in Improvement & Development, Leadership, Process Improvement, Quality Improvement

The Secret Sauce of Process Improvement

A colleague from a different department recently asked me, “When does this process improvement stop?”. In my response, I explained that improvement is not a destination, but a journey. It is a way for business to tune and align the operations to ongoing changes in the business.

“If that is the case, how do you sustain the improvement effort? What is the secret sauce of continuous improvement?”, he further inquired. I thought about the recipe of this sauce and a few ingredients immediately came to my mind.

First was commitment and rigor with which top management sponsors and pursues improvement effort. Commitment is often related with assigning budgets, providing resources and setting the right precedence through words and actions. Rigor is important too. Pace of improvement, simplification of operations and its subsequent impact on business needs a constant monitoring, follow-up and alignment. Leaders have to set this direction to build a culture where people are motivated to find optimal ways to deliver value to the customers.

Second ingredient in this sauce is involvement of practitioners in defining and implementing improvements/processes. While job of improvement task force is to facilitate improvements, the real improvements should come from people who execute processes – your team members, middle managers, client facing teams and support groups. If they are the ones who drive improvements, implementation and subsequent buy-in comes in easily.

Third and final ingredient is empathy when implementing process improvements. Processes are tools that make people effective. People are at the core. However, many a times, improvement leaders announce a “zero-tolerance” policy towards process compliance. They ignore the contextual (and human) aspect of implementation and end up demonstrating a complete lack of empathy when processes become an overhead, a necessary evil.

I think these are the core ingredients. There would be many more supplements and spices that makes this sauce more delicious. But unless core ingredients are not addressed completely, all spices and supplements will fail to cook a great sauce that your business would love to have on its dish!

  1. Great post Tanmay. I do think often we lose the dream due to the lack of ability to interact on the human front, so your empathy ingredient is one I see missed a lot. We all understand that if we own the process, it creates good ground for it to go well, but in a rush to implement, especially given all the work that has gone into design and managing the project, empathy can lacking. Often any objection is seen as resistance which must be squashed. If you don’t have empathy, you will only see your own point of view, which limits you from seeing other opportunities that would otherwise support your process improvement.

    • Thanks Thabo, for expressing yourself here. “Rush to implement” often happens when an organization is improving processes only to map with a certain external certification standard. Empathy takes a back seat when your goal is to get certified because it is a short term thinking. Improvement is intrinsic, it is a mindset that exists. When improvements are seen as a real business advantage, as a way of being, as a source of excellence within an organization, empathy becomes a crucial ingredient.

  2. Refreshing read.

    I think, process improvements can end when the process sufficiently handles what it is supposed to do. In some of the organizations, I’ve seen that process improvements are taken so seriously that the organizations/managers try to improve on the processes that were running really well the last year just for the sake of improving a process.

    To them, I feel like saying “Don’t fix it, if it ain’t broke”. With that, I think process improvements have a start date and an end date. Although, my angle is *when to improve processes and when not to improve processes*, but I think the end point for process improvements is justified.

    • Thanks Girish, for providing an alternative viewpoint here. Real improvement is never disruptive. If something works well, it can either be enhanced or kept the way it is. In my experience, process will sufficiently handle what it is supposed to, only for a finite time. When external situations change, when customer expectations evolve, when company’s strategy takes a turn, processes have to be tuned. Which is why the post mentions, “It is a way for business to tune and align the operations to ongoing changes in the business”.

      I have also seen chronic obsession with improvements to a point that it almost becomes disruptive. For them, your message “Don’t fix it, if it ain’t broke” holds true.

  3. Businesses have to understand that people are going to mistakes on the road of process improvement. You want your team to feel like it’s okay to makes those mistakes and that management is going to teach and mentor them through it, not criticize every step of the process. Empowered employees are going to be happier in their position and more dedicated to the success of the company.

    • Thanks Joe! “Empowered employees are happier and more dedicated to success of the organization” – amen to that!

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