What are Your Process Improvement Barriers?

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

Most organizations want to improve.  For example, lean six sigma appears to still be the hot improvement topic.  As time progresses, we will watch this improvement effort fade in popularity. Some day, something that may sound new or better may replace this set of improvement strategies. In reality, the replacement will probably be very similar in concept and design to what we’ve already spent time and money on, and relentlessly pursued, in our efforts to get better results. What barriers to process improvement hold your efforts back?

LEARN MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Process Improvement Work System

How Effective are Your Improvement Strategies?

We are culturally consistent in the approaches we use to try to make a fad a reality. We read some books, hold some training sessions, ask people to change, form some teams, and try to use some new tools.  The change just doesn’t seem to take hold however.  What are we doing wrong? What’s killing our improvement efforts?

For me, it started with Total Quality Management over thirty-five years ago. Over time, I saw reengineering, lean management, and lean six sigma replace this ‘fad’. If you know your improvement effort theories and history, you also know that these approaches are all mostly grounded on the tenets of the Toyota Production System. You will also know that the success of TPS, as captured in the NBC white paper ‘If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?’ that kicked off the whole TQM fad to begin with. Guess what country still hosts the leading car manufacturing company in the world?

I have never worked in a company that was not trying to put one type of improvement effort, or another, into place. As time progressed, I went from being a process implementation observer to a process improvement effort implementer. With each improvement effort, I learned something. With my last two efforts, I saw those organizations double their sales in five and three years respectively. We did this by taking care of the customer. We did not have to double the workforce to do so. Our successes came from designing our work systems to avoid the key barriers that I had seen kill so many other improvement efforts. What’s holding back your effort to improve?

EXPLORE MORE: Process Improvement Strategies

Which Barriers to Process Improvement Hold You Back?

The seven barriers shown in the graphic are deeply entrenched in the cultures of most organizations.  The degree that they are rooted in our mental models and work systems depends on many factors. The age of the organization, the nature of the product or service being performed, the location of the facility itself, and the process used to hire the current staff head this list.  These changes are common and tough to change. Tough does not mean impossible, however.

It is likely that you are quite familiar with these seven barriers. The positive thing is that they can be overcome. The systems you can install for minimizing their impact are relatively simple in design, easy to use, and not that hard to find.  You only need to do two things. First, decide that your work systems need to be changed. Second, be willing to live with the short-term discomfort that comes from trying to shift your own mental models about how things are or should be.

The key is that you must change your work systems. Let’s explore these barriers to process improvement, and the types of changes we need to overcome them, in a little more detail.

DISCOVER MORE: Do You Know How to Reduce Meeting Waste?

Provide little time for projects

Many people don’t have time built into their jobs for projects.  People often expect certain levels of performance to be reached, even though the existing processes are not capable of performing consistently at those levels.  Time is the fuel for high performance because it is required to improve process capability. There is a direct correlation between available project time in your jobs and your improvement rate. Where does this time come from?

For starters, consider using process improvement tools to minimize the substantial waste that exists in your meeting and e-mail / text processes. In most organizations, no one measures these processes, even though they often require 50% of a leader’s time each day. What do you do to reduce meeting defects and optimize meeting cycle time? What actions do you take to reduce non-value added e-mails and texts?

LEARN MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Job Design Work System

Allow leaders to behave badly

In many companies, leaders behave as they wish, at least up to a point. For example, they don’t communicate enough with their people. When they do, that communication is often negative.  They may also act in ways that are inconsistent with the mission, vision, and values of the organization. Many leaders are not very good coaches, and their positive recognition and rule enforcement skills are often weak, if not non-existent.

How do we improve leadership behaviors on the job? For starters, consider using a portion of your annual climate survey to gauge leadership behavior consistency. FedEx has done this for over twenty years via their Survey-Feedback-Action process. Most Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence award recipients doing something similar.

DISCOVER MORE: Measuring Leadership Behavior Effectiveness

Ignore non-operations processes

Most improvement efforts focus on process improvement in the value stream. Processes that support, and often drive, that value stream, such as sales, marketing, human resources, and accounting, often lack improvement expectations. How often do you see your accounting team talk about the efforts they make to minimize the time required to close the books each month?

How do we engage every work team in daily, process-focused improvement? You need structure, for starters. Design each job to include the necessary amount of project time. Job descriptions for all staff must include process-based measures and quantitative improvement expectations. Most importantly, build such expectations into the job descriptions and compensation plans of leaders at ALL levels.

LEARN MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Measurement Work System

Lay people off as you improve processes

Instead of being recognized in a positive manner for their improvement successes, people often see the jobs of their friends, or even their own jobs, being eliminated. On more than one occasion, I have seen people purposely, but not admittedly, slow down or even fight against efforts to improve to help avoid personal or peer job loss.

How do we save money if we can’t reduce headcount? This is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask how can we grow the business through sales, marketing, and other customer satisfaction-based process refinements. How can we make better use of the people we have on staff?

We don’t have to replace people one-for-one as they retire or otherwise leave, but layoffs are the ‘kiss of death’ to an improvement effort. The real lean upside comes when we improve our processes so that they provide consistent and high value to every customer.

EXPLORE MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Strategic Planning Work System

Fail to recognize improvement success

As we learned with the last barrier, laying people off as a reward for improving their processes is not an effective strategy. Enhanced job security is one real benefit of a process improvement effort, but many people want more than that. How should we recognize improvement success?

When it comes to recognizing employee improvement efforts, there are a lot of options to consider. Certificates, mugs, and other giveaways lose their motivational impact over time. Spot rewards and employee of the month recognition often discount the efforts of others who helped make the improvement happen. Provide a financial stake in the success of the business via profit sharing and possible stock ownership as best practices. Many leaders are hesitant, however, to take such a bold move.

EXPLORE MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Compensation Work System

Ignore process capability

This barrier is a close relative of the error we often make when setting performance goals. A work system gives you what it is designed to give you. Another way to say this is that you can only go so fast. Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much change in the short-term. Consistent, daily process measurement is a ‘must’ to understand any process.

Apply statistical process control techniques, such as a moving range control chart, to measure and analyze process performance over time and to learn what a given process is currently capable of outcome-wise. This tool also tells you the probability of achieving a given performance level. To go outside the lines and improve to a significant degree often requires creativity and innovative ideas, not just process tweaks.

Restrict information flows

All organizations have resource limitations in the form of time and money constraints. Strategic priorities exist as well. People don’t understand why their ideas are not selected for implementation when leaders fail to teach their teams about resource constraints. They wonder why certain improvement options are placed on hold or dropped, versus put in place.

One of the key first steps to improve the business literacy level in any organization is to get the information out there. The best way to fix this problem is to have senior leadership create and follow a formal communication plan. Such a plan defines the key communication vehicles used within the organization to communicate with the workforce. This plan also identifies frequency of use, the affected groups, and the type of information communicated for each communication vehicle in use.

LEARN MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Communication Work System

Have You Seen These Barriers to Process Improvement?

Have you seen any of these barriers kill a performance improvement effort in your work lifetime? The overarching key to remember is that if you want to change a culture or get better results, you must change the work systems that are producing the current culture and results. Proven best practices for doing this exist. What you need is the courage to trust and use them.

DISCOVER MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

Keep improving!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

Please email me your questions at kevin@greatsystems.com

If you like this post, you might also enjoy my book entitled “Pursuing Process Excellence – How to Sustain Your Improvement Efforts”. You can buy it in e-book or hardcopy from Amazon.com.

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