6 process excellence pitfalls to avoid

Andrew Spanyi

While most companies have become adept at improving processes of small scope, many firms continue to struggle with large scale process change needed to achieve process excellence. The challenges that such firms face are rarely related to the mechanics of process improvement. Instead, the pitfalls to avoid frequently involve fundamental values and beliefs. If your organization has the passion to achieve process excellence, here are six pitfalls to avoid.

#1. Organizing improvement in silos

When process improvement is deployed according to a departmental paradigm, where black belts are assigned to report to the leaders of traditional departments, the organization will likely find it challenging to align process improvement with strategy.

Watch out for the common stumbling blocks

Rolling out a program of process excellence such that it reinforces the traditional hierarchical structure often leads to having too many small projects being executed within departmental boundaries and failing to focus on re-designing the large, end-to-end process that create value for customers.

It also increases the likelihood that the organization fails to ask and answer the single most important question needed for strategic alignment; which is, "Which of our end to end business processes need to be improved by how much for us to achieve our strategic objectives?"

#2. Focusing on cost instead of customer value creation

When the emphasis on cost reduction trumps the focus on creating value for customers, the organization will likely find it difficult to identify and monitor the critical few measures of performance that truly matter to customers.

When the organization fails to identify and monitor its performance in terms of metrics such as "perfect order delivery" (on time, complete, no defects) and "first time right" responses to customer inquiries and complaints, it will find it challenging to focus process improvement efforts on the cross functional business processes that most need improvement to create value for customers and shareholders.

#3. Having the method overshadow the outcome

When the selected improvement method is emphasized before, or more than, achieving desired customer outcomes, it can lead to another major pitfall to avoid in achieving process excellence. This pitfall occurs whenever a selected method of improving or transforming operations takes on an identity of its own and overshadows the desired outcomes for customers and shareholders.

This can happen with any codified improvement method, such as Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, or Reengineering. Since most improvement methods require a shift in leadership mindset from a traditional view to a customer-focused, value-chain point of view, it’s understandable that there is a certain amount of evangelism and proselytizing involved. However, it is problematic when the selected method of improvement takes on a life of its own and overshadows the underlying reasons for engaging in fundamental change.

#4. Redesigning the org chart before the process

Focusing on changes to organizational structure before changes to workflow is yet another pitfall to avoid. This practice flies in the face of the long-held dictum that form follows function—in other words, an understanding of workflow will reveal insights that are useful in determining the best form of organization design. While some degree of restructuring is typically involved in process improvements, it is best done only after workflow considerations are understood. The wholesale restructuring of the organization chart, in advance of understanding the end-to-end business processes that create value for customers, will likely motivate people to focus more on hierarchy versus performing for customers.

#5. Not having a compelling case for change

When there is a fragile case for change at either the enterprise level or the project level, the risk of disengagement increases. The impact of a fragile case for change often becomes evident early, as people actively question the value of the initiative. You know you have a fragile case for change whenever the reason for change is unclear; that is, the linkage to a critical business issue is lacking.

The best test of a compelling case for change is whether people step forward as willing followers and whether they are motivated to act with urgency. That’s why the case for change needs to tell a compelling story that speaks both to the head and the heart.

#6. Insufficient executive engagement

When there is a lack of attention to process based governance, it will be challenging to overcome obstacles to effective implementation of change and also challenging to install the infrastructure needed for continuous improvement and process excellence. A lack of attention to process based governance is evident when the chosen method of process improvement does not utilize a steering team and relies exclusively on a sponsor or champion. It is even more of an issue when there is over-reliance on the black belt and leadership is absent.

Even when a steering team is employed, if executives view attendance at steering team meetings as optional, then there is likely less than sufficient emphasis on their role in assuring that the needed resources are in place for implementation success.

Another sign of insufficient focus on process based governance is when the organization fails to place metrics such as "perfect order delivery" (on time, complete, no defects) and "first time right" responses to customer inquiries and complaints on the first page of the senior leadership scorecard.

While there is no magic elixir, taking action to avoid the six pitfalls outlined above will surely increase the likelihood of process excellence success.