Continuous improvement is a false dream, wake up

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Something which struck me several times last week (apart from the usual project headache) was the obsession with continuous improvement and incrementally forcing change on the business ad-nauseum till it becomes almost like a corporate Groundhog Day. We have Deming, Rummler Brache, Six Sigma’s DMAIC, LEAN, they all offer a method and practice of improving the efficiency and quality of processes then loop back in on themselves with the typically generic ‘more of the same’ cycle. The trouble I have with this is that the feedback mechanism is broken and what really happens is that another round of incremental improvements is sought as part of the next project, and the next, and the next. As soon as we implement a rigid cycle as a methodology we lose the ability to continually adapt and change. Sure, the measurement and management information stream of data allows us to monitor and react to the change, but we interpret that information according to the restrictions imposed as part of the methodology.

At no point in these cycles is there a step that says, “stop hacking the process to death and just start over from scratch”. BPM becomes harder to sell and explain the ROI when you reduce the cost efficiencies with each project to the point they become insignificant and the project more costly than the return. But more often than not the business are inclined to walk away and admit defeat (or success, depending on your view of the pint glass) that the process cannot be improved anymore, so it must be optimum.

We need to teach organisations that it’s not bad practice to throw something away entirely in order to achieve the greatest gains. We need to educate the leadership that the retention of a process out of some nostalgic desire and misty eyed belief it works in today’s context is wrong and that it’s ok to say goodbye to a beloved one and make way for a newborn.

What’s more, we as a discipline need to adopt the same approach, that it’s ok to start over and create methods and tools that are context rich for today’s adaptive and social enterprise, not keep hold of the old ways because they remind us of fuzzy and warm times of old.

The process of process improvement is defunct. Roll a 6 and start again.

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6 responses to “Continuous improvement is a false dream, wake up

  1. Awesome article!!! Totally agree but try tell Senior Management that spent the last 3 years of their 5 year contract that their continuous improvement project is continuously eroding their benefits, specially when they have spent some millions and convincing the executive board the benefits of continuous improvement. Not to mention the political ramifications of the above. However, that is why we have Business Process Reengineering, essentially its exactly what you have just mentioned in the article, throwing the whole thing away and then redoing it. This happens in every organization between 5 – 7 years on a recurring timeline as executive positions change. All of these still misses the key point, acquisition and management of talent within your organization. Business Processes are there to facilitate operations; but really the way we analyze, manage and review these processes are through the evaluation of controls; if you cannot pinpoint the key issues you are solving issues that aren’t really there in the name of issues that are. My biggest issue with most organizations wanting to hire people in Process Management and/or Improvement roles is that they keep looking for Process Centric individuals. If you really want to hire the right people, hire people that objective centric and continuously break processes and understand how they do it.

  2. Pingback: BPM Quotes of the week « Adam Deane·

  3. All change requires the expenditure of time/money and causes ripples across any environment.

    Whenever you see ‘Continuous Improvement’ in action, decisions are not being made with regard to time/money and/or factoring in an assessment of disruption.

    Simple solution: Blow the whistle on roving business improvement specialists with hammers looking for nails to pound and require ROIs (formal for large undertakings, less formal for small undertakings) and in respect of ‘tweaking’ figure out how close to the point of diminishing returns you are. Risk of failure to achieve stated benefits increases the closer you are to the point of diminishing returns.

    Make sure the ROI has a timeline that is realistic – the longer the timeline, the more likely it is the base parameters will have changed such that it no longer makes sense to stay the course. When bailout occurs, the benefits of the ROI often are never attained.

  4. Pingback: Continuous Improvement is a False Dream. Wake Up. « News « sixsigmaz·

  5. Continuous Improvement is not only a dream but reality. You just need the right Tool ( Have a look at http://www.comondoo.com/en) This is a totally new revolutionary way of implementing processes. Most BPM Tool-Sets/Suites or Workflow implementations are very IT limited and therefore it is difficult to meet the agility we need in the business = Takes to long and therefore cost way to much.
    With comondoo you not only meet the required agility, you do it to a very low cost and the management of the processes is not IT but the Business them self.

    I’ve personally used it very successfully and I would be keen on what your comment would be in respect to the theme “Continuous Improvement”

    I’ll say comondoo will “wake up” any process responsible person.

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