Every business leader we talk to says that they would like to achieve continuous improvement. We’ve never heard one yet say, “Nah, who needs that?” But, strangely, not every organization has implemented a structure to support improvement or worked to develop a culture that values it.
That seems odd, right?
It turns out that this isn’t the result of leaders who are stupid or lazy. There are a lot of ways to rationalize against the effort and investment it takes to make using a continuous improvement cycle part of everyday operations. But if you press on these ideas a bit, you’ll find that they deflate under pressure. Here are a few that we see quite a bit.
We don’t have time for a formal improvement cycle.
These days when everyone is doing more with less, adding one more thing can seem impossible. There just aren’t any more minutes in the day. But there’s a compelling reason to think differently about improvement. If you don’t improve, things stay the same or, more likely; they get worse. When process performance gets worse, you spend more time responding to emergencies and fighting fires and thus have even less time for improvement. We call this the “death spiral.”
On the other hand, when you make time for improvement, things get better. Less time is wasted, quality improves, results become predictable, and more time is available for innovative thinking. It may require that you restructure staff meetings around improvement, offer overtime, ask for volunteers, or put off less critical projects while you focus on ensuring that each current process is running as smoothly as possible.
Employees won’t adopt structured improvement.
This is true. They won’t. Just as one might fear, giving employees an additional assignment without context is likely to fail. Working an improvement cycle will fall to the bottom of the list or get done haphazardly.
To be successful continuous improvement must become part of the DNA of the organization. Leadership is required to create a culture of improvement. That means that every person with authority in the organization must actively participate in improvement cycles. They must also recognize and reward employees who are engaged and frequently report on the impact of improvement. When this happens people understand that not only is improvement work a requirement for success within the organization but also that they stand to benefit by creating the circumstances that allow each person to do their best work.
We’ve tried before, and it didn’t work.
Believe it or not, if this is the case, it’s actually good news. You have your first improvement project laid out before your team. You can start by documenting what occurred, which tools and resources were used, which roles were involved, and what went wrong. Look for root causes, perhaps using the 5 Whys technique. Remember that you don’t know what you don’t know, so don’t make assumptions and question everything. Once you understand what when awry, you can map out the desired state for improvement and implement the changes necessary to get there using the PDSA or DMAIC improvement cycle.
One extra benefit of restarting your efforts to implement the continuous improvement cycle is that is signals to employees that not every attempt at positive change will be effective. That’s ok. You can regroup and start again as often as it takes to achieve your aim.
Our organization structure is too complicated.
It is difficult to change for the better in a complex organization with multiple departments and teams. Silos develop, groups use different communication methods, and power struggles are not unusual.
We get it, but these challenges are precisely why leveraging a continuous improvement cycle is even more essential in complex businesses. Most of the errors, waste, and delays occur when work moves from one department or team to another. Structured improvement makes it possible to create smooth transitions. It also takes the friction out of cross-functional collaboration by providing a common framework and information repository.
It is interesting that the more reasons one might have for resisting implementation of structured improvement, the more one has to gain from doing exactly that. If you hear these excuses when you suggest that your organization start to structure improvement, push back against them because it’s likely that a good shot of DMAIC or PDSA is exactly what you need.