Pitfalls To Avoid During Organizational Transformation

Disruptive forces compel organizations to undertake large scale transformation initiatives to stay relevant. The speed of executing these transformations is as crucial as the initiatives itself and a lot is at stake. In such situations, it is easy to get carried away by the enormity of task at hand and lose the sight of what could go wrong.

If you are undergoing a large scale transformation or planning for one, I highly recommend ThoughtWorks article titled “Seven Pitfalls to Avoid During Organizational Transformation” with insights from Anupam Kundu and Tarang Baxi. This article also features my sketch note summarizing the ideas presented.

When I read this post, it instantly reminded me of a post that I wrote back in 2010 titled “Change Management Essentials – 5 Things To Avoid” where I presented common pitfalls in change management from process implementation perspective and I believe that a lot of transformation initiatives comprise of multiple and overlapping change initiatives and process overhauls. You may find it useful to revisit the article.

Please click here to read the insightful article at ThoughtWorks Insights and here is the sketch note summary which can also be found in the original article)

Related Posts at QAspire

Not Invented Here

Organizations, teams and individuals are obsessed with doing things themselves when a similar or better solution is already available elsewhere. Thinking that if you have to get it done right then you have to do it yourself is no less than some kind of obsession.

I have seen people rejecting better ideas just because they did not contribute in the ideation. Organizations spending enormous amount of effort in developing internal systems when a majority of what they want is available off-the-shelf. Teams trying to solve technical problems themselves when a solution is available already in other teams sitting under the same roof!

One of the possible reasons for ‘not invented here’ syndrome is that people find it hard to accept (or trust) something that they have not created or contributed to. Fear (and insecurity) of using someone else’s solution may also be a reason. Sometimes, people just don’t know that better solutions are readily available.

In any case, valuable time is lost, money is spent and opportunities are missed just because you choose to invest your effort instead of reusing what is already available.

In lean terms, this is a huge waste.

Because “not invented here” is almost the same as “lets reinvent the wheel”, unless there are strong and legitimate reasons to invent a newer kind of wheel.

Book Announcement: Implementing Lean Six Sigma in 30 Days

I am so glad to announce that my next book is just released. It is an actionable guide titled “Implementing Lean Six Sigma in 30 Days” that aims to help readers in understanding the Lean Six Sigma methodology and solve problems that undermine quality and inhibit efficiency.

This book is for business owners, quality improvement professionals and anyone in general who is driven by the desire to improve their team performance.

I co-authored this book with my colleague and friend Gopal Ranjan (to whom I am so grateful) and this book is published by ImPackt Publishing, UK.

As also written in the book introduction,

How can we improve? This is one of the most fundamental, but challenging, questions an organization can ask itself. It is never easy, but the ability to drive significant change that can bring positive results is immensely important for a business that wants to be successful in a rapidly growing market. Lean Six Sigma offers a way of answering this question, combining the approaches of both Lean and Six Sigma in a way that offers an opportunity for exponential improvement in a way that is manageable, flexible and sustainable. Spanning a month’s implementation process, this book will take you on a Lean Six Sigma journey, where you will gain a clear understanding of the fundamental principles, and develop a clear perspective of the process as it unfolds. From defining the problems to be tackled, to their measurement and analysis, this book leads you towards the stage of innovation where you can take steps that ensure and sustain improvements.

So, if you are a quality professional or an improvement consultant, you can use this book to guide your clients/organizations through their Lean Six Sigma journey.

Available on: Amazon and PacktPub Website

And yes, when you guide your customers through improvement journey, do not forget to align the content (the concept and implementation method) to your client/organization’s unique business context.

Because in the end, any methodology or best practice only delivers results when content intersects with context. It is this intersection where meaning is created.


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Agility in Process Improvement Initiatives

The pace of change is accelerating and business leaders who are responsible for improvements need keep up with the pace. While plan-do-check-act methodology has been around for long, the time it took was way longer.

For organizational improvements (and the personal ones), what do we need today? What would business expect from improvement initiatives? A few things I think:

  1. We need shorter iterations. We still need plan-do-check-act but the iterations are expected to be shorter. Pick an improvement area, create a plan, execute improvement, check the results and re-align the actions. The idea is to have a good enough plan, short execution cycle that enables you to learn and adapt faster. This is equally true for improvement we seek in our personal and professional lives.
  2. We need more retrospectives. Forums where we can take a stock of how your initiative is progressing and what can be tuned. Retrospectives are also a great way to collaborate.
  3. We need right areas to improve. Almost anything can be improved but the critical question is: Does it have a real impact? The famous 80:20 rule applies to process improvement initiative as well. 80% of improvement happens by focusing on continuous identification of 20% improvement areas. In my book #QUALITYtweet, I wrote:
  4. #QUALITYtweet The first step of your process improvement journey is to know what really needs improvement

  5. We need results to be visible. We need visible improvements in critical business functions. Bottom line impact of improvement initiative needs as much focus as its impact on organizational culture.
  6. We need collaboration. Improvements never happen in an isolated corner office. It happens when you collaborate with your team members, customers, business development folks and middle managers.

