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What’s the point of process improvement?

A recent survey published by the US based “Process Excellence Network” (www.pexnetwork.com) appears to show the confusion in the industry as to the existence and use of process improvement. It appears to show that the same activity is being classified as “Operational Excellence” (22% of respondents), “Continuous Improvement” (19%), “Process Improvement” (13%), “Business Process Management”, “Process Excellence”, “Lean Six Sigma”, “Lean”, “Performance Excellence”, “Business Transformation” or “Six Sigma”. Add too that the organizations who have an “ISO”, “CMMI”, “SPICE”, “TickIT” or other model being used name for their change programme and you can see that there is no clear understanding of what it is or why it is needed. When you are looking for an accountant, you know that accountants are called accountants. If you want to improve the performance of your business, it is not so clear.

Some forty years ago, someone coined the phrase “process improvement” to talk about the possibility of improving the way things were being done within an organization*. The general idea was to improve the work practices, the way things were being done. More or less at the same time, a number of “standards” or models were created to assist in facilitating or improving processes. These included ISO 9001, CMMI, SPICE/ISO 15504 and others. They are still being produced on a regular basis, TickITplus is still in the process of being deployed and implemented. Each one is created to solve a real or perceived issue in the existing ones.

Each one of them developed a method which allowed to measure what was the quality of the local process. Different scores were given depending on the method used (pass, maturity level, bronze-silver-gold…). As a consequence there was rapidly a confusion between process improvement and compliance audits. A generation of auditors (appraisers, assessors) was raised up with no or very little understanding or experience of the real world and the business they were trying to review. Businesses started doing things to satisfy the auditor or the standard instead of doing it to support their staff, customers and products.

Process Improvement is frequently seen as an excuse to impose stupid, pointless, bureaucratic rules which aim at increasing documentation without regard for the consequences to the productivity of the team members or the satisfaction of the clients. Again recently, someone pointed out that CMMI was there to inflate the ego of middle managers, while other tools and methods (which he happened to be selling) aimed at increasing the productivity of the engineering staff. Anyone who uses the words “process improvement” when referring to the creation of a new bureaucracy, has not understood the basic idea. Unfortunately, there are quite a few of these hanging around, people who have read a book and are selling their hours by the truckload.

First things first: the purpose of process improvement is not to improve processes, it is to improve organizational efficiency, effectiveness. A “good” process which does not benefit the business is just a pretty document. The point of process improvement is to facilitate knowledge management and efficiency within the organization so as to assist the organization in reacting rapidly to changing circumstances.

Second, we need to understand what we mean by the word “process”. I maintain that if you ask ten “specialists”, you will get twelve definitions of the word. So, when you go into a business as an expensive consultant and tell them that you are there for process improvement, you should not be surprised that no one knows what you are actually talking about and that they are naturally suspicious. The different unhelpful titles people use only give rise to more suspicion:

      • A consultant is someone who takes your watch to tell you what time it is,
      • Gurus sit on the table and think they are levitating,
      • The word expert is from “ex” (used to be) and “pertinent” (useful to the reality of the situation).

 

Perhaps it is time to redefine the terminology so that it matches the purpose of the activity rather than the perception of what it is.

The purpose of Process Improvement is to gain the skills, the knowledge, the internal understanding of the organization’s abilities and limitations to be able to manage its performance on a continuous basis. A “mature” organization, is an organization which has a clear understanding of its own limitations and abilities, it strengths and its weaknesses so that it can, not just deliver what was promised to the customers, but promise to the customers what it knows it can deliver (just as mature people understand their own limitations, skills and interests and avoid making stupid commitments). For an organization to have a good understanding of its own performance, it needs to measure its performance in a standard and predictable way. But it is not enough to just know how long some similar activity took once in the past, you want to have a statistical understanding of the variations that occur; this means that you need to have a practice repeated many times, in different contexts and by different people. For the practice to be repeatable, it must be recognized as a valid best practice, which has a positive impact on the business… This basic level of need for information so as to permit performance management is the foundation of the structure of the CMMI, a structure which has been used and copied by many other evolutionary models.

Putting these in place in sequence is key to ensuring that you actually improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of the work practices within the organization. We are not seeking to satisfy a standard or model, we are using a tool to improve customer satisfaction. Most organizations fail in their improvement programme at the first stages. The PEX report mentioned at the beginning of this note states that the biggest difficulty encountered is “linking process improvement with top level business strategy”, the second in the list is “overcoming too much short-term focus”. These are traditional problems which need to be resolved before you can really start the change programme.

While it is important to be able to have repeatable and predictable approaches to common tasks, it should not be considered that this is so important that every project, every service and every team should always do exactly the same as everyone else. We are not seeking to create automatons or reinvent Henry Ford’s assembly line approach to intelligent work. On the contrary, we are seeking to identify which practices, life cycles and theories work best in different conditions and circumstances, we are seeking to implement the most efficient approach every time, and not enforce compliance

A successful process improvement programme should focus on the following points:

  • Reducing the time needed to turn around and respond when something unexpected happens
  • Freeing up the key people in the organization to do their work rather than having to “re-invent the wheel” every few days
  • Facilitating routine activities and avoiding the struggles of having to regularly try to solve the same problem again
  • Learn from past failures and successes through an open and trusting level of communication, allowing to improve every practice, every time.

At least, these are my objectives when I try to assist a client. You may not get a pretty framed certificate to hang on the wall (unless you really want one), but you will learn to identify and focus on the things that really matter – and accept the fact that there is no single solution to all your problems.


* The oldest reference to "Process Improvement" I could find appears to be from 1898, but I have not found the original text, so I am not sure in what context it was used.

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