Why is it Process Improvement Initiatives Never Quite Pan Out as Advertised?

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Farah looked over a new operations process. At first glance it seemed to address some long-standing concerns she and other colleagues had. Farah ensured that she had entered into a meaningful dialogue with all of the departments to ensure that everyone had their say and agreed with the changes. Perhaps more importantly, Farah made sure that the changes in the process respected product requirements, safety regulations and her company’s quality standards.

For the first week the process seemed to work very well. Farah was very pleased to see quality improvements. Then after about three weeks of implementing the new process, Farah started noticing some hitches and hiccups. Every now and then she gently prodded an employee to more closely adhere to the new process and for a short time the employee would do so. But it seemed to Farah that within a day or so many of the employees would mix the new and old processes and the results of this were less than ideal.

Even when Farah reminded and guided the teams through the new process, the intended results weren’t produced. So Farah took a few steps back to analyse the situation and this is what she found:

People are creatures of habit: The new process had been rolled out and employees had been trained on it. At first Farah’s coworkers adhered strictly to the new process. Then the company hit a busy spell and to save time and maintain efficient operations, Farah’s coworkers often reverted back to a more familiar process.

A change in process requires several things for it to be successful. First it needs to be simpler to use than the previous one while improving outcomes. It’s quite tricky to design such a process but those two conditions need to be met. Secondly the colleagues implementing the process change must understand and agree why they are changing things. Thirdly, a process change requires a champion – someone who will monitor and trumpet the benefits of changing a pattern of behaviour. The champion will also ensure that the new process is adhered to, weeks and sometimes months after its modification. Fourthly, the champion needs to evaluate the impact the process change has had and communicate the improvements to those adapting the new process.

What you are changing isn’t what needs changing: Farah went to great lengths to engage her colleagues in a meaningful conversation about how to improve one particular aspect of operations. Her coworkers identified certain behaviours and interactions in the chain of events that seemed to needlessly slow things down. So they focused on improving those aspects. What they didn’t realise at the time was that the bottlenecks in the process were symptoms of something else. Had Farah and her colleagues taken slightly more time and conducted more experimentation they would have realised that what they were changing wouldn’t really change the impact of their work. Instead they needed to look more upstream and identify the kinks in the process that created the bottlenecks.

A process exists within a larger system: When Farah started to tinker with one process, she wasn’t fully aware of the ramifications on other processes. Because her company is a complex adaptive system, changes in an operational process in one department can and do impact other departments. It took some time for Farah and her colleagues to realise that the changes they had made in the customer relations process impacted accounting and sales procedures. Some of those secondary effects were unintended and not desired.

It takes consistency to implement process change: Farah did her best to train and educate her colleagues on the benefits of the new process. At first her efforts were warmly greeted by her fellow employees who thought that the change would make their work lives easier. But as the roll out turned from days to weeks, Farah had other commitments at work. Her other champions had additional workloads and support from the executive was waning due to time constraints and other priorities. The intermittent effort to implement change failed because the entire management vertical wasn’t fully behind it. Without signals and support from the top, the groundswell of support from Farah’s colleagues floundered. 

What Farah and her colleagues had to do was design a monitoring and evaluation process that would detect changes beyond the intended impact. Metrics for measuring the impact were quite obvious: productivity measurements, time per task and error rates. Metrics for evaluating ripple consequences aren’t so obvious. Monitoring their existing indicators is a start. Engaging colleagues in other departments on a regular basis to see what kinds of changes they are experiencing internally and externally is another method.

After months of hard work, Farah and her team had to stop their change initiative. What they thought they were changing and improving didn’t actually influence the performance of the organisation. Farah and her colleagues had to understand the behaviours of their colleagues – why were certain short cuts the default behaviours and not others? They had to make the case that the new process was easier and more effective and ensure that a champion would oversee its successful grafting onto the organisation. Farah also had to ensure that the proposed changes didn’t mess things up other operational aspects and this required expanded monitoring beyond evaluating one process.

In the end Farah realised that process improvement initiatives don’t quite pan out as advertised because the people and organisations implementing them often have conflicting priorities. For the changes to stick the entire organisation needs to understand and support the alterations. Moreover the new process needs to be simpler to use while yielding greater impact.


Renée Gendron
posted 4 years 14 weeks ago

Hello John, Thank you for

Hello John,
Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and insights. You are correct. Organisational culture plays a significant role in ensuring that change is needed and that is sticks.
Renée Gendron
posted 4 years 14 weeks ago

Hello Bridget, Thanks for

Hello Bridget,
Thanks for your comment.
Oh, now you've piqued my curiosity. So what's the story behind keeping the bath towels behind the cold food delivery?
John Prouty
posted 4 years 15 weeks ago

I would agree that Farah’s

I would agree that Farah’s experience is all too common with process improvement projects. But, what it really reflects is the lack of a disciplined methodology that ensures that these issues are addressed and resolved. For instance, in his excellent paper “The Second Industrial Revolution” Dr. Russell Ackoff explains Systems Theory and makes the point that Systems (modern enterprises are very complex social systems) must be optimized around performance criteria and for a System to work the best that it can, none of its component parts (business processes) will be operating at their most efficient. Likewise, if a component part is optimized, the whole system will be de-optimized. In fact, he makes the point that if a component part does not affect the performance of the whole system, it is not part of the whole system. So, this says that we can’t really work on an individual process without a complete understanding of how it fits in with the rest of the business. We have to understand, what is de-optimized in this process to make the overall business better perform to its criteria. Otherwise, we will screw things up. You can’t really make changes to a car’s computer unless you know what the car is supposed to do. This means that we must have the manual and diagrams that tells how all the component parts fit together and how they operate to create the performance. Likewise, we need business documentation that tells us this information about our business. The foundation of a disciplined methodology is to accurately and consistently document the design and deployment of the component parts. We must have this for our business. Farah’s experience with the people also reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of these modern enterprises. There is a tendency to act as if people are individual commodities and can be programed to behave in logical ways. This is not true. People are actually pack animals and tend to behave as a herd. Their behavior is largely governed by organizational culture. Dr. Edgar Schein, in his excellent article “Coming to a New Awareness of Organizational Culture” defines organizational culture as “the shared values, beliefs and assumptions a group develops as it deals with issues of external adaption and internal integration”. Thus, if you want to change people’s behavior, you have to address their culture. Business processes are a profound value statement. By designing the actions people take we are specifying what is good and what is bad. We are specifying as value set. If this value set is not consistent with those of the group (s) that will implement the process we will have non-compliance. A disciplined methodology must recognize the organizational culture as the key to implementing good process improvement. This says that we must document and monitor our culture to ensure that the systems we deploy are consistent with the prevailing values, and beliefs. MetaPower has developed a comprehensive methodology that addresses the systems theory issues as well as the cultural implications of changing the way the systems are deployed and operated. We have developed an enterprise model and documentation methodology that we use with a standard project model to ensures that the integration issues Farah experienced are properly addressed. We have also developed a methodology to measure and track an organization’s culture so that we can ensure that process designs and their deployment are consistent with the culture.
bridget seyerle
posted 4 years 15 weeks ago

Great article! And oh so

Great article! And oh so true! I think it's easy to underestimate these powerfully influencing factors when you've remodeled a process down to half its original size (on paper). Less tasks have to make it better right? (wink, wink)
It reminds me of the hotel that didn’t initially understand that the inventory of bath towels was behind the cold food delivered via room service. Go ahead ask.

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