Bottom line: In an agile business environment where change is not only constant but rapid, we need agility in how we improve. We need to fail fast, learn fast and adapt quickly.

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Related Posts at QAspire:

Improvement: Show Them The Results
7 Steps For Customer Centric Process Improvement
The Secret Sauce of Process Improvement
Great Story: Improvement and Tending the Garden

Improvement: Show Them The Results

A child develops confidence as she experiences things around her. We buy into products for which we perceive experience to be positive. We support causes that deliver positive results. In an organizational context, how can we then expect people to be totally committed to the improvement initiative at the start? People will never commit to anything that they have never experienced first hand.

As a manager, if you are trying to improve your work practices, remember this: Let your improvement initiative speak for itself through positive business results. Sell benefits of the process improvement, involve people in those initiatives, give them some control and build trust as you go. In a hurry to generate a buy-in for our shiny new initiative, we often fall in trap of excessively training and preaching people about processes. In extreme cases, improvement leaders start forcing people to comply with those methods. While people may comply dispassionately, the improvement initiative will not generate the desired/optimal results.

Here are a few practical lessons to let people experience benefits of your improvement initiative:

Clarify the need for improvement: People want to know how any improvement will resolve a real business problem. Establish the need for improvement and communicate the purpose. Alternately, also show them the consequences – the rewards for success and the pain of current situation. These two are compelling reasons for people to embrace change.

Set improvement goals: Once a reasonable buy-in for improvement exists, set goals on what needs to be achieved. Review and revise these targets as you go. Publish the progress and do not forget to be involved yourself. People judge importance of any initiative by the level of a leader’s involvement.

Involve them and set them free: Once broad goals are established, set people free. Allow them to exercise their knowledge and find out the best possible route to achieve results. Autonomy is a powerful driver of change.

Handhold and Facilitate: When people experiment, they will fail. Set up rituals and practices to provide help. Give them necessary training, facilitate them and handhold them as required. Eliminate barriers and ensure that team stays focused.

Communicate Results: Document success stories. Share them with a wider audience through internal mechanisms like blogs and wikis. Ensure that these results are talked about in employee meetings. Make those results tangible, understandable and relevant to business goals.

Goal is not 100% buy-in: Do all of this and you will still have a portion of your organization that would be skeptical about results. The goal of any improvement initiative is never to have a 100% buy-in, because it may not be possible. The idea is to have a majority buy-in and then convert skeptics into believers and doers by being persistent in the efforts.

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Also Check Out: A great collection of leadership posts and insights in May 2012 Edition of Leadership Development Carnival over at Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership Blog.

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Great Story: Improvement and Tending the Garden

Improvement is not a product. It is process. On the journey to improve constantly, you can never announce that you have arrived because there isn’t a destination. If you get certified against an external standard, that is a milestone which can provide a framework to improve further. Organizations often fall in trap of thinking about external certifications like ISO as a destination beyond which they lose the motivation to travel further.

This reminds me of a very interesting story that I read in Subroto Bagchi’s book “The High Performance Entrepreneur”:

A monk was tending to a Japanese garden and meticulously, for hours on end, he was removing dry twigs from the immaculately maintained flowering bushes. A passer-by, who was fascinated by the complete concentration and care of the monk at work, could no longer hold himself. He asked the monk, “O holy one, when will your work be done?”

Without looking up, the monk replied, “When the last dry twig is removed from the garden”.

Bagchi adds,

“An organization, like a garden, is a living thing, and the process of removing dry twigs never ends. So, like the monk, the top management can never say, the job is done.”

Improvement was traditionally associated with growth, that if you constantly improve, you grow and prosper. As competition grew more global and fierce, constant and often dramatic improvements have become essential for mere survival.

For business leaders, it helps to adopt a mindset of Zen gardener and build a culture that strives to improve, before competition forces them to do so.

Related Reading at QAspire Blog

A Story on Importance of Processes: From Subroto Bagchi
Great Quotes: Gems from Subroto Bagchi on Leadership

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!

Quality: Setting Right Goals

Most improvement initiatives are heavily focused on internal goals – increasing productivity/efficiency, eliminating waste, reducing defects/costs and so on. Processes around these goals are written and implemented. People are trained, tools are implemented, energies are directed and everyone starts working hard to meet these goals. Some improvement is seen, some re-alignment is done and it seems to be working fine, till…the customer starts complaining again.

This happens often because of the “internal orientation” of goals. When you establish your processes, pay enough attention to what customers are looking for. Customer A may be looking for impeccable technical quality (features) of deliverable while Customer B may be very sensitive to the quality of communication. Customer C cares a lot about user-friendliness of the product while Customer D is looking for an overall quality of experience delivered. Each one of these customers carry a different perception of quality based on their specific business needs and experiences. The fact that these expectations are fluid and ever-changing adds to the challenge.

