It seems to be commonly accepted that a continuous improvement methodology of some kind is an essential element of successful business. While many have successfully incorporated methods, there are also many tales of failed deployments. I have run across a few examples even worse than failed deployment.
A failed deployment is very bad. Not only are time, effort, and expense wasted, but the business leaders and personnel are now biased against any future deployments, making your next effort to install an essential element of business success even harder to do. What could be worse than failed deployment?
Worse than a failed deployment is a successful deployment that makes things worse instead of better. I have witnessed a handful of examples where the continuous improvement program has done more harm to the business culture than good. Let me share a few so we can all learn how to avoid the same mistakes.
The Case of the Politically Correct Culture
A fundamental principle of every improvement methodology I know is error proofing. We strive to make it unlikely or impossible for a user of a process to forget something, misuse something, make a mistake, or otherwise create a defective outcome. It requires some imagination, experience, and some risk mitigation discipline to accomplish.
One organization has taken, in my opinion, the error proofing idea too far. This organization has adopted into its culture the idea that if something went wrong, it is the fault of a process, not a person. They have driven this idea into the governing values of the corporation. It isn’t stated in their posters or on their welcome page, but it is clear in the actions and decisions at every leadership level in the organization that I can perceive.
On the surface, it sounds like a good way to drive a focus on process improvement, and perhaps it is. In this case, however, it has manifested some disturbing side effects. Employees and at least one leader in this organization tell me that every manager at every level is trained specifically on how to speak and address personnel without allocating blame.
The blame belongs to a defect in a process, not to people following a process. It is good to put blame where it belongs, and if a process does indeed invite or encourage defects or undesired behavior then it should be corrected. However, sometimes people simply choose to do something or not to do something, including following the process, or not.
Not every human decision is part of a process. To guide our behavior outside of the government of specific processes, we use morals, ethics, and values to help us understand what might be right from what might be wrong. Unfortunately, when the guiding value is that people are not wrong, only processes are wrong, that guidance breaks down.
This organization demonstrates a thorough lack of accountability. People are simply not held responsible for their choices. In my opinion, based on observation, this is specifically because managers are expected not to reprimand or punish personnel. Instead they are directed to fix a process.
Likewise, people are not rewarded for superb work. If people are not responsible or accountable, they can’t be the cause of excellence either. Try it yourself. Look your spouse or your child in the eye and try to tell them how much you care about them without using the words I, we, or you. Good luck.
Between a lack of accountability and an absence of recognition for good performance, the underlying attitude of the entire population is apathy. Apathy farms poor performance and also a total lack of motivation to fix anything. Broken processes stay broken. People work around the broken processes because they are not held accountable. They don’t go out on a limb to fix problems because they aren’t encouraged or rewarded, in spite of the value that says processes are to blame and should be fixed.
For the business unit with which I engage most, on-time delivery is poor. Quality is poor. The production floor is plagued by part shortages, conformance failures, defects in documentation and quality control, and rework. Production is approximately 6-months behind schedule and product recalls and stopped shipments have exacerbated the problem. Things in the office aren’t any better.
To my own sensibilities, and based upon my observations, the organization is gravely ill. The business unit to which I have the most insight had a few issues before the current culture took over, but the grave performance problems have settled in since. There are other leadership and organizational issues to which I can point, but I believe that the value of a politically correct culture deserves a significant share of the blame.
I concede that I am an outsider, not one who lives in the culture. The people with whom I collaborate are frustrated members of the organization asking for help. It may not be fair for me to pass judgment, but I can’t help but feel like sharing my observations is valuable if it enables us to consider that our best intentions can sometimes backfire and drive behavior that is detrimental. We must always step back and make sure that the behavior we get is the behavior we want. If not, we must actively put things back on course.
The Case of the Robot Nation
An engineer recently vented to me her frustration over a difficult effort to politely refuse a directive from the management without earning a reprimand or an opportunity to find employment elsewhere. It took two weeks of delicate discussion and negotiation for her leadership to understand the impossibility of the demand.
She was directed to write a test procedure that any mechanical engineer in the organization could follow to successfully execute static and dynamic stress testing of prototype and production units. The request was apparently made because of a contextual observation that the skilled, experienced test technicians were a resource bottleneck and the organization had underutilized engineering resources in a low-cost country. The engineer suspected that cost-cutting pressure to shift expensive skills elsewhere might also contribute.
Regardless of the engineer’s feelings or suspicions, she believed the request was impractical and could not succeed. I believe she is right because I have seen the same phenomenon several times before. Sometimes the request was refused and the leadership saw reason. Sometimes the effort was begun and never finished because it was taking so long. Once or twice the directive was carried out and the results were an utter failure.
