Some organizations invest a lot of time and effort in process improvement initiatives. When they are successful, these efforts reap the rewards of lower cost, improved quality and increased employee engagement. Of course, we want to make this kind of progress all the time. Sadly, continuous process improvement is achieved in a small minority of organizations.
Process Improvement Efforts Often Lose Steam
Most of the time, process improvement efforts lose steam and eventually are abandoned. The gains cease and everyone goes back to firefighting. Why does this happen?
Almost always, these efforts start well, generate real improvements and raise expectations of future progress. What happens next depends on how and why we started them in the first place.
Some companies do really well with process improvement. They go to great lengths to embed the notion of continuous process improvement into the “way we do things around here”. They recognize that it’s not just about knowing how to hold a process improvement meeting, or getting employee ‘buy in’. They are in it for the long haul and devote the resources needed to sustain the effort over time. They are realistic about the gains being sometimes uneven. But they know that the real benefits come from lots of small incremental changes compounding into a sustainable competitive advantage.
Continuous Process Improvement Is Not A Quick Fix
Continuous improvement fails to take hold when we embark on it as a fix for a particular problem. If the leadership in an organization wants a specific result and it is achieved, it often loses interest and diverts resources to something else.
So it is common, for example, for the team members driving the project to do so well that they are promoted or moved to other projects. But usually there is nobody to replace them and the team has lost its leaders and it’s momentum.
Other, priorities start to intrude. We return to firefighting instead of fireproofing.
Sometimes the problem is unrealistic expectations. Early projects aim at low hanging fruit or longstanding problems. That may yield spectacular results. But later improvements are incremental and less exciting. The buzz starts to diminish. As people lose interest, meetings are ill attended, then postponed then cancelled. Progress slows and stops altogether.
The key to success is how you look at process improvement. You will be successful if you see it as a discipline to master, with long term benefits, and invest resources in it accordingly. If you treat it as a short-term fix, that is what it will be, but you will miss out on its rewards.