Surviving Process Improvement Initiatives

Updated on November 9, 2018
Mike Shoemake profile image

Mike Shoemake has been a successful software developer for 20 years, building quality applications and high performing development teams.

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Introduction

Companies love process improvement initiatives. Pretty much anything can be made better, and we all want our lives at work to get easier. We want less pain and suffering, less stress, less delay, less failure, and fewer roadblocks. The people at the top desperately want visibility and control, while the people at the bottom want the same thing—autonomy and the ability to control their own destiny. Often control shifts up and down like an elevator in a high rise. Every 2-3 years, your organization may shift in the opposite direction to fix everything that people are complaining about, only to create more things for completely different people to complain about for the next couple years while they wait for the next shift.

Process improvement initiatives or organizational changes occasionally fail, sometimes epically. You may have watched it happen around you, sitting in your cubicle with your bag of popcorn. Or, you may have deep scars from past epic failures that you were waste deep in and couldn’t escape. You may have lost your job over it or lost massive amounts of credibility. There is a natural pendulum effect to failure as organizations go back and forth between two extremes, and that doesn’t just stop on its own—someone must be intentional about applying the brakes. Companies suffering from this dynamic desperately need a catalyst for positive change, even though they may think they have them in place already.

The Problem with Change

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There are two natural assumptions leaders often make that are at the heart of the problem:

  1. Change is good/healthy.
  2. Bigger change means faster improvement.

Both are inherently false, but that can be very difficult to recognize. Companies can be obsessed by change driven by a “must go faster” drive to catch or crush the competition. We need to turn on a dime, adapt quickly to changes in the market, and respond quickly to demands from our customers. Of course, all of that is true. The problem is how we change, not the motivation for the change.

“Change is good/healthy” is false because any amount of change, even good change, naturally slows down those who must adapt to the change. While companies may want or need to turn on a dime, humans simply can’t assimilate significant change in stride without considerable effort or even thrashing. A change that impacts your entire organization will likely invalidate existing processes and require a string of meetings across multiple levels of the organization to respond to that. There will be new documentation, roll-outs, Q&As, disagreements, etc. The bigger the change, the bigger the impact to organizational velocity. There is a cost to change that is often forgotten when decisions are made. That means we must be laser focused on only rolling out the right changes.

Those of us who have experienced the pain of rolling out change to a team or organization can be tricked into thinking that the answer is creating large bundles of change, so that the painful roll-out process is spread across a long list of “improvements.” Well-meaning leaders will define a large process improvement initiative, vet it with like-minded peers, then push for executive-level approval so they can roll it out to the masses. But there is a very silent, completely ignored group out there who is about to be impacted by the changes you’ve identified. They’re silent because the changes haven’t derailed their lives yet, they don’t even know it’s coming, and you haven’t bothered to ask for their opinion before going live.

A Change Strategy That Works

Change itself isn’t bad. While even the good changes will slow teams down initially, that is a temporary and necessary hurdle that is theoretically overshadowed by the improvements we’ll see once teams have fully adapted. The problem lies in how we identify the changes and how we roll them out. Here are some guiding principles for change agents that will help make your improvement initiatives reliably successful:

  1. Fail fast. The wisest thing you can do is break large initiatives down into many small ones and roll out small chunks of improvement to your organization. Small chunks of improvement are cheaper to rollout, easier to rollback, have much better time to value, cost much less, more easily generate alignment across the organization (because the conversation is much more focused), and have significantly less associated risk. Large chunks of improvement are easily derailed by one or two bad eggs in the carton. The bigger the carton, the more likely it is that you’ll have at least one bad egg in there. If we decouple and focus on smaller pieces, each one can succeed or fail on its own merit. Larger initiatives are also more prone to having owners who feel the initiative must succeed due to the size of the investment and are unable to think objectively about whether or not to shut it down (or slow it down).
  2. Have a medical mindset. Process improvement is a lot like surgery, partially because in both cases there is a living, breathing patient that must stay functioning during the entire procedure. Surgery is always a step by step process, and monitoring is there to tell you if you’ve messed something up. Changes are very small (to minimize risk), but you may need a lot of them. If a problem occurs, you don’t just keep going. You triage it and fix it before continuing to the next step. If you prefer to make a lot of changes at once, you might want to keep your defibrillator nearby.
  3. Roll-out 1-2 changes at a time. Every time you take a bite of food, there is time spent to process that before you take the next bite. We’ve probably all seen what happens when little kids keep stuffing their mouths without bothering to finish the previous bite. Progress grinds to a halt. We should roll-out a change, then monitor while teams process that change. Are they choking? Are their eyes watering? When they start talking again, they're ready for the next bite.
  4. Socialize early and often with those who are most likely to disagree. It’s very tempting to avoid conversations with those who rarely think your ideas are brilliant and just push ahead on your own. However, part of a “fail fast” mindset is to have the difficult conversations early so that you can quickly kill an initiative that desperately needs to die while you have minimal investment tied to it. Those who are most likely to argue are least likely to follow you off a cliff, which is pretty handy. If they believe there’s a cliff ahead in the distance, the wisest thing you can do is fully understand why they believe that and decide what to do about it together. The masses who don’t see the cliff might just be following along staring at their shoes.
  5. Measure and track adoption. You can’t just roll an improvement out and move on. Teams often regress over time, as timeline pressures and crisis management cause them to shift into survival mode. We have to find ways to measure adoption using KPIs so teams can be held accountable for doing things the right way. It’s too easy for development teams to exist and function behind stained glass windows so that there is no visibility into their level of maturity. Transparency is critical to achieving successful improvement long-term, and temporary improvement isn’t worth the effort spent on it.

Conclusion

What if you stopped the pendulum and started periodically rolling out small, bite-sized improvements that people can easily digest? Your organizational velocity would be much more stable and you would have happier, more productive teams. What if all your bad ideas died quickly, rather than finding out you’ve got a mess on your hands after a considerable investment? There would be no stopping an organization like that. Maybe that organization could be yours?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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