continuous improvements

Process Improvement

Involving people early benefits continuous improvement

Søren Pommer

This is a problem that I come across often. What surprises me is that the typical answer is to wait before you involve people in continuous improvement. ‘We want to get our act together before we involve people outside of this department.’ The trouble is that by involving people later you miss a great opportunity to win over their hearts and minds in favour of your initiative to gain the effect of the change.

There an old saying that you should “think before you speak”. While there is some truth to it there is also a major drawback. Speaking shapes your thinking, so if you always wait until you’re very clear about what to say then your point of view may be clear but not necessarily very influential. It may not resonate well with others. If you instead present your input early and frame it as “just a thought” or similar, then you invite others to participate. Chances are that the collaborative dialogue that may follow will shape the views of everyone that participates. This way you may build momentum and gain influence not by the finality of your viewpoint but simply by allowing others to contribute to an engaging conversation.

In my experience, many organisational units develop and introduce new initiatives on the premise of “think before you speak”.  Managers and experts have a dialogue among a very small group of people. A new process or work instruction is then released to the organisation as “our new way of working” with continuous improvement. Yes, there will be training and an opportunity for feedback afterwards. However, their change management work and the search for the effect of continuous improvement only starts now. “Change” management is accurately stated since it is focused on changing people’s attitudes and behaviours to match the official view of the world. No wonder that 80% of all change initiatives fail.

What if you instead introduce your new initiative to a wider group of people just after the idea has been developed? Introduce it while saying loud and clear that it is a hypothesis and that everyone is invited to participate. I know of cases where new processes were introduced as hardback books of +200 pages. This is not exactly a format that invites people to give feedback and contribute to develop and maintain processes through continuous improvement. The format says “this is written in stone”. Instead, publish it on a web page, invite for dialogue and input and keep iterating on it every week or every month – that also motivates colleagues to keep the development and the continuous improvement alive. The people that do this speak about these benefits:

  • No change management needed.
    People get involved and motivated – afterwards, you will not need “change management” since the transitioning is happening as they collaborate. Involve people early for continuous improvement to happen later.
  • Save your team’s time
    You can start much earlier. Instead of spending 70% of your team’s time in 6 months. Spend 100% of their time in one week, and then get the idea out for review.
  • Save on consultants
    Avoid too many consultants. Enlist a facilitator and a guide to ask the good questions but avoid a full team of consultants that come up with too much information and complexity.
  • Focus on the winning ideas
    Kill-off initiatives that don’t add value early. Let’s face it – 80% of change programs fail and the sooner you find out which one of your initiatives that fall into which category the sooner you allocated your resources to those that will succeed.

The downside is that this approach requires a lot more self-confidence than many middle managers feel. However, if you’re afraid that involving other people in early to help your continuous improvement later will air your dirty laundry and leave you vulnerable to attack from political players, then there is something wrong with your company culture. If this is your situation then just consider that a good culture is your end goal – it’s not a precondition to start. And a last few words of encouragement from me: it really is a great feeling (and relief!) to relay to someone who is willing to run…

Lastly, involvement must be planned. Our Process Success Guide contains a full step-by-step guide to creating your own process improvement plan.

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