Losing momentum? 3 Reasons Process Excellence Fails to Sustain

Been doing continuous improvement for a while? Senior management losing interest? 3 common reasons that your process excellence initiative might be starting to wane (and what you can do about it).

Much has been written about implementing continuous improvement initiatives in organizations. And over the years we have seen many tools, techniques and methodologies (e.g. TQM, Six Sigma, Lean, Lean Six Sigma) developed to achieve this goal. Organizations start the journey, spend time and resources training people, implementing projects, and developing systems to govern and sustain the initiative. But, in some cases the initiative fades and the organization embraces a new initiative.

Research and findings on the way initiatives have been implemented have pointed out the common causes of why they fail to sustain in organizations. The list of causes have ever since been growing and after looking at it in a different angle let me add three more to that.

#1: Evolution of expectations

For most initiatives, a feeling of "business as usual" kicks in after the pomp and pageantry of the initial phase. Following the Kano model, everyone’s expectations - including top management - also change over time and it becomes more and more difficult to identify new projects and if found, these projects deliver less than what has become expected.

#2: Lack of strong link with strategic objectives

It is an oft-quoted suggestion to link process improvement with the strategic objectives of the organization. Most of the processes in an organization are interconnected or intertwined and, with some effort, all projects can be linked to the strategic objectives. But the question is how strong that link is. Organizations that execute projects that do not have strong linkage to strategic objectives make the benefits less visible for everyone - especially top management.

#3: Focus on tools, methodology & the wrong metrics

Some organizations build KPIs that focus on sustaining continuous improvement initiatives (rather than on the business need). These can be metrics such as "x" number of projects per department, savings by region, etc. These can create confusion among staff about the validity or suitability of these tools and techniques as straightforward issues will be fit into projects to meet objectives.

All of these result in support being lost for the initiative after some time. Intuitively looking at it, here are some of the approaches organizations may consider to ensure sustainability of continuous improvement initiatives over a long term:

First, focus on transformational projects to meet strategic objectives. A subjective look at the continuous improvement landscapes of many organizations shows that efforts are often concentrated at the tactical or operational level of the organization. For example, many Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma projects are implemented at a tactical or operational level in organizations and achieve incremental improvements of 10 – 15% on average. Kaizen is also implemented at either of these levels generating incremental or miniscule improvements. Even though the ultimate objective of TQM and Lean Thinking is about creating organization wide continuous improvement culture, much of the activities have also been at tactical or operational level.

It is rare to see continuous improvement methods being implemented which transform the organization to the next level to meet the strategic objectives of the organization.

If you focus only on tactical objectives you might be missing the bigger picture

Organizations that execute continuous improvement projects that are transformational in nature make it visible for everyone - especially top management - because the results that these projects bring impact on the strategic objectives of the organization. Efforts need to be made to adapt and utilize existing continuous improvement tools, techniques and methodology to generate transformational improvements from processes. Organizations that are successful in doing so are more likely to meet the expectations of stakeholders. This in turn will help to sustain the continuous improvement initiative over time.


Second, understand where you are in the continuous improvement cycle. As processes mature and external factors change drastically many organizations find their continuous improvement efforts hit the wall and further improvements will be difficult to deliver. Incremental and mini projects are no longer enough and this is the point when transformational projects have to kick in.

In the current economic climate, external factors are changing drastically and customer expectations and demand are evolving quickly. It is, therefore, imperative that organizations make efforts to ensure the organization can meet the rapidly shifting expectations of the customer and the market.

Cycle of continuous improvement: Where are you?

Utilizing and adapting existing continuous improvement tools, techniques and methodology to generate transformational improvements will help organizations make decisions based on logic and data rather than intuition and instinct. Organizations that are successful in this will meet the expectations of stakeholders, which in turn will help to sustain continuous improvement over time.

Finally, keep the jargon to a minimum and confine it to the toolbox. Over the years, staff in organizations have been exposed to the names and jargons of many different initiatives and projects - Six Sigma, Lean, Kaizen to name a few. As a result, in some organizations employees now have a psychological aversion to these terms and any new effort is considered as "just another new initiative".

Instead, of attaching new jargon to initiatives, organizations should keep just one overall initiative which is simple in title, driven long term, and directed towards continuous improvement. The names and jargon should be confined to tools, techniques and methodology and these should be explained through training to the staff how different tools and techniques apply to different scenarios. This creates less confusion among the staff and, indirectly, will help to sustain the continuous improvement initiative.

In summary, organizations need to utilize more of the existing continuous improvement tools, techniques and methodology to generate transformational improvements. Adapting the existing ways of using these tools may be looked at. Unleashing the power of the continuous improvement tools, techniques and methodology to generate transformational improvements is imperative for the long term success of any continuous improvement initiative.