10 mistakes to avoid when trying to create a Business Process Improvement culture

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Rupesh Lochan

I have been part of Lean Six Sigma based process improvement deployment since almost last ten years. Based on my experience with the organizations I have worked with, wanted to share my thoughts on ten critical pitfalls that may hinder effective deployment of process improvement culture within an organization.

Mistake #1: Lack of leadership focus

Leadership focus is the key ingredient for driving process improvement program within organization. It is imperative for employees to look at the leader for direction. A leader that has the mind-set of process improvement forces employees to take process improvement seriously. Equally, senior management and middle management gauge the mind-set of the leader very easily and align themselves accordingly.

Have you got some habits that are hindering the development of a process improvement culture?

Leaders need to ensure the availability of a dashboard, which should be looked at critically with defined frequency. Dashboards should be drilled down from the CEO at the top to the individual units responsible for deployment of process improvement methodologies.

Mistake #2: Extreme focus on business benefits

Business leaders tend to look at everything in tangible numbers. The intent of process improvement is not only to generate immediate numbers through project savings but is also to enhance the capability of the organization resulting in long term repeatable benefits.

Though it is important to articulate business benefit/ savings from process improvement, it may not be the best approach to focus only on short term business benefits. In the case where an organization gives highest priority to saving numbers, middle level managers can find ways to articulate the business benefits. But this can often be at the expense of improving capability, which will certainly hurt the organization in long term.

Mistake #3: Extreme focus on methodology

Though it is important to follow the structured approach for problem solving, too much focus on methodology may not be the best road to take. One cannot have cookie cutter approach for all problems. It is advisable to categorize the problems and apply a suitable methodology.

For instance, you don’t necessarily need Six Sigma for an obvious problem, which can be solved by "Root Cause Analysis." Extreme focus on methodology forces people to force fit the methodology into getting the solutions already known. This results in a waste of time and effort, which could be used for better purposes.

Mistake #4: Not having metrics on learning

It’s important to focus on the end result, however, this is not all that should be captured during the process improvement journey of an organization. Organizations should place emphasis on what is learned during the process rather than focusing only on the business benefit.

Traditional learning metrics are things like number of people trained per month, count of trainings conducted per month, etc. A few other learning metrics, include the number of unsuccessful projects, innovative ideas generated per project, number of projects beyond stipulated time, etc.

My intent of bringing this aspect in is that along-with celebrating success, we also need to learn from failures, which can benefit organizations in covering the weak areas of deployment in a more efficient manner.


Mistake #5: Always trying to standardize

Living in the present and being flexible to the changing needs of organization/ industry/ environment is the best way to remain alive. This goes for individuals as well as for organizations. Organizations may create and adopt standard process improvement methodologies, however it is not necessary to box all the problems into the standard methodologies. There should be elbow room for bringing in new approaches/ thinking which allows organization to keep on learning and adopting always.

Mistake #6: Lacking an outside perspective

Organizations can become so process centric that thinking beyond the existing process becomes a challenge. But with changing business dimensions, rapid technology growth and easy access of information across the board, it is important to challenge set processes from time to time.

It is really difficult for an insider to ask "WHY", if the mind is conditioned to follow the set processes. Organizations need to inculcate the culture of respecting the outsider view, which may help in breaking the pre-defined rules and barriers, helping the organization to be more tuned to fast changing world.

For example, Six Sigma as a methodology has remained very popular for several decades. An organization needs to ask this question – is it still relevant for them keeping in view the changing business need? If yes, good…. If not, let’s find the best possible approach for today and modify/change.

Mistake #7: Inadequate structure and ownership

It is imperative to design the structure and ensure ownership to set up a process improvement program for success. Organizations must ensure buy in from key stakeholders and align them with organizational strategy and must also give priority to the availability of improvement methodology champions, who can run the process improvement program and support employees.

It is, thus, advisable to have a centre of excellence, ensuring the ownership of deployment and tracking the progress based on organizational metrics. Companies can also invest in creating infrastructure such as training material, process documents, project tracking tools, etc., to support the process improvement program. Lack of these, will only lead to process improvement in pockets rather than creating a culture.

Mistake #8: No certification programs

For the survival and continuation of Process Improvement program, it is important to answer the question for each stakeholder – "What’s in it for me?". This becomes more important, if process improvement is not driven by client. Process improvement certifications such as Lean Master, Lean Coach, Six Sigma Green Belt, Six Sigma Black Belt, among others, become the motivational drivers for associates to learn, implement and adopt the process improvement approaches. Organizations can drive the right behaviour by creating process improvement certification programs for different levels of employees, showing them a clear growth path.

Mistake #9: Excessive focus on certifications

Though certification certainly works as motivational factor for employees, for organizations, certifications cannot be the end goal. Ensuring that the certifications reflect the true value of effort put in for process improvement, helps in ensuring the learning, which helps in getting repeated benefit for organizations.

There is nothing wrong if an organization decides to have different category of certifications based on the complexity of the methodology and the rigour expected in execution. Achieving certifications should not be made so easy that associates do not get the right intent of certification. Excessive focus on certification may provide short term scoring points, however may not work in the longer term, if not backed by capability enhancement of associates.

Mistake #10: Outsourcing the process improvement

Any organization, which is looking to develop a process improvement culture cannot afford to outsource process improvement for the long term. You might require external support at the beginning to understand the approach suitable for their specific business environment, develop the methodology, or run a few pilot programs to gauge the critical success factors.

However, in the long run, organizations have to invest in building their own capability for nurturing and running the program. Initial support from external organization can be used for developing the champions/ masters within organization, who can be given the responsibility of running the program on long term basis.

But what do you think? Did we get the list right? What other common mistakes have you encountered?