Why is it that the attention to process improvement seems to be episodic.  If you use the dieting and exercise metaphor, most people should probably dieting and exercising all the time but we know they don’t.  They go on binge diets.  They go on binge exercise programs.  They make New Year’s resolutions that they don’t hold on to.  What is it about human nature, what is it about organizations that cause them to adopt an improvement activity for a period of time and then lose interest and move on to something else?

I have first hand experience with this phenomenon.  I have concluded that a change in mindset and culture is required to truly see the benefits of process improvement.  That is why I am linking to this presentation by Brad Power.  In the 20 minute discussion he diagnoses the causes of what he calls “Process Attention Deficit Disorder” and prescribes a remedy.  Since this is a long discussion I have quoted some excerpts that attracted my attention below (key points in bold text).

What I take away from these stories is that the natural way of operating is not to have continuous improvement.  That these improvement activities required an injection of energy.  They require a non-natural way of operating.  It’s very hard to build it in and make it natural so that it sustains.  If you’re looking at this in terms of physics, gravity draws you not to do improvement.  Gravity drives you to a steady state, focusing on doing your job day to day, not on continuously improving how you do your work…You have to consciously build things into the system to make it happen.

As I was listening it dawned on me that the only remedy is for leaders to consciously focus on sustaining the focus on process improvement.  Here is how Mr. Power addresses this topic.

In the Western world, new leaders are treated like rock stars and are expected to bring in their own way to improve the company.  A company can go through a new process improvement strategy with each successive leader but not necessarily see the benefits of any.

Here is advice Mr. Power offers for sustaining process improvement.

  • Put yourself on a steady “diet and exercise” program.
  • Adhere to management “best practices.” (e.g., focusing on short-term results vs. long-term; Focusing on functions and business processes)
  • Understand the role process improvement plays in your business strategy – Process improvement isn’t necessarily the way every company competes.
  • Apply appropriate management processes (Traditional vs. Lean)
  1. Strategy execution
  2. Performance management – Metrics, incentives, rewards
  3. Talent management – How people advance through the organization
  4. Problem solving – Traditional would rely on outside consultants where a lean methodology relies on front-liners
  • Pain of disruption – People have to embrace change and be willing to change the way that they work.  Most people prefer to stay with the way that is comfortable and you have to apply various techniques to overcome this.

Mr. Power’s advice for creating a culture of process improvement

Because its an unnatural act to improve, [leaders] need to build into [their] management processes time set aside for improvement.

  • When addressing his team, a leader should take 10 minutes out of an hour to focus on improvement activities
  • In monthly/quarterly meetings set time aside to discuss improvement activities
  • Have people and resources dedicated to improvement activities
  • Have mechanisms in place so good ideas have a channel to get implemented
  • Change your view of disruption (not always a bad thing) – Give people time to innovate.