This phenomenon belongs in this post because in several of the cases I witnessed the drive to write procedures was explicitly expressed from a belief that a good process could replace people. The phenomenon is only one example manifestation of the belief. That belief often drives many other detrimental decisions.
Why is it detrimental to replace a person with a process, or skill with procedure? The same reason that computer programs don’t make good replacements for thinking people. Processes and procedures can tell us how to do the same thing over and over. They do not convey skill or experience or common sense that help us decide the best way to address new situations.
In the case the engineer faced, no two test plans or set-ups should ever be identical because each set of units should be different from those that came before. For the engineer to write her cumulative insight into testing product in the form of a procedure, the document would have been vaster that the novel Moby Dick. It would have taken an inexperienced test engineer more time to read the procedure once than an experienced engineer to set-up and execute the test.
The engineer finally made her point when she and her leadership had a long argument over the meaning of the word, “rigid.” An experienced test engineer knows what is needed and how to construct a test fixture “rigid” enough to enable stress testing for the business’ product. An inexperienced engineer executed a test that failed to produce useful data, at great expense of time and money, because the fixture he assembled was not rigid enough.
Trying to define “rigid” in the face of not knowing specifically what future designs would look like is a difficult if not impossible task. That is only one word that could be in the test procedure detailed enough for anyone of any experience to follow. Drafting such a document is a quest that can only end if failure.
We sometimes get the wrong message from process improvement success. Process efficiency through process improvement allows us to do more with our personnel resources, or sometimes to do the same or more with fewer resources. That is not the same as replacing people with processes.
When our continuous improvement culture adopts a belief that processes can replace people, we have made a terribly mistaken leap of understanding. Don’t go there. A good process does not replace people. A good process enables good people to perform better.
The Case of the Elitist Wrong
While deploying our continuous improvement programs, success hinges upon our leadership understanding and believing in the program and the methodology. A very common means of driving that understanding is to require every leader to hold some level of certification in the methodology we chose.
A natural outcome of that objective is a policy that states one cannot be promoted into a leadership position unless he or she possesses the requisite continuous improvement certifications and experience. This works well when everyone in the organization is engaged in continuous improvement. However, some organizations decide that it is easier to manage an elite team of experts than to engage everyone in the methodology.
When the policy and the elite team decision come together, we get disaster. Because the team of people conducting business improvement and process improvement projects is a special group, selected for certain aptitudes for problem solving, and because the leaders are, by policy, selected only if they have certain continuous improvement skills and experience, the leaders are all part of a special club.
The unfortunate result is a perceived, if not real, environment of oppression ruled over by special members of a club that get to choose new members. There is no hope for those who are not chosen for the club to ever become part of the leadership. That creates a wide variety of temptations for undesirable behavior.
Some ambitious personnel will do or say extreme things just to be perceived as worthy of the club, which can be perceived as, if not observed as, deceit or manipulation. Personnel who do not want to be part of the continuous improvement club will feel like outsiders within the organization and will begin to act like they feel. There are other dark and grim perceptions or behaviors that might or would manifest, but the simple problem is an “us vs. them” attitude that unfortunately permeates the culture.
As soon as the workforce believes that the people in place to help make things better are the next set of future oppressors, and that the leaders are the enemy, work life, quality of work, and general concern for performance fall apart. I have witnessed more than one environment like this. For a short time, I worked in an environment with this problem (I was not part of the club at the time). It is an acidic and dysfunctional culture prone to chronic firefighting and high turnover.
Do not create an environment where policy dictates a special club of future potential leaders. I’m not a fan of special teams dedicated to continuous improvement in the first place, but if an organization elects to operate with such a team, the elitist club culture must be prevented actively. Double-check your policies to make sure that they don’t promote or create an elitist club phenomenon.
The three examples above are severe. We should not drop our vigilance just because we have determined that we do not exemplify the problems above.
Our continuous improvement methodologies are in place to make our business better. If we have successfully inculcated those methodologies into the culture, then we have achieved behavioral change. Whether we have already achieved change, or we are driving change today, we must carefully and objectively take account of the actual behaviors that are manifesting. If some of them are not what we want, if they are undesirable, we must actively stamp them out.
Look for root cause of the behavior. Identify the behavior publicly and denounce it publicly. Build in measures and behaviors to counter them. Communicate continuously and follow through. That’s how you drove change in the first place. Do it some more to keep on the right path or to redirect from a wrong direction.
Continuous improvement is supposed to make things better. Do not let an unfortunate, unforeseen behavior cause your program to do more harm than good. Be on guard always for undesirable behavior and actively correct it.
Stay wise, friends.
If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at www.bizwizwithin.com.
Filed Under: Rapid prototyping