Is Process Improvement Primarily About Doing Improvement Projects?

by Michael Webb | * Comments (3)
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A reader asked:  

I’ve been asked to organize a variety of process improvements proposed by our sales and marketing organizations. How do I select the right projects that will get the best results?

There are lots of checklists available to remind you to do things like make sure the problem is important to the organization, creates value for customers in some way, is well defined, not too big, and to verify data is available, etc. 

However, notice a hidden assumption: Is process improvement primarily about doing projects?  Some of these checklists even go so far as to state that you should make sure the project can be completed on time and in budget. 

This needs to be challenged. Unless you demonstrate otherwise, a project mentality can make process improvement very difficult.

  • For one thing, with all the emphasis is on “the project” and not on how management currently functions, what is the likely hood that any changes will be sustained?
  • For another thing, this focus penalizes situations where projects have to be dumped, yet these are sources of plenty of learning (especially when it comes to increasing customer value as opposed to reducing waste)
  • Finally, there is often plenty of opportunity for people within a functional department to improve their execution. Shouldn’t this be front and center in improvement initiatives?

Improvement requires people in the company to learn. The REAL value is in SUSTAINING improvements over time, not in short term gains (i.e., a project focus). The best approach comes from deep within the organization: a wise leader leads the way in creating improvement by doing it themselves – following a specific method – and demands others do the same.  In this way they leverage the explicit structure of process thinking to develop the ability of people within the functional departments to solve problems and improve.

Process excellence leaders have excellent opportunities to develop these leadership skills – if they also have functional managers motivated to ask for their help.

So, be careful to keep the primary responsibility where it belongs when you position your improvement efforts.

I’d be curious to learn how you see this?

3 Responses to “Is Process Improvement Primarily About Doing Improvement Projects?”

  1. You are asking: if you find a problem in a process and implement a project to fix it, then did you improve the process?

    Sure, projects may be important, but it's not the same as improving the process. Solving problems may only focus on local issues and not the system as a whole. By fixing a local problem, you may be sub-optimizing and as a result, you may be creating new problems and making the situation worse.

    Sustaining process improvements is a part of your management discipline. But understanding how local parts of a process interact within a system of processes is where real process improvement comes from and requires senior management to cross process boundaries.

    Project based thinking is important, its where the action comes from, but it's insufficient to sustain process improvement on its own. For real improvement you need systems based thinking and that involves senior management.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and
    I will be waiting for your next write ups thank you once again.

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