Avoid the improvement hype cycle

The following was first published on the Harvard Business Review.

Organizations are overrun with improvement initiatives, from infrastructure overhauls to sales programs. And they often add new ones, spearheaded by new leaders who want to make their mark. The good news is that new initiatives can energize people to attack organizational problems. But the bad news is that they have to learn a new improvement approach — one that can conflict with others that have worked in the past. The result: Employees get confused and cynical (senior management’s “flavor of the month”). Perhaps worst of all, they are forced to abandon old approaches that worked.

New process improvement initiatives tend to start with some hype. An executive decides on a different and better way to do things, and prepares a sales pitch that goes something like this:

  • First: “We need to change. Here’s this new approach. Look at the companies that successfully used this approach.”
  • Second: “This new approach is very different from anything you’ve ever seen before. No one has looked at things quite this way. To show how different it is, we have special words to describe them such as “Master Black Belt,” “DMAIC,” “Kaizen,” “A3,” and “SIPOC.”
  • Finally: “This may sound like process improvement programs that failed here before, but believe me, this is much better. This approach addresses the many shortcomings of our previous initiatives.”

Companies that practice process improvement have been victims of this hype cycle for decades. Fed by consultants, gurus, technology vendors, and academics, their enthusiasm for a particular process improvement method takes on a religious tone (as I described in a previous post). Thus, today we have a number of process “religions”: Statistical Process Control was followed by Total Quality Management, Business Reengineering, Six Sigma, Lean, and Business Process Management (BPM, which emphasizes process management software).

Many executives have never recognized this pattern of serial adoption of different approaches to what is essentially the same topic. Nor have they understood the need to continually improve processes. Each generation of leaders seems to rediscover process improvement in a different package.

So how can your organization avoid the process improvement hype cycle?

1. Reflect on why initiatives have and have not worked in your organization.

In 2009, Grainger’s senior management team decided to reflect on their history with improvement initiatives before deploying a Lean-based continuous improvement system. Under the guidance of external coaches, the $7.2 billion distributor of industrial supplies prepared a timeline that showed all the methods and approaches they’d taken to process management over the previous 16 years. The timeline showed five improvement initiatives matching the eras of five presidents: Quality Action Teams (1992-1995), Total Cycle Time (1995-2000), Perfect Order (2000-2003), Grainger Performance System (Balanced Scorecard and Six Sigma) (2004-2007), and Lean (2008).

They then asked two key questions: “What were the patterns of previous continuous improvement attempts?” And “What can we do now to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past?” Some of the things that management identified as having been deficient in prior initiatives included that leadership changes had prevented consistency and carry-over, programs didn’t attempt to change employee behavior, and middle managers didn’t embrace the initiatives. Grainger made its Perfect Order initiative — a major process overhaul to improve order accuracy and on-time delivery — easy to understand, but others less so.

By reviewing the history of its process initiatives, the company made its journey visible and discussable. That helped it identify what had worked from each religion and what had not worked. That enabled its leaders to decide what they would do differently, and the elements of prior approaches to retain.

2. Customize an improvement approach for your organization.

Look at other companies that dramatically improved a business process and how they did it. Understand not only what each process religion teaches, but why those methods worked in those organizations to see if those conditions exist for you. As Shigeo Shingo, one of the principals behind Lean, said: “We have to grasp not only the know-how but also ‘know-why.'” The reason so many different process religions have survived is that each succeeds in different situations. To understand the strengths and weaknesses of different process religions, develop a network of people with experience in each one. Tailoring a process improvement initiative — i.e., borrowing from several religions and making a tight fit with your core brand, history, strategy, and culture — will decrease the chances that your organization rejects foreign ideas.

3. Eradicate process lingo.

Here’s a process lingo test: If you can’t use a process term without explaining it all the time to people in your organization, find a more common name. For example, you could use “continuous improvement” instead of “kaizen.” Also, to signal what TQM guru Deming called “constancy of purpose,” choose a name that will always resonate, e.g., something tied to customers and service. Many organizations choose “process excellence,” “operational excellence,” or “continuous improvement” as their improvement umbrella, rather than something like “Lean Six Sigma.” By all means, choose a name and stick with it. For example, more than 20 years after electronics test equipment maker Teradyne launched its improvement program, managers still refer to it as TQM. Just as processes must be simplified, so must the names for the very initiatives that do the simplification.

Questions: Has process improvement hype produced a backlash in your organization? What have you done (or think can be done) to avoid the hype cycle?

For more information on this topic, see Brad Power’s HBR post: Are Your Employees Drivers or Victims of Process Innovation?


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Categories: Continuous Improvement, Disciplines, Process Management

Author:Brad Power

Brad is a consultant and researcher in process innovation. His current research is on sustaining attention to process management. He is currently conducting research with the Lean Enterprise Institute.

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4 Comments on “Avoid the improvement hype cycle”

  1. Ron Webb
    May 16, 2012 at 6:48 am #

    Brad, I read this post and it was all too familiar. I appreciate your sound advice on how to avoid this hype cycle. A well thought out, logical approach can go a long way, but I think most organizations pass on that to try and “capitalize” on what they feel is the next big thing. Unfortunately, that tends to end with a false start.

    There is significant resistance to change that most organizations overlook. They think that if they make a big enough deal about the program, it will overcome the natural resistance humans have to changing how they work. That is a significant factor that can’t be under estimated. It’s such a huge factor, our members are asking us to commission a study to examine overcoming resistance to change.

    I’ll keep this group updated on the progress of that effort. It is probably one of the biggest trends we’ve seen coming from our members in recent years. They are screaming pretty loudly for best-practice examples in this area.

  2. May 17, 2012 at 7:59 am #

    Is this me in disguise? You have taken the words out of my mouth. I get the impression PI must be run,championed and held accountable by the business leaders. Any other form of arrangement will pretty much go nowhere. I wrote in one of my recent posts that only certain types of organizations are fit for change and this has been discussed in a research paper as well. Companies who follow the latest trend of software will shoot themselves in the foot. And no BI software will give the intelligence to make that decision.

  3. May 22, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    Brad –

    Good thoughts. For me, customizing the approach to fit the situation is key. Pushing a standardized, cookie cutter approach sends the message that there is nothing unique in the target organization. Find the root problems first, then apply the tools that illuminate each one.


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