5 ways to "humanize" process improvement

Prashant Chavan
Posted: 05/14/2013

An engaged and loyal worker is the most important asset of any organization, says contributor Prashant Chavan. That’s why it’s critical any process improvement work you undertake engages your people. Here are 5 ways to "humanize" process improvement.

Every business has reasons to improve. Maybe there have been a number of customer complaints, maybe executives are worried about not meeting sales targets, or perhaps improvement goals or employee engagement initiatives have been built into the company’s annual plans.

Whatever challenge or opportunity a company has identified, improvements aim to bring about a ‘change of state’ for the better. The slightly more specialized notion of process improvement aims to bring about a positive ‘change of state’ to a process, which should help the organization to deliver better/cheaper/faster/happier outcomes to the customer or the ultimate consumer of the product or service.

That’s the theory at least.

In practice, process improvement (PI) initiatives are often deployed across an organization or within a specific process/business unit with varying levels of intensity and focus. Research has indicated that 60% of all Six Sigma Programs have failed to yield the desired results (Wall Street Journal article Where Process-Improvement Initiatives Go Wrong (Jan 25, 2010)).

So, if process improvement is so important and is an imperative for most organizations, then why don’t they find uniform success? Some of the common reasons identified for failure of such initiatives are as follows:

  • Lack/Insufficient/Superficial Leadership commitment
  • Inconsistent messaging of the value of Improvement and progress to the teams on the operations floor
  • Absence of an independent and structurally empowered team for Process Improvement with a clearly defined mandate
  • Ownership allocation of the initiative i.e. Operations/Business or the Process Improvement team
  • Governance mechanism deficiency
  • Weak rewards and recognition program associated with the initiative

Among all the characteristics and the reasons commonly cited for failure none directly and intentionally address the ‘human’ perspective/aspect/element of the process improvement program. (Though rewards and recognition programs address the ‘human’ aspect but they do so only retrospectively.)

Are the employees inspired/enthused by the process improvement initiative? Do they completely share the vision and are not cynical about the success? Do they harbor the ‘Have seen it all before’ mindset?

So, is there room and reason to address and improve the ‘human’ side of process improvement?

The answer is a resounding ‘Yes’

So what would that look like? Here are five things you can do to start ‘human-izing’ improvement:

#1: Instill a belief in quality and improvement:

Most employees of organizations are faced with many variables at work over which they have very little influence e.g. customer perception, larger goals and market strategies etc. Especially in knowledge work environment, it is imperative to communicate and instill the belief in the knowledge worker that among all the variables of their jobs/work; the only outcome/variable they can truly control and influence is that of ‘improvement’ and quality. Only they can influence and control the quality of their outputs and as a result aim to achieve positive ‘change of state’.

#2: Communicate a message of "do better next time":

This simple sentence encompasses the essence of all progress and change. It is essential to clearly and honestly explain to the knowledge worker that measurement of outputs is an ongoing process and there is no need to be discouraged by a temporary failure or setback. Also, it provides sufficient opportunities to make intentional and timely changes to the work methods to bring about positive & sustained ‘change of state’ in the future. If every knowledge worker begins to believe in this message then it can be the starting point of organizational continuous improvement which is truly participative and bottom up in nature

#3: Individualize the message to improve:

As knowledge industries grow at a rapid pace, one of the known facts of ‘human-izing’ that needs to be consciously considered is that every knowledge worker is an individual and that generic messaging and generic programs may not deliver expected results of engagement. There needs to be a tailoring of the message of improvement to include the individual’s emotional pivot. For instance, an individual with a creative or analytical bent of mind needs to be specifically encouraged to contribute to the improvement programs where those attributes are required. Another example could be a knowledge worker who likes to establish networks across the organization. That knowledge worker can be specifically requested to contribute in marketing aspect of the improvement initiative

#4: Encourage pride in workmanship:

The knowledge worker needs to be coached to realize a sense of pride when he/she demonstrates continuous improvement. Also, it needs to be coupled with a message that among all parameters; improvement or the quality of their work is just as important as (or more important than) others such as productivity, cost etc. As has been recognized by Dr Deming, individuals have an innate desire to excel and it is this desire which makes individuals often exceed the limits/constraints to produce outputs of great quality. This desire to excel needs to be tapped to drive pride in the achievement and excellence of individuals

#5: Intentional & personalized celebration of success:

As with individualizing the improvement message it is equally important to individualize the recognition of success of a knowledge worker’s sustained improvement with individual’s strongest aspirations for ‘respectfulness’ e.g. who does the individual seek/expect to be respected or recognized by? (e.g. spouse, parents, colleagues manager etc.).

When a knowledge worker is being rewarded it is essential to identify and include the individual with whom the celebration of success would be most positively impactful for the knowledge worker. This way the knowledge worker feels a greater sense of recognition and leading to higher engagement in improvement initiatives.

People management is fast evolving as an art which demands very high level of creativity and as the gradual increase of ‘knowledge’ takes place in the industries across the globe, it is essential to evolve a body of science/knowledge that specifically addresses the employee engagement/organizational development aspects of the process improvement to create a sustainable culture of progress/continuous process improvement.

Also, along with identification of the reasons for failures or disasters of improvement initiatives retrospectively i.e. ‘Rootcause’ identification; the ‘human’ element of process improvement needs to be engrained into the processes that create a culture of improvement across the organization by identifying & treating it as a resource that can almost singularly and proactively assure the success of improvement initiatives.

But what do you think? How can we "humanize" process improvement? Let us know by leaving a comment.

Prashant Chavan
Posted: 05/14/2013


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