I recently attended the first ever Process Excellence Network (PEX) conference in New Zealand. Bringing together process experts and business leaders, the conference was designed to look at process improvement – specifically, what separates successful process improvement efforts from the not-so-successful.
The speakers and business leaders at PEX were so aligned that many joked they had to change their presentations on the fly. That might have been annoying for the speakers, but it confirmed what I see everyday in my work: that there are a few key factors that drive successful process improvement, no matter what the business.
Here’s a rundown of the six things the speakers all agreed on:
1. Be proactive
Don’t wait for things to go horribly wrong before you improve them. Being proactive about improvement means planning to improve, looking for issues and working to fix the root causes of problems. Management by heroics is not the best approach.
2. Let your staff lead the way
Frontline staff are usually the people who are closest to and most affected by changes to process. So it makes sense to get them involved and make them the drivers of change. Of course, you absolutely need buy-in from senior leadership as well.
Putting your people in charge of change means:
- They’re genuinely involved and more likely to be engaged with the process.
- Any change is more likely to be useful and positive for the customer – your staff know what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change.
- Attitudes around change tend to be more positive.
- Capability and knowledge is improved – because your people improve their own processes, they don’t need to be trained on them.
3. Link improvement to the long term
You can’t make things better without knowing where you’re going. Improvement should always be linked to strategy and your long-term goals – if it’s just about fixing one small problem at a time, it’s not going to make much of an impact on your business overall.
4. Integrate, integrate, integrate
Kevin Sherlock, Rinnai’s quality assurance manager raised this point. While Risk and Health & Safety are often seen as separate from the main work of your business, they’re actually key to your success. Integrating H&S and Risk processes into the improvement plan make these tangible to your staff – the processes become something everyone does in their everyday work, not just “something that Kevin takes care of.”
5. Be flexible
Whether it’s Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen or another alternative, it’s great to find a process improvement methodology that works for you – but it’s also important to be flexible depending on the situation and organisation. Be open to other ideas and learn from people. Methodologies should form a toolbox for you to choose from, rather than being a zealot to one. As one speaker put it, don’t be afraid to “steal shamelessly.”
Your business might require a different approach. The more you can make sure your approach to improvement works for your business – and becomes a part of everyday business - the more likely you are to be successful.
6. Make improvement the standard
This was the biggest takeaway from the PEX conference: process improvement shouldn’t be something you do once and then forget about. Process improvement must become part of your company culture and it must be ongoing – something you and your staff think about and do every day.
Establishing a culture of improvement means measuring and celebrating success, rewarding ideas (even if they’re not used), linking improvement to organisational goals as well as KPIs, and making processes visible and accessible to everyone in the company.
Fail fast, or slow and steady?
One point that PEX speakers disagreed on was the speed with which to approach improvement. Some speakers argued that the start up mantra ‘Fail fast and learn’ was the way to go, while others favoured a more cautious, considered approach. Depending on the situation, a mix is probably right – analysis and planning are important, but waiting for perfection can hold you back. Because process improvement isn’t something that’s ever going to be finished, the most important thing is to actually start. When it’s a built in, ongoing part of your business, little mistakes along the way become opportunities for growth, rather than failures.
Process improvement shouldn’t be mysterious – it’s about planning ahead, getting staff involved, integrating it into everyday operations, being flexible, and – most importantly – making a focus on improvement a core component of your business culture.