This past week I received an email from a seemingly avid follower of my blog asking me to write something about what I believe are the major reasons for failing improvement initiatives. So with this question in mind, today's blog posting will address this subject.
First let me say that I have been involved with process and system improvement for many years and I've seen so many new methodologies (as well as their acronyms) come and go that there couldn't possibly be more. But it seems as though just when you think you've seen and experienced them all, here comes another one. So with all of these improvement methods to choose from, how do you decide which one has the most value? Good question.
For many years I embraced new methods until the next one came along, but then back in the 1990's that all changed. You see, back then, I was introduced to the Theory of Constraints (a.k.a. Contraints Management) and my view of improvement changed forever. The major reason for my change in how I attacked improvement is that I was introduced to a very simple concept....focus. Prior to my epiphany I had always believed that if there was waste and variation within a process, that I had to attack it with a vengeance. But even though I was relentless in removing waste and variation, I didn't always see the bottom line improve.....at least to the level I had expected or at least hoped for.
Learning about TOC's 5 Focusing Steps was perhaps the greatest learning I have ever achieved in my almost 40 years of my career. Why was it so important to learn about this? Because I learned that in order to truly improve a process, especially as it relates to flow, I had to first, identify what was preventing the process from achieving optimal performance. In other words, I had to complete Step 1 of the 5 Focusing Steps....Identify the System Constraint. Once I learned that step, I learned that by focusing the tools of the improvement trade (a.k.a. Lean and Six Sigma) on the system constraint, I would achieve much more viable returns. I learned that by exploiting the constraint, the flow through the process improved at a dramatic rate.
The next step that I learned was the concept of subordination. Step 3 tells us to subordinate everything to the system constraint. By doing this, I learned about how to hold work-in-process inventory to a manageable level. Yes, in doing so, the concept of maximizing efficiency had to be addressed, but I learned that maximizing efficiency only works if you apply it to the constraint. So with these first 3 steps, Identify, Exploit and Subordinate, I could make immediate improvements to my processes.
And while this was an important lesson for me to learn, looking back, it wasn't necessarily the most important thing I learned to explain failing improvement initiatives. Don't misunderstand me, learning the Focusing Steps was incredibly important for me, but I want to talk about another thing I learned that had just as significant effect. I learned that if you truly want to improve processes and sustain the improvements, then the people working in the processes must own them. So what do I mean by owning them? The lesson I learned way back when was that the folks working in the processes have all of the solutions to all of the problems you come up against. I learned that by allowing the work force to develop the solutions, they will own them. For years I thought I knew better than they did about how to solve their problems, but I was so wrong! When I turned this responsibility over to my workforce, wonderful things began to happen and they happened quickly and were sustained.
So in answer to the question I started with in this blog, for me the major reason for failing improvement initiatives is the failure of management to release their grasp on the processes they're trying to improve and turn it over to the only true subject matter experts in the company....the people producing your products or delivering your service. The key lesson I learned along the way was this: As long as the solution proposed did not violate company policy, contractual obligations or safety policies, my work force has full authority to change the process. Of course the changes my be done under control and they must be well documented, but change they will.