Process Improvement

The Case for Continuous Improvements

continuous improvements

By on 07/02/2012

Many change practitioners on LinkedIn seem to agree that continuous improvements in most cases are a superior strategy to ensure a sustainable transition. This post will explore the case for continuous improvements.

My last blog post “A Big Push or Continuous Improvement?” explored the assumptions that most big push transformation efforts rest on. In short, those assumptions are rarely in place. After posting the blog I started discussions on this topic in various change groups on LinkedIn. These discussions revealed a number of good insights. E.g. on the pitfalls of a Big Push effort and the risks of both this and continuous improvements:

“The bigger the bang, the louder the echoes. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Continuous improvement allow for more adaptive reactions. But burning platforms are best extinguished quickly.”
Gerhard Friedrich in LinkedIn discussion.

“Sudden change can create mass confusion and anxiety while continuous improvement can result in “paralysis analysis” also resulting in the end on mass confusion and anxiety.”
Juanita Rodriguez

The consensus from the discussions is that continuous improvements are the only approach that brings true, sustainable transformation. However, when it comes to the initial change then this is better done swiftly in an approach that resembles a big, visible push – especially for large-scale, ambitious change programs. So, much less Big Push and much more “Steady Pull” than what is normally seen.

Inspired by all the insightful comments I will now make the case for continuous improvements using the ADKAR from the previous post (roughly translated from ProSci’s ADKAR model):

Awareness: Everyone must be Aware of the Purpose and be Able to Relate it to Their Own Jobs

If a senior executive clearly announces any high impact, company-wide change (e.g. a new strategy and organisational structure) than the general awareness is raised. Broadcasting messages from senior executives, however, only seems useful for raising the initial awareness level. They cannot ensure awareness on an individual role level, e.g. by answering the question “what should I do differently tomorrow?” This requires much more targeted and contextual messaging during the course of the transition. Such awareness communications should be based on the pull rather than push if the outcome of continuous improvements should be effective.

Desire: People Should Desire the Change

Someone once said, “The only one who likes a change is a baby with a wet diaper.” If this is true then we may need to downplay the change itself. One way is to focus on the transition and the personal development that potentially lies ahead for every individual.

In his book “Managing Transitions” William Bridges emphasises the point of establishing a common ground before embarking on change. If a central team has mapped business processes with their own perceptions of the current state, while people in the front line have different perceptions then closing the gap between the current state and an intended future state will be very hard. Instead, if we focus on establishing a common understanding of the current state before starting out on a transition will give people common reference points for their development journeys. With a common understanding, people would have a common language to use when sharing thoughts and overcoming difficulties. If it goes well they will even reach a shared understanding on the need for change. This will raise their desire for change.

To establish this common ground the team will have to take a step back. This seems counter-intuitive if the organisation is a burning platform. Better charge ahead.

Knowledge: People Must Know How They Should Behave Differently

Can you answer the question “What should I do differently?” for each and every person in the organisation? Hardly. Perhaps you shouldn’t even try. Expert consultants who map business processes in five levels and write work instructions tend to fail if the work is not highly predictive and repetitive. Most work is not.

Instead, why not stop documentation at a fairly high level and allow experienced employees to define their own ways of working? Experts tend to create complex solutions to help simple problems. The people that do the work every day can base their solutions on tacit knowledge gained through experience. They often come up with simpler solutions. This involvement would also increase their sense of ownership.

Ability: People Must be Able to Translate Your new Instructions to Their Daily Work

If we assume that people are aware of the change and desire the transition on an individual level, then why is it easier to raise the knowledge level through continuous improvements? I think the answer lies in an understanding of how an effective knowledge transfer happens. Most Big Push transitions include intensive training periods. Large numbers of people are trained in using new systems during a formalised training course. They are then supported by lead users. While this approach may be sensible to get the transition started leaders tend to underestimate the challenge with aligning the new system and business process with individual day-to-day business practice. We all know how difficult it is to change our personal, daily routines. Using a new system every day is no different.

Here a gradual, one process at the time approach may work better in raising peoples’ abilities.

Reinforcement: You Need to Reinforce New Behaviours to Ensure a Sustainable Transition

If efforts have been focused on transitioning a few processes, rather than everything at once, then you are more likely to see early results and success stories. These can clearly demonstrate the benefits of transitioning. Think of a person that wants to change his lifestyle. He may benefit from focusing on exercise first and then using the first small successes to fuel his transition. If he tries to go from “overweight and drinking too much” to “iron man contestant” in a single effort, then he will most likely fail.

Too many leaders and consultants spend many months analysing, mapping processes, creating tools and writing work instructions. They then expect an unrealistically steep learning curve as materials are broadcasted to the organisation. Instead, a more simple approach to continuous improvements would allow for much smaller cycles of learning through the involvement of people. Involvement creates the sense of ownership that makes reinforcement much easier.

Continuous Improvements require the right approach

So, the case for an approach focused on continuous improvements seems strong. It seems to match human behaviour better. However, it still has its own risks. I can think of the following:

  • Continuous improvements risk falling below the radar. It’s simply harder to maintain executive sponsorship when the focus is on supporting individual transitions on lower levels.
  • It requires a culture that can keep its focus and momentum. Organisations often have a strong divide between a “project mode” and an “operation mode”. Transitions live in the project-based parts of the organisation. This makes it difficult to turn changes introduced through a project into a real continuous improvement effort that is embedded within the rest of the organisation.
  • It requires discipline to keep a continuous improvement cycle going. People do sometimes enter “analysis paralysis” and then the transition slows down or stops.

Perhaps it requires too much of most organisations to use continuous improvement effectively (with short attention spans)? Certainly, the organisational capability has to be quite high. The joke here is the new energy that will be released from involving and engaging people. Many companies seem to have less capability than the sum of its employees’ individual capabilities. This represents a huge potential that can be released with the right approach to involving people in the transition.

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