Sloan Review on Process Improvement

Scott Francis
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Interesting article in the MIT Sloan Review on “Where Process-Improvement Projects Go Wrong“.  It compares process improvement projects to the behavior of a metal spring, by dividing into three phases:
  1. Stretching – at the beginning, a small team is motivated to succeed, and has support of executives.  A six sigma or process improvement coach helps them navigate some of the harder issues to make sure they stay on target and achieve early success, which causes additional initiatives to be kicked off.
  2. Yielding – As the process improvement coach is removed, teams begin to revert back to prior behavior, or lose the ability to get the team objectively past some of the harder sticking points.  Executive attention, and perhaps some of the best team members, has moved to other projects.  Performance starts to retreat, though not necessarily to pre-improvement levels.
  3. Failing – the vicious cycle begins “With the improvement expert long gone and no additional training in Six Sigma or other improvement strategies provided by the aerospace company, team members became increasingly discouraged by their failure to build on earlier success. They eventually stopped caring about the improvement project, partly because it wasn’t tied to their performance reviews.”
Well, I feel motivated, how about you? Luckily we are not springs, we’re people, and we can be a bit more creative about avoiding this inglorious “failing” phase than the author imagines. The article author proposes 4 lessons learned from the many companies they studied for this report:
  1. Keep the improvement expert around longer – or share this expert among more than one team to spread the cost – but the recommended term was 2 years, augmented by training managers to pick up these responsibilities.
  2. Performance appraisals tied to improvement.
  3. Keep teams small (less than 10).
  4. Executives need to directly participate in the projects, not just receive reports from someone who has incentive to focus on only the good news.
This isn’t bad advice, it is good advice to start.  But it is insufficient and unlikely to cause organizations to suddenly get higher success rates with process improvement. What did they miss?  Well, they missed BPM, is what they missed.  One of the reasons BPM is a “killer app” for process improvement is that when you discover the most effective changes to make for your process, you can put them into software, not just into a book of Standard Operating Procedures that your team will quickly forget about.  And your improvements aren’t just things that people on the team learn and practice, nor just things that they pass on to others on adjacent teams – they are things that get encoded into your process.  The software gives you:
  • Some resistance to the “yielding” phenomenon described in the study results.
  • Accurate measurement over time – no dependence on manual measurement techniques that may degrade as team members lose interest in the stop watch and other manual measurement techniques.
  • The ability to “bake in” an improvement and move on to the next thing, rather than get stuck in a high-cost maintenance of the first improvement.
  • A “control” baked into the software.  (Six Sigma has standard approach called DMAIC – define, measure, analyze, improve, control… and BPM software directly addresses D, M, and C, and supports the A and I activities…)  So often the “failing” phase is because the organization loses focus.  Software doesn’t lose focus – it just keeps running.
Too often, the proponents of Lean and Six Sigma ignore technology because they view it as an impediment, failing to understand that there is more to technology than MiniTab or SAS/SPSS or Excel.  And if technology allows you to do something at lower cost, such as a process improvement project, or maintaining an improvement over time, then it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.  But it is easy to understand why they sometimes see tech as an impediment – deploying software takes time – and during the initial phases of improvement the improvement guys just want to move fast.  My take is – don’t let the tech get in the way, but don’t pretend it can’t dramatically improve the efficiency of your business – in fact, technology, and specifically BPM software, is likely the key to locking in the gains you seek to establish a “new normal” that is a more efficient and effective process.