If processes are a way to meet business objectives, it pays to identify the right objectives that finely balance internal and customer oriented goals. Internal goals are about continuity of pursuit to remain efficient. External objectives ensure that organization remains absolutely focused on what customer perceives as “value” and ways to deliver that value. With this balance, the focus on customer needs and wants is as much as focus on tools, systems, internal learning and processes. These objectives (and its constant reinforcement) drive people to look for ways to ensure that system is flexible to handle variation in customer demands.

Bottom line:

When defining your processes, do not forget to include the customer. A lot of waste from your practices can be eliminated if you constantly focus on how those practices help you achieve internal and external business objectives.

Gentle Reminder: Don’t forget to focus on your internal customers – your people.

Related Posts at QAspire:

7 Steps For Customer Centric Process Improvement

Metrics: Are They Mapped With Your Business Objectives?

Great Quotes: On Constant Improvement

I have always loved great quotes and I started collecting these bite-sized packets of wisdom since my early days as a student. Quotes encapsulate years of experience and wisdom from great thinkers in just a few words – words that inspire us to act and put things in perspective. Great quotes have always had a special place on this blog.

Improvement is a never ending journey, and anyone who seeks to improve constantly should never look for destinations. It is a journey that needs to be enjoyed and every significant improvement you make in your habits, processes or business is just a milestone. The following quote from Sir Winston Churchill nicely encapsulates this thought:

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will be a stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” – Sir Winston Churchill

Improvement starts with a desire (or rather a passion) to change things for better. Improvement is a quest to understand how things are happening around you, and then take an initiative to improve upon those. Unless we seek to understand and experiment, we will never be able to improve. Bertrand Russell puts it brilliantly:

‘The desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it are the two great engines of progress, without which human society would stand still or retrogress.’ – Bertrand Russell

On this fine Monday morning, these quotes have helped me gain better perspective on my work of improving processes. Your work may be programming software or managing people – know that improvement is a journey and every small win along this journey should inspire you improve further. That is the core of what we, in process management field, call “continual improvement”.

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Have a great start into the week!

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Join in the conversation: What quotes inspire you? What quotes have guided you along the way?

Have a Process? Make It Visible

Many years back, when I ran a web development shop, I once visited a customer who owned a flooring tiles manufacturing unit. Since they were one of the leading players in their industry, I was curious to see how they worked. Our customer took us to visit their manufacturing plant where I could “see” a number of interlinked processes in action when a piece of tile moved from one stage of production to another. The product was tangible and most of these processes were executed by sophisticated machines.

Many years later, I started working on business process improvement for an IT company. Things were getting done here as well, but processes were not “visible”. I could not see how knowledge about the product got transferred from one step to the another in the development process. Processes were not documented and different people understood the process differently. Since process was not visible, it was difficult to see the gaps and improve, unless the gaps  were obvious and huge.

One of my key learning from this first experience was:  If you have a process, make it visible.

You may be a business leader who is working on improving your processes, a project manager who wants to improve team’s outcomes or an individual who is looking forward to improving personal process, making the process visible is important.

How do you do that? Here are the most basic steps (and the ones that many small or mid-sized organizations ignore):

First step is to document the process. It could be a formal process manual or a simple bulleted list of steps to be performed. In any case, keep the process steps simple.

Better yet, represent the process visually through diagrams. This is the best way to show a process in action.

Once you have visibility, you will be able to see the gaps more effectively and see what can be improved.

Finally, share the process understanding via trainings, one to one facilitation and via tools that make it easier for people to access the process.

Whether your work is blogging, writing, graphics designing or software programming, you invariably have a formula, a method and a few steps to get the work done. You can only improve upon your work when patterns of your work are visible to you.

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Join in the conversation: What tools have you used to generate awareness (and visibility) of your processes? What process have you employed to ensure that your work patterns are visible to you?

Who Is Responsible For Improvements?

Improvements don’t happen if organizations don’t have someone responsible for it. This is the reason why a lot of organizations have senior executives who think about and plan improvement initiatives. From a strategic viewpoint, this makes a lot of sense.

However, there is another side to it. Just because there is one person responsible for improvements, no one else cares to thinks about any improvements. This is counter productive, simply because the most meaningful improvements in work can only come from those who are actually executing the work day in and out.

Improvement comes from learning of what works, what doesn’t and what works better. Learning comes from doing the work, from trying, from experimenting and from failing. So two key things emerge out of this thought process:

Building a culture where experimentation is valued is crucial for improvement

In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge writes,

The irony is that if we were only working at the top of the organization we might never have been aware of some of these problems and thus might never have attempted to solve them. But when you build a team that believes that change from any place in the system is possible, significant change can sprout from even the tiniest of seeds.

When people try to improve anything, they will make mistakes. Their experiments will fail. In overly risk-averse organizations where making mistakes is almost a crime, improvements will never come from the real practitioners. Hence, it is extremely important to build a culture where people are free to start new initiatives, look at fresh new ways of working and simplify the complex. They not only need encouragement, but empowerment. Leaders play a crucial role in building this culture.

Improvement is everybody’s job

Senior executives responsible for process improvement are facilitators. They facilitate the practitioners so that they can improve on work processes in tiny bits. Improvement managers then take those small local improvements to the organization level. