Why Improvement Efforts Fail

by John Crossan
Posted 2/2/2010

Why do improvement efforts fail or perhaps not sustain the gains? There are many reasons, but those most often stated are “lack of commitment” and not “following the process”. But why is there lack of commitment, and why aren’t processes followed?

Here are a few of the reasons that I’ve seen:

• Too much focus on tools vs. people
Analytical tools and improvement process steps are important, but people are more important. And it’s not about “selling” them or using “change management” tools to have them accept whatever the “really smart” people have come up with. It’s about involving them (all of them) and having them own the process.

• Communication not emphasized, structured
Without communication, disruptive, damaging paranoia develops between work groups, between shifts, between departments, between individuals, etc. This destroys involvement and ownership. Casual (now and again) conversations and major presentations are only a small part of what it takes. Communication has to be structured and orchestrated, part of the everyday routine, and flow both ways.

• Not knowing and respecting what is already in place
Every organization does some things well, and the people there have pride in their particular organization (even despite what they might tell you). To ignore this is insulting and arrogant. Too many times, the “everything here is wrong” attitude is evident (and sometimes outright stated) by program “experts”. Setting up “negative waves” like this never helps. Use what is in place as a start.

• Developing the elite vs. the majority
Improvement is an “everyone” thing. It’s too easy to just work with the bright, energetic people and count on them to carry it all. But most people are hesitant or unwilling to accept what they haven’t had some involvement in developing or improving. And besides, this is ignoring a huge pool of capability. Everybody brings something to the party, but some may be unwilling to share for many reasons. Their past ideas have been criticized and not welcomed. There are peer pressure issues. There are trust issues. Etc., etc. But sincere, routine involvement efforts can overcome these.

• Improvement events vs. routine improvement
Big events are good at generating interest and knocking out a lot of work in a short time. But the heart and soul of sustaining improvement is getting a solid everyday routine process to have everyone continually dealing with the many, many, many small opportunities.

• Focusing on solving specific issues vs. developing people
It’s just too easy to get absorbed in solving specific issues and using specific problem-solving techniques vs. using the issue-solving process as a way to develop people. But there will always be plenty of issues and opportunities to deal with. The scarcer commodity is the capability to deal with them – and even scarcer, the ready motivation to do it.

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