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Discontinuous Improvement?

Regardless of the specific methods used, (i.e., Lean, Six Sigma, etc.), the fact is that most improvement initiatives that are aimed at greater efficiency, quality, speed, or customer service have two important things in common:

  1. They produce some improvement
  2. Then they peter out

So much opportunity can be found, just by systematically studying the work flow, gathering the data, and applying basic improvement tools or techniques that it is hard to fail to make at least some gains. But these initial improvements are most often the low-hanging fruit, accomplished without making any fundamental changes in anyone’s lives.

One might expect that once an organization is trained in systematic process improvement and sees some successes the system of improvement would become self-sustaining and even accelerating. Yet this is not the most common outcome… instead, the low hanging fruit is quickly plucked. Pretty soon, the next best opportunity for improvement either encroaches on someone’s turf or challenges someone’s conventional wisdom; or possibly threatens someone’s job security. In other cases, the search for better ways to do the work simply comes to seem unnecessary, because the organization is doing well enough and it is easier and less risky to keep things the same.

It turns out that making some improvements is the easy part; making them continuous is the hard part. Without active effective leadership, attempts to become a continuously improving organization will likely falter.

For an organization to go through a cultural change so that this becomes the new way of working, not a “program” but simply “the right” way to manage, we need to pay close attention to the soft part of the improvement model to smooth the path, remove the obstacles, and continue to lead, communicate,

and motivate both emotionally and intellectually. Following are six common causes of discontinuous improvement:

  • Neglecting alignment
  • Insufficient communication
  • Delegating leadership
  • Insufficient or slow success
  • Failure to eliminate obstacles that inhibit project progress
  • Letting-up on the gas!

As has been demonstrated over the past fifty years, continuous improvement is a long journey, and a tremendous amount of learning takes place by everyone involved. But like any creative human endeavour, it is messy at times, with many opportunities for delays or wrong turns.

Nonetheless, if leaders can engage the workforce “around the work,” and maintain a constant vigilance over alignment, an early pursuit of quick wins, a determination to identify and remove obstacles, and constant, vivid and effective communication of the vision, strategy, successes, and new opportunities, then improvements can continue forever.