention. After all, they are in business to maximize value while minimizing costs, so it makes total sense.
And yet, many who travel this road either cut corners, get caught in a constant state of analysis paralysis, or simply turn back altogether. They suffer from what can be called the fatal flaws of continuous improvement adoption, a list which includes;
1. Not investing enough into it
As the old saying goes, “you can’t get blood from a stone”; and so it is with CI. It doesn’t just happen. It requires an appropriate amount of investment (read: commitment, and not just financial) from your business to ensure it has the desired impact. Improvements don’t just happen, and they certainly don’t happen in a vacuum. In order to see a change, your business needs to invest in the tools, people, time, and training necessary to enable that change.
2. Trying to do too much
Companies that start CI programs get excited, particularly when they start to see positive results early on. They continue then, to rush headfirst into bigger and bolder initiatives, and end up with “boil the ocean” type projects that are doomed from the start. A message I pass on to my students, and the one that was passed to me is, projects should be “big enough to matter, but small enough to win”. In this way, we can make a real impact to the business, balanced against the risk of failure because of project complexity.
3. Trying to go too fast
Similar to trying to do too much, going too fast can be equally detrimental to your CI program. I’ve seen entire teams waste long periods of time “executing” tools that they learned at an introductory level the day before. (Ironically, the tool in question here was the Value Stream Map, which I still find funny, since at the end of the months long exercise, provided no value to that particular organization…but more about that in “Magic Bullets”). Being introduced to a tool or concept does not make one an expert. I have been in the process improvement field for several years, and am a Master Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma, and even I take my time to understand the playing field, and get things right before I start. Running down the road may feel like a great thing…until you realize you’re running in the wrong direction (or are on the wrong road).
4. Not having a plan for maintaining the improvements
If you don’t have a plan to ensure what you’ve fixed stays fixed, you are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past. If your business is going through the process of investing resources in developing plans, executing on them, and then implementing improvements without knowing who will be accountable for maintenance, you’re asking for trouble. And a lot of waste; financial and otherwise.
5. Not communicating the need for change
Context is key. In many companies, I see a disconnect between the strategic and operational sides of the business. The strategic side thinks deployment and execution are easy, and the operational side wonders what the strategy side was smoking when they came up with their ideas. The resulting conflict is avoidable through communication. Like anything, the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) needs to be outlined and explained, in order to secure appropriate buy in.
6. Seeing it as a magic bullet
I tell my students the story of being invited by a potential client to discuss a particular problem process, and after getting the context, was told that I should probably “do a couple fishbones, and that’ll fix it”. (That’s still one of my favourite stories to tell, especially live, as it’s accompanied by wild, flailing hands). Fact of the matter is, you can’t just “do” something and expect it to solve all of your ills. You still need to put in the work to make it happen. Continuous improvement is not an “in name only” type of program. You’re either in or you’re out. You can’t half ass it; you need to use your whole ass.
I have been on my fair share of panels, and participated in more discussions on the virtues of Continuous improvement programs, and particularly Lean Six Sigma as a methodology for executing on CI, then I can count. I’ve heard both sides of that argument, and while I’m obviously biased, I can say this from experience. Continuous Improvement programs work. Period.
You just have to allow them to, through proper investment, proper planning and maintenance, and proper mind-set and approach.
Vincent is a principal at Global Project Synergy, working with clients in the fields of project leadership, business analysis and Lean Six Sigma. He has many years of direct senior-level experience in various aspects of project life, including Project Management, Business Analysis, Business Process Improvement and Enterprise/Organizational Design and Planning.
Contact Vince: firstname.lastname@example.org