There is a lot going on in any good organization today beyond getting a product or service into the hands of the customer. Any number of different themes and visions—globalization, innovation, competitive strategy—are competing for a share of a manager’s attention and some of these themes seem, especially to senior management, more concrete and more manageable than process improvement. Also, improving processes may sound as if it can be delegated to operating managers. But even among operating managers, it’s easy to live with the status quo and just maintain the current process with all of its inefficiencies and work-arounds. Managers deal with inefficient processes every day, but they rarely stand back and consider a more robust process as a key to competitive advantage and customer satisfaction. It takes a special effort for executives to focus routinely on process improvement as something to be managed.
Another obstacle to process improvement is “stability.” Most managers and employees like to have stability in their working procedures and social patterns, serious efforts at process improvement disrupt both. Cross-functional process improvement teams’ breakup existing departments and routines. Process improvement sweeps away deep-rooted crutches, such as quality inspections and redundant data entry, which exist only because the process is poorly designed. Some valued specialists are exposed as the constraint, while others become completely unnecessary. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out you don’t need sophisticated short-term adjustments to the sales forecast, for example, if your process can respond immediately to any change in the level of demand.
Even if senior management does get excited about process improvement as the dominant source of competitive advantage, it is difficult to keep people throughout the organization focused on it for very long. Management programs come and go in Corporate America, and unless top management stick to the message of process focus consistently, the organization will take the attitude “this too shall pass.” When employees see a strong theme coming from on high that they can’t relate directly to their daily work, they discount it. TQM, Lean, and Six Sigma have died in many companies because top management did not “walk the talk.”
As strong as these internal constraints to process improvement are, however, the compelling external fact that process improvement is a competitive necessity can overcome them. It is also easy for employees to relate process improvement to other problems they are concerned about, such as high costs and poor quality. Looking for inefficiencies (non-value-added steps) will lead to the root causes of quality and cost problems in the organization. Reducing lead time, for example, has personal meaning to many employees. To a product development engineer, it means maybe management is serious about eliminating all the unnecessary reviews that slows down his work. To a mortgage lending officer, it means getting an answer back to a loan applicant before she gets impatient and runs off to another lender. To the admitting nurse in the hospital emergency room it means improved patient flow and reduced delays.
what obstacles are you facing in improving your processes, inertia, time constraints, wait and see attitudes, etc.? At Quantum Associates Inc we specialize in helping companies faced with these challenges overcome them and unlock the full promise of their processes.
Willie L. Carter is the president of Quantum Associates, Inc, a process improvement consultancy. He helps managers unlock the full promise, speed, and energy of their processes. Carter certifications include, Lean Sensei, ISO 9000 Lead Assessor, Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence. He is an experienced facilitator, coach, and author of the book “Process Improvement for Administrative Departments, The Key to Achieving Internal Customer Satisfaction.” His company helps executives optimize their business processes to minimize their costs, accelerate their cycle time while simultaneously enabling them to do more with less. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org