Why Your Process Improvement Projects Fail – And What You Can Do To Help Them Succeed

Why They Fail

By Eric Johnson

When embarking on a process improvement journey, it is critical to first know the details of the root causes, your resources skills and constraints, and most importantly your culture's ability to thrive under the new changes.
Process Improvement initiatives often arise out of a number of different situations as a solution to issues organizations currently face. The initiative may be an idea of an executive that has prior process improvement experience or exposure to process improvement information or conversations, and ascribes to capturing those benefits for her area. Or it may originate from a middle manager who has participated in process improvement exercises during time at a prior organization and feels that those same gains can be captured within his group. It may even begin at the front line, where an astute colleague recognizes that a problem is too big to be fixed by one person and needs input from across departments. Regardless of the starting point, process improvement initiatives are a series of complex activities that require the cooperation of different departments conducting implementation activities all while juggling employees’ day-to-day duties. However, by fully understanding the organization and its capabilities, managers can enact a process improvement plan that identifies root causes to cross-functional issues and can develop a team dedicated to implementing the employee-generated solutions.


1. Understand your problem…completely!




The biggest issue most organizations face with process improvement is the misunderstanding of the root cause(s) of an issue. They may understand only the part of the problem that most clearly affects their own department. Or they may fail to collect and analyze data to know where to detect the impacts of the issue. Most of these deficiencies stem from a lack of expertise in data analysis or even a lack of time and effort on front end information for the initiative. It is here where creating a team of cross-functional process experts is most effective. By including those individuals that have front-line exposure to the process under review, those nuances and workarounds can be much easily identified and documented. Even further, conducting a workshop with these individuals - minus the pressure of management - gives colleagues the free reign to discuss the current process limitations and pain points. By enabling an environment that is open and conducive to free thinking and devoid of criticism, each member of the team creates their own incentive to participate and the best ideas can be exposed without fear of negative consequences or being overlooked. Workshops of this type are key to developing current process understandings and identifying bottlenecks. It is critical that these workshops be positive influences on problem solving. If not, the subsequent implementation activities may miss out on key details of the root cause and the solutions developed in the workshop will be inadequate to solve the process problem.


2. Understand your resources and needs to successfully implement




Another challenge organizations face in process improvement initiatives is understanding the skills and resources constraints for their organization. This is compounded by the availability of those resources to take time off from their day-to-day activities to engage in their assigned initiatives. These two complexities are the full responsibility of management, as they have the birds-eye view of both the full skillset of the organization and the available time for employees to complete their implementation responsibilities alongside their day-to-day jobs. For example, are there periods of high demand or market forces that require “all hands on deck” with little margin for error? Ideally, having employees dedicated to their implementation activities over the course of the implementation time period would be most ideal, but reality most often dictates otherwise. Here is it critical to have a realistic implementation time frame. Developing a high level plan of activities and dates of completion, assigned roles and responsibilities, and desired outputs gives colleagues definitive goals to achieve and an idea of what success entails.


3. Ensure your culture has the right ingredients for a successful process improvement – from top to bottom!




All the improvements suggested by the implementation team will be meaningless if the culture of the organization is not empowered to develop and motivate new ideas or has a resistance to change and experimentation. Organizations that are responsive to new ideas developed by employees and have management that is collaborative with other departments are ones that will reap the most benefits from a process improvement initiative. The working group that develops the current state and initiatives to the future state should be champions within the organization that will push through “bureaucracies” and encourage employees to assist in becoming the change they want to be. This is knowledge that needs to be understood before embarking on any change event. If the culture is not conducive to change or there are visible roadblocks to creating solutions, the barriers to amending the culture will need to be addressed before the beginning of the project and managers will need to be trained on how to create an environment to foster change management within the program.


Understanding your organization will play a major factor in the success of a process improvement initiative within your organization. Knowing who those positive influencers are and those closest to the process will get you to the root causes of your process issues. Those same individuals should be backed up by resources that can provide analytics over data, and managers that will allow them the leeway to perform their activities developed from the workshop. Most importantly, the importance of buy-in cannot be overstated during implementation. Having the entire process stakeholder group on board and ready for change is the difference between a successful implementation and one that fades away after a couple of weeks, with frustrated managers and disappointed employees wondering what could have been.


At Propulo, we understand that most process improvement efforts which fail don’t fall apart because of a lack of desire, or because the process doesn’t need to be improved. Rather, they often tip over because they don’t adequately consider the cultural calculus of change. If you’re looking at a process improvement, we’d love to discuss how our innovative People Meet Process approach can help your project.