“Two steps forward and one step back” is a phrase with which you might be familiar. It implies the inevitable fact that when we make improvements things are not likely to simply “go as planned.” Instead, unexpected snags, complexities, or opportunities for making even more improvements are likely to arise.
However there is another risk we must avoid – that being the devastating “backslide” to the way things were before the improvement was made.
Sustaining improvements is a fundamental aspect of Continuous Improvement. When the gain has been celebrated and attention shifted elsewhere, how do we keep the improvement from sliding back to the old way? To maintain the gains we have to stabilize the new process and new behaviors or the process will slip back out of control and people will slip back into old habits. How do we extend the improvement to other areas? How do we adapt the improvement efforts so they survive over the long term — getting better and better?
These “sustainability” questions are at the heart of ‘Step 7’ of Conway’s eight-step improvement process, and also align with the 8th step in John Kotter’s model for leading change.
Several forces can undermine sustainability, and prudent leaders must be prepared to both recognize and address them quickly. Among the most damaging are:
- The issues and pressures that triggered the change are no longer visible or apparent to people.
- Attention moves on to something else before the improvement has been effectively stabilized.
- Sometimes those who initiated the change or participated in the analysis and improvement leave the organization and the on-going success of the improvement may be dependent on their understanding and adherence to the improved process.
- Sometimes replacements inadvertently introduce variability.
- Organizations can lose their focus. This can sometimes jeopardize the entire CI effort. Loss of focus is more profound ‘when an organization engages in strategic maneuvers.’ People’s roles are redefined, organizations, equipment, tools, teams are all in flux, creating mounds of waste that needs to be studied and removed — just when the teamwork needed to do it is at an all time low due to job anxieties.
In addition to avoiding the negative outcome of “backsliding” there are two concepts that leaders can (and should!) promote: “Stickability” and “Spreadbiltity,” which will be the subjects of our next post