Tag Archives: discontinuous improvement

3 Additional causes of CI derailment

derailment

Continuing with the theme of our previous post on “discontinuous improvement,” we have identified three additional causes of Continuous Improvement derailment.

As you’ll see, all three are preventable. But, like many things in life, simple things are not always easy.

For example, removing barriers or obstacles to Continuous Improvement seems a simple and straightforward objective. Yet there are many instances in which the people in charge fail to do so!

One barrier that commonly falls into the ignored category is that of an important individual in the organization who is simply not on board. The individual may feel uncomfortable or threatened by the new way of working and leading; or may simply not agree with one or more key principles of a continuously improving organization, such as the import of what the customer values, or the way to treat employees, or the imperative of constantly improving the work, or using facts and data instead of just opinion. When someone in a position of influence is not on board, he or she creates a misalignment between what people hear and what they see.

If the misalignment is not corrected, the situation has the potential to bring the CI journey to a close.

Similarly, while communication and alignment are essential, they are never really sufficient. People also need the training and skill development to follow the organization’s improvement methodology. Lack of capability or training will prevent people from progressing very far.

But personnel policies or practices can also easily obstruct productivity improvements. Sometimes jobs are defined so narrowly that managers cannot easily move people around to take advantage of productivity improvements. When managers are rewarded financially or in organizational prestige based on the number of people who report to them rather than how efficiently and effectively they operate, managers have powerful disincentives to increase productivity and move their people to where they would add more value.

Often organizations lack an effective mechanism to match up the skills and capability that one department has in excess resources with the needs of another department with a need for resources. To move resources effectively to their point of maximum value, you must develop a system of information about the skills and capabilities of your workforce. A thorough and cross-functional knowledge of people and their skills can enable an organization to move freed up resources to where they can contribute the most value rather than laying off the excess people and snuffing out motivation for further improvements.

No one but the leadership of the organization can remove the barriers to effective continuous improvement. Careful monitoring of progress to identify and remove barriers is essential to achieving a culture of continuous improvement.

Lack of quick success or “quick wins” is another common cause of CI derailments.

Early successes are the nourishment required to keep improvements going. If improvements are too slow, people get discouraged. People begin to adjust the pace of their effort to the slow pace of results.

Third, letting up on the gas after successful improvement initiatives is a more common occurrence than one might think!

In other words, success often carries with it the seeds of failure: the greater the success, the less urgency is felt for further improvements. Without a continued level of urgency, momentum toward improvement will disappear. People will be pleased with the level of performance they have achieved and turn their attention to other things.

To achieve a continuously improving culture, you must never rest. The leaders must continue to reward success, and identify bigger problems or opportunities. They must continue to strengthen the organization in continuous improvement and begin promoting based on skill at improving the work.

The “Hard” Part of Continuous Improvement

In past posts we have discussed the fact that more than half of all change initiatives fail, and that most “continuous improvement” efforts have two things in common:

  1. They produce some improvements
  2. Then they peter out…

Therefore, “discontinuous improvement” is, at times, the more appropriate description of what actually takes place; and as noted in one of our previous posts, there are a number of reasons why organizations fail to make their improvement efforts cultural, which include:

  1. Neglecting aligning individual or team goals with those of the organization
  2. Insufficient communication between management, the workforce, project teams and CI leaders
  3. Delegating leadership, which is a responsibility that should stay with senior management
  4. Manager’s or Sponsor’s failure to remove obstacles
  5. Lack of quick success
  6. Letting-up on the “gas” when initial results are made

Along similar lines, in a recent article about “why process improvements efforts routinely fail,” author and educator Nicolas Argy, MD, JD, suggests that despite the numerous approaches to continuous improvement (i.e., LEAN, Six Sigma, etc.), “All these systems go in and out of vogue and, just like losing weight and the latest fad diet, all of them fail or only provide temporary results.”

Argy goes on to note that measurement, questioning and reporting, tend to influence and change people’s behavior. In support of this perspective he cites some well-known research.

  • Pearson’s law –“When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.”
  • Sentinel effect – The theory that productivity and outcomes can be improved through the process of observation and measurement.

These views are well-aligned with Dr. Deming’s fundamentals, such as the Deming Cycle, on which much of our work is based.

But regardless of your approach or beliefs, it’s apparent that the “hard” part of continuous improvement isn’t making improvements, but rather making it “continuous.”

If an organization can develop a culture in which making improvements is the constant “way of doing business,” then they can achieve break-through gains on a recurring basis as opposed to the ad-hoc improvements associated with an on-again/off-again effort.

 

Continuous Improvement & Snow Cones?

In an earlier post, we shared six common reasons why so many continuous improvement efforts fail to be continuous.

This discontinuous improvement concept was nicely described in a recent LinkedIn post by KaiNexus, an improvement software company based in Texas, in which they compare an organization’s improvement effort to a snow cone… if you neglect it, it will melt!

People at all levels are likely to agree that continuous improvement is a good thing —“Always getting better is overrated, said nobody, ever,” the post jokes.

But no matter what you call it or which specific method predominates (i.e., Lean, Six Sigma, CPI, TQM, etc.), a high percentage of initiatives aimed at gaining greater efficiency, quality, speed, and/or customer delight have two important things in common:

  • They generally produce some improvements
  • Then they peter out

Solutions?
The key to solving this problem is effective leadership. Simply stated, while a culture of continuous improvement must involve people at all levels, it must also start at the top.

If leadership maintains a constant vigilance over alignment, an early pursuit of quick wins, a determination to identify and remove obstacles, and consistent, effective communication of the vision, strategy, successes, and next opportunities, then improvements can continue forever.

See related article… 

Are Your Improvement Efforts Really Continuous?

The road to success?

Many, if not most organizations have implemented programs such as Six Sigma, Lean, TQM, or other variously named methods of systematically improving the flow of work; and almost all of these initiatives aimed at gaining greater efficiency, quality, speed, and/or customer delight have two important things in common:

  1. They generally produce some improvements
  2. Then they peter out

So much opportunity can be found, just by systematically studying the work flow, gathering the data, and applying basic improvement tools or techniques that it is hard to fail to make some gains at the start. Once an organization is trained in systematic process improvement and sees some successes, one might expect the system of improvement to be self-sustaining and even accelerating!

But more often, it behaves like one of those self-extinguishing cigarettes which snuffs itself out after 5 minutes of inattention.

It turns out that making some improvements is the easy part; making them continuous is the hard part.

Initial improvements are often the low-hanging fruit, accomplished without making any fundamental changes in anyone’s lives.

But low hanging fruit is quickly plucked. Pretty soon, the next best opportunity will encroach on someone’s turf. It may challenge someone’s conventional wisdom or seem to threaten someone’s job security. Or the search for better ways may just come to seem unnecessary, because the organization is doing well enough and it is easier and less risky to keep things the same.

Without active effective leadership, the attempt to become a continuously improving organization will likely falter. For an organization to go through a cultural change so that this becomes the new way of working, not a ‘program’ but simply ‘the right way to manage’, we need to pay close attention to the ‘soft’ part of the improvement model to smooth the path, remove the obstacles, and continue to lead, communicate, and motivate both emotionally and intellectually.