The evolving role of CI leaders: Interview with Citi's Michele Boutwell

Today’s continuous improvement leaders must be more flexible and more able to adapt to the changing business needs, says Michele Boutwell, SVP IT Strategy and Planning at Citi. That means that the leader must wear many hats and often cross from pure process improvement into strategic thinking in order to identify those opportunities that will deliver greatest business value.

In this PEX Network interview, Boutwell discusses the evolution of continuous improvement within the enterprise, offers her opinion on what Lean and Six Sigma bring to IT and argues that both IT and process professionals need better cross training in each other’s disciplines.

This interview is a transcript of a video interview conducted earlier this year. To watch the original interview, click here: The changing role of the continuous improvement leader: Interview with Michele Boutwell, SVP Citi

Please note: this transcript has been edited for readability.

The speed of business means that the role of the Continuous Improvement leader has to change

PEX Network: Do you think the role of the continuous improvement leader within our organisations has changed in the last decade?

Michele Boutwell: Absolutely. I think that we’re much more focused on getting results, using whatever tools we need to use and are not so much focused on a particular methodology all the time or a particular way of doing things. I think we have become more flexible. We’re able to adapt to what the business needs are and more able to cross between pure process improvement into strategic thinking and identifying opportunities as opposed to just fixing problems.

PEX Network: What do you think is driving those changes?

Michele Boutwell: The speed of business. Our speed to market needs to increase, our ability to be not just the best at what’s already going on, but also be an innovator. This is the case even in financial services which people think is very staid. But if you think about the leaps and bounds we’ve made with how we process credit card transactions, smart phones, etc – people are looking to us to identify what processes can we adapt or how can we design new processes to best take advantage of those things.

PEX Network: And one of the things that I find quite fascinating is you’ve got quite an extensive background in continuous improvement like Lean and Six Sigma and quality. How did you end up in IT Strategy and Planning?

Michele Boutwell: That was pure luck, but something that I wanted to do and had been thinking about doing. After spending so many years working on the business, I was very interested in working in the business. Instead of coming in as a consultant-type and looking at the business, I wanted to actually run a team.

The trick was how to take those [Lean and Six Sigma] skill sets and apply them in an everyday fashion? How do I actually execute what I’ve been asking people to execute for many years?

PEX Network: What do you think Lean and Six Sigma bring to IT?

Michele Boutwell: I think Lean and Six Sigma - and even outside-in thinking - brings a methodology of how to solve problems, how to get to root causes of problems. In technology, whether you’re designing new software or you’re testing that software, there’s a methodology. But how do we apply a thought process and do things consistently, even though it’s knowledge-based as opposed to an output-based? It’s about structure.

PEX Network: I’ve heard arguments that IT and process professionals really need better cross-training. Would you agree?

Michele Boutwell: Yes. It was after working in what we call the "front of the house" - the consumer side of the business – when I made the shift into technology. So I have a much better understanding of what it was I was asking the technology departments to do. People often don't understand the constraints in technology. Things that we have already in the budgeting process, for instance, we have planned out for many months in advance just to take care of basic things. Capacities are very tightly monitored: how much is running the bank, how much is creative work, etc?

I think the lack of understanding is a huge barrier sometimes to process improvement understanding how to engage the IT side of the house. IT on the other hand has been used to being in control of all the technologies versus having people more and more knowledgeable in what technology is possible to do. So it’s a shifting landscape for sure.