Tag Archives: discontinuous improvement

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.