As leaders we have a responsibility for supporting, enabling and expecting our teams to improve their work processes. Because of that fact, today I want to share a trio of important ideas related to process improvement — all important, all worthy of the full space available, yet I determined that giving you a morsel of each was preferable to picking one.
The Person or the Process?
W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician who helped Japanese manufacturers become the world standard for quality, became famous around the world later in life as other parts of the world began to see his genius. His message went far beyond statistics. (If you are aren’t familiar or want a refresher, I encourage you read about his 14 Points for one good summary.)— here is
Inside of his philosophy is something I have tried to apply ever since I learned it. Here is my paraphrase: “when something goes wrong, it is much more likely to be a process problem than a people problem.” The practical application of this idea puts the onus back on us as leaders, as we are those who built, supported and expected the processes to be employed. Here is a quick example of this axiom at work:
A mistake is made and blame typically falls on the person who made the error. Deming (and I) would suggest considering questions like the following … Were the expectations clear for this performance (i.e. did they know what success looked like)? Did the person have adequate and effective training? Were the right resources available at the time needed? The list could be longer, but each of these questions come from a belief that the process might be the cause (or the partial cause) of the problem — not just the person. When we start from the place of the process, we will learn more, engage our team members more effectively, and most likely have those people around longer (and operating at increasingly higher levels of performance).
Make Your Selection
All of the work of your team is made up of processes, so you can’t possibly be improving all of them all the time — you have to make selections. In fact, one of the arrows often fired at process improvement consultants is that “we don’t have time to work on improvement; we have to get the work done.”
There is great truth in that statement, but it goes too far. We can’t improve every process at once, and part of our work must be improving processes.
And there are two important ideas inside that short sentence — make process improvement a job expectation, and help people pick which ones to work on.
Your organization may have some priorities that help you think about which processes to work on first, or you may have some where it is obvious that you need to improve. In those cases, it may be easy to select. If not, here are some questions to help you think about selection and prioritization:
- Where are there quality issues?
- Where are their consistency issues?
- Which processes most directly impact our Customers?
- Where is there pain?
- Which processes support our strategic direction?
I could share other questions, but this gives you a start. Part of our job as leaders is to encourage and expect process improvement. Part of our job is to provide the tools to help make the improvements, and part of our job is to help select where to get started (or what to improve next).
Moving to Continuous Improvement
In the previous section, I said something that we can’t miss — process improvement needs to be a job expectation. Part of everyone’s job is to improve things for the future. So process improvement becomes continuous improvement.
One of the best blog posts I ever wrote was on this topic. It was titled The Power of Incremental Improvement. It opens with a quote from Einstein who said the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest. Think about the power of that idea. Every bit of new growth comes on top of the growth already achieved.
While we wish we compounded interest with big percentage gains, even small gains yield big results. Yes, your team’s improvement efforts may hit home runs, but you want as many singles as you can — small improvement, continually gained, makes a big difference.
Focus yourself and your team on making improvements, locking in those gains, and then improving on the improvements.
Here then are three different and all important ideas about process improvement and our role in it. I hope these ideas are helpful to you, as are the rest of the techniques and ideas in this blog post. More than that, I hope you take seriously the Action Steps here and do something.
Nothing will improve until you do.
Here is where you could start (now):
- Consider the three ideas outlined here and pick the one that will most help you and your organization now.
- Share that idea with your team and determine how to apply it immediately.
- Create clear expectations around those actions and implement them with your team.