Why random acts of improvement might be hazardous to your health

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Jeff Varney

Save us from good intentions

Improvement activities can be implemented without explicitly thinking about process. They can happen anywhere for any reason. But not all so-called "improvements" are good for your organizational health, says Jeff Varney from APQC. Here’s why.

When discussing process management and improvement, I often talk about the concept of "random acts of improvement." People, with good intentions, are off trying to make their part of the organization better, more efficient, simpler.

The problem is that often these changes are done locally, in silos, without considering the end-to-end impact of the change – how that change might have a positive or negative effect elsewhere in the organization.

Is your oragnization's approach to process improvement too random?

Further, people may spend time fixing something that is counter to the overall goals of the organization or distracts people and resources from the real issues that need to be addressed.

Improvement activities can be implemented without explicitly thinking about process. They can happen anywhere for any reason. Individuals think, "I can do this better," and they do it. Managers say, "I’ve seen this done elsewhere, let’s do it that way." A team brainstorms ideas for making something more useful to the group. They may be applying specific techniques like Lean, Six Sigma, and continuous improvement, or they may just be changing something to make it better.

The risk of everyone pursuing their own improvement is that often nobody is looking at the organization-wide processes that get the real work done, and the impact one small change may have elsewhere. When you overlay process management on top of random acts of improvement, you take out some of the random. With enterprise-wide process management that prioritizes improvement opportunities aligned to your strategic goals you have transformed to strategic, process-based improvement.


A first step to combat potential negative consequences from random acts is to encourage people to look beyond their borders before they make a change. Look upstream and downstream to reduce the potential of breaking something else along the chain. We should strive to avoid optimizing one part of the organization at the expense of others, or worse yet, the customer.

Establishing strong process management capabilities includes designing an approach to plan changes and avoid the negative outcomes of random acts of improvement. Process management should take a holistic look at all opportunities for improvement, align those against goals and needs, and then focus on what makes the most sense for the organization.

We don’t want to stifle people’s individual initiative, but rather channel it toward a collaborative approach to achieve stronger performance end-to-end. In APQC’s research we have seen organizations that do this extremely well, but too often that is not the case.

It all starts with thinking global and acting local. Instead of being random, talk to others. Assess how one group’s actions tie into success at different junctures throughout the organization.

Let’s focus improvement on what’s important, let’s not let random acts get in the way. Let’s cut clutter.