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Business Process and Performance Improvement – Strategic Initiatives to Tactical Actions?

March 8th, 2013 Comments off
For many companies, CI has has moved from a top-down strategic initiative to tactical activities focused on specific business problems

For many companies, CI has has moved from a top-down strategic initiative to tactical activities focused on specific business problems

I’ve written several articles that talked about how views on business process and performance improvement have changed over the last 3 years.   In the personal development world, there is a mantra that basically says that meaningful change comes only when the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain associated with change. 

The economic downturn definitely created the pain that caused a lot of companies to change the way they look at their business, and at process and continuous improvement.  I see very few companies saying they want to launch a top-down, enterprise wide Six Sigma (or Lean or BPM) initiative, especially ones that focuses on investing big $’s on training and infrastructure up front.   Those days, for the most part, seem to be over and gone.  Certainly a big change from years past, but is it a bad thing?

Some purists might argue that it is a bad thing, that top-down, large scale change management and process improvement initiatives should be a fundamental part of any enterprise.  Theoretically, yes, but how many large-scale Six Sigma (or Lean or BPM) initiatives basically collapsed under their own weight in years past, after a great deal of money, time, and intellectual capital was spent?   A great many, I can assure you.  Why?   Well, I might argue that it’s because they took on a front-and-center life of their own, as initiatives, growing unbounded for the sake of the initiative when their place should have been in supporting the core value-generating processes of the business.

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I would argue that the change is not a bad thing, and was necessary to survive in this new normal.  Let’s think about where are we now?   Companies are lean and mean, operating in very much of a do-more-with-less mindset.  For many, big Six Sigma (or Lean or BPM) organizations have been disbanded.  Productivity is at record levels.  60 hour + work weeks are the norm for many.  But, you can only ask so much of your people for so long.   Sooner or later the business processes have to be looked at, right?

But, now, what I see is that many organizations are taking a very pragmatic and tactical approach to CI.  The competitive environment, the regulatory environment, or maybe even a very important customer is telling them EXACTLY where process problems are, and they are listening.  They then focus like a laser beam by identifying and rigorously defining good projects (see a recent article I wrote on the elements of good project definition) that solve real, specific business problems.  They then develop the process improvement skills in-house or work with a specialist partner to execute what are, by definition, high-impact improvement projects. No guesswork, no unnecessary overhead, no unnecessary infrastructure.

In essence, what I see is a fundamental shift from CI initiatives that are pushed into the enterprise to an environment where CI and process improvement are pulled in, as specifically needed by the business.  Of course, the pendulum has swung very far from the strategic to the tactical and the optimum is probably somewhere in the middle.  But, was this change a bad thing?   I think not.  I think it will serve to refocus CI on what really matters …. making the business more competitive and profitable in an ever-changing marketplace.

Feel free to contact me directly.  I’d like to hear your thoughts ….

What is Change Management? The Rule of Three

March 6th, 2013 Comments off

Celebration

Great art can inspire change and drive us to action.  It can make you dream of something better or make you aware of your dissatisfaction with the status quo. The former makes your feelings soar.  The latter can bring pain.  Which do you believe drives us to action?  While I’d like to believe we act on visions of what could be, I think we’re more driven to immediate action by the feelings stirred in the dark painting.

When I reflect on that idea I remember reading how the opposite of satisfaction isn’t dissatisfaction but the lack of satisfaction.  Just because we’re not satisfied, we may not be willing to change right now.  We may in the long run. But maybe not right now.  Meanwhile, when we’re dissatisfied, we act.   Not being satisfied won’t drive new behavior simply because change is scary and painful.  So it’s not until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing that we change.

I thought a lot about this lately because I had three consecutive discussions with new prospective clients about the subject of change.  In each case, the party with whom I was speaking wanted to talk about driving operational excellence. But what we were really discussing was change.  The three conversations were all very different organizations yet they had very common denominators.  So here were the three scenarios;

  1. A state university pushed to change by technology and funding pressure was described as being very resistant to change driven from outside its culture.  Yet they lack an acceptable and successful internal change model so they remain wrestling with how to proceed.
  2. A heavily regulated division of a large insurance company described itself as having little process discipline and is considering BPM software to lock down processes.
  3. A successful manufacturer that implemented Six Sigma using an outside party five to ten years ago saw few meaningful results and quit.  Now they look to restart but recognize how hard it will be to get everyone to buy in a second time.

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In each case, I strongly advised against three things;

  1. Don’t emphasize form over substance.   You don’t have to sell a big change model, adopt a new software application or role out a headline OpEx initiative.  You just have to move some things forward and make some gains to win hearts and minds.  They’ll take it from there.
  2. Don’t superimpose an external set of rules such as a software program.  Everyone organization has successes internally.  Focus on those. Build on them.
  3. Recognize what may seem like dysfunctional behavior to you is probably quite normal.  Someone whose profession is to improve is often puzzled by those that don’t embrace it.    The problem is the subject never said they were dissatisfied.  While they may agree things could be better, they aren’t motivated to change.   That isn’t irrational.  We seek self actualization in the long run but in the short run we change when we are unhappy.

War

So what can we do at those three organizations to avoid the pitfalls and drive some much needed change?  We recommended the following actions;

  1. Celebrate your own successes.  But reverse engineer them so the success is replicable.  And improvement may have occurred through hard work but there were probably some unconscious best practices that can used as examples for the rest of the organization.  Advertise the success and highlight the best practices that can be replicated.
  2. Find who is dissatisfied and wants to change.  Don’t try to convince people to change with arguments of a better life.  Instead, find who is dissatisfied and willing to go through the pain of the change.  If you find someone with pain that isn’t acting, help them become aware of the level of pain.  If they begin to show signs of a willingness to change, start working with them.  If not, come back to them.  If it’s real long term, chronic pain, they’ll be ready one day.
  3. Let the organization pull what it needs rather than a centralized group pushing what they think is needed.  This isn’t to say a centralized group doesn’t know what is needed.  It very well may in which case it should make it available. But you dictate change.  You are better off giving them the ability to drive the change they see as needed.

The bottom line is that very different businesses have very common needs when it comes to change.  The core elements of change are universal.  I’ve tried to identify a couple of key “don’t do’s” and an equal number of “do’s.  Hopefully, these will help you avoid some potholes and accelerate success.  If you’d like to discuss, please contact me.