Seven Signs Your Process Improvement Initiative Is Failing

Many companies start the process excellence journey with a bang, says Debashis Sarkar, but fail to sustain the gains. In this PEX Network interview, Sarkar, author and Asia's pioneer in Lean for services, looks at the causes of failure, details the seven signs that your process improvement initiative is dying and suggests the characteristics essential to a healthy process improvement culture.

PEX Network: How healthy are the majority of process improvement programmes out there?

Debashis Sarkar: It’s very difficult to generalize because it’s so specific to an individual company. But one thing that I’ve seen over the course of my time in operational excellence is that many companies start the process excellence journey (in the garb of Lean, Six Sigma, BPM etc) with a bang. Then after a few years the initiative loses steam. After a few years the leaders don’t seem to see benefit, the organization does not seem to be interested and the process excellence teams struggles to keep its relevance.

This tends to happen especially when the focus is on tools and methods, rather than on the underlying management thinking, routine and culture of the organization. The problem with many firms is that process improvement is just about doing projects; what they need is a holistic approach that has a systemic impact on the organization.

As a matter of fact, to say that process improvement is a programme is not correct. That would mean that it has an end but a process intervention is a journey without an end, constantly changing its complexion as it moves along.

PEX Network: What are the symptoms and the causes of a failing process improvement journey?

D. Sarkar: The symptoms of a failing process improvement journey could be many but the common ones are:

Symptom #1: The CEO has lost interest in Process Improvement

While someone may say that once a process improvement journey has achieved maturity, it no longer needs to be on the radar of the CEO. I do not agree with this view. Whatever the size of your company, if process improvement is delivering real value to the business, the CEO will at least review it once a month. If the CEO loses interest it is an early-warning sign that the Enterprise PI Leader is not focused on those improvements that will deliver high impact value that makes the executive team sit up and take not. The onus is on the PI Leader to communicate those results to the CEO and top management..

Symptom #2: Superficial commitment by leaders

This is demonstrated in number of ways such as delegating the ownership of PI to subordinates, not being a part of project-selection, not finding time for reviews, making the right noise but not backing with action etc. These symptoms could be related to a history of past work by process improvement teams not living up to the expectation. Remember, the mindshare of business leaders must be earned - it cannot be demanded - especially if there is no mandate from the CEO.

Symptom #3: Improvements Are Reported But Not Felt

PI teams often report huge benefits but if the impact is not actively felt by the customers or other chronic business problems do not seem to have been addressed, then cynicism can quickly set in. If this is happening it's time to evaluate your focus - the improvements you're reporting on may not have real benefit to the business.

Symptom #4: People are asking: "What happens after...?"

Alarm bells should be ringing if people ask "What happens after....(Lean, Six Sigma, fill in the blank)?" because this implies that your current activities and methods will cease and you will move onto something else. This often happens when you follow a methodology centred deployment. For instance if your focus has been Six Sigma, leaders could ask "what happens after Six Sigma?" The corporate PI team is expected to take out a new rattle (i.e. new methodology) from their bag of tricks. To counter this, make sure that you have a larger roadmap in place so that people can see the bigger picture.

Symptom #5: PI only being done by Corporate PI teams

If PI is only being done by corporate PI teams instead of business units, it clearly shows that the relevance of PI has not taken root. Any improvements you make are in danger of being lost the moment you step away.

Symptom #6: Focused On The Tools And Not the Philosophy

If the focus of your process improvement program is tool and method based - you're at risk of focusing on hitting the nail with the hammer rather than the overall objective of building a house. While you'll have isolated sucess if there is no effort to change the underlying management thinking and culture of the firm - which are like the foundations of the house - there's a chance that all the walls you've built will collapse when you're not there to keep hammering away at them.

Symptom #7: Using Process Improvement for Cost Cutting

The worst thing that can happen is a drive to use Process Improvement for cost cutting and head-count reduction. You want people to travel less and you do it in the name of Process Improvement etc. There is a difference between cost-cutting and cost-optimization. The latter is getting benefits in cost by looking at underlying processes while the former is cutting cost and put an attire of Process Improvement around it. Process Improvement for cost cutting is a recipe for quick death of your process improvement endeavour - and a surefire way to build up resentment the next time corporate leaders announce a new process improvement initiative.

PEX Network: What are the questions that business leaders should be asking themselves to health-check their journey?

D. Sarkar: Top management should ask themselves the following 5 questions on a regular basis:

  • Who owns process improvement in the company – Is it the Business Leaders or the PI Team?
  • Is the Process Improvement journey serving the dual objective of delivering business results and developing exceptional leaders?
  • Are we focussing on the management thinking and cultural dimensions of Process Improvement?
  • What sort of engagement, collaboration and involvement do we see of the teams in Process Improvement?
  • Are the general noise levels around critical business problems going down?

PEX Network: And if you've asked yourself these questions and run a symptom checker and things aren't looking good...what are immediate steps you get take to get your "journey" back in form?

D. Sarkar: I think in such a case you need to get back to the drawing board. The business leader should immediately take the help of a coach / sensei or Corporate Process Improvement Leader to put together a holistic plan.

A healthy process improvement journey manifests itself in number of ways, the top ten ones being:

#1. Committed business leaders

Leaders must be proactively leveraging process excellence for business improvement and must be engaged in supporting process improvement activities.

#2. Supporting Values and Leadership principles

Employees across the business hold values and leadership principles that facilitate process thinking. Leaders must "walk the talk" and exude these values and leadership principles.

#3. Process Improvement (PI) Roadmap

The company has an agreed road map that anticipates the expected direction and goals for the next few years.

#4. Beyond Tools

Process endeavour is focussed on management thinking, routines & culture…and not on tools.

#5. Change Agents

There are a large number of practicing change agents within business units with competencies in domains such as BPM, Lean, Six Sigma etc.

#6. Living Infrastructure Pillars

Established and living infrastructure-pillars that helps in sustaining the gains comprising elements such as Rewards & Recognition, Knowledge Management, Communication, Audits, Dashboards etc.

#7. Not Just Manufacturing / Operations

Process thinking impacts all functions such as manufacturing, finance, sales & distribution, marketing, IT, product development etc. It does not just live in the domain of operations or manufacturing.

#8. Spreading Process Improvement Deeply

Wherever deployment has happened it is organic, deep and is a model. This is because company wide deployment cannot happen at once, it has to happen in phases and such models act like laboratories to showcase success.

#9. Involvement of diverse teams

Involvement of teams in Process Improvement is across company hierarchies ( bottom, middle and top), function, and just not an endeavour of the Process Excellence teams.

#10. Leadership Development

Process Improvement is looked at as a leadership development process and we are using it to help develop exceptional leaders.

Remember, whatever approach you take it has to be able to make a sustainable systemic impact on the business.