Three Times When Process Change Can Make Things Worse

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Jeff Cole

In Op-ex methods like lean and six sigma, the emphasis is always on process improvement. Improvement, however, is simply a code word for change. Hard to make a case against continual improvement, but there are times when changing a process is the wrong thing to do! Several cases in point:

Case 1: Whoops – Wrong Process!

One firm sold supermarket point of sale terminals and provided routine maintenance and repair to the units. A large customer called in complaining that response time on repair requests was taking over 4 hours when they expected a 2 hour response time. The supplier immediately started forming a process improvement team.

Luckily, someone pulled the contract and saw that the customer had signed-up for service with an 8 hour response time. In reality, they were twice as fast as required, not twice as slow! The repair process was not broken. What was broken was the communication process between sales and the customer.

Lesson learned: Always trust but always verify… Expectations can be powerful.

Case 2: Follow the Playbook

Another case against change was the quality manager ordered to improve a current back office process that was "just not working "– too slow and errors. With a mandate of "fix it!" the manager started by examining the existing process documentation, control plan, metrics, process maps, SOPs, etc. He then walked the process observing how it was executed. To no surprise, the staff was not following the process.

It turns out that after a prior improvement effort, the change team rushed the hand-off, leaving the department ill-equipped to follow the new process. This process did not need to change. The staff just needed to follow the existing process. Once they did, results improved.

Lesson learned: At the start of any process improvement ask yourself if it is the process design or the execution that is broken…

Case 3: Saber Rattling

Having trained thousands of people in lean six sigma (LSS), I am a great fan of the "crawl, walk, run" strategy. Someone who has never seen LSS before and completes Green or Black Belt exits training with their "learner’s permit". Just like someone exiting driver’s education is not a NASCAR driver, these people need to build their skill sets.

Sometimes, however, leadership will carpet-bomb an organization with training and dole out projects. First-timers stumble across the finish line with a cobbled-together, frayed set of deliverables, more concerned with meeting a deadline than with producing a quality, sustainable improvement. As they stoop in the corner heaving a collective sigh of relief, leadership says "Let’s take this to the next level - you did a $250,000 project in 6 months? Now we want you to do the same effort, but in 3 months". Later, after that leader rotates out into their next assignment and LSS falls apart, those picking through the rubble may find that metaphorically, these people couldn’t even play their scales yet, but management was asking them to play Beethoven.

Lesson Learned: Quality before quantity. Before jacking up your LSS efforts to 200 MPH, make certain they work solidly at 65 MPH (or the wheels may fall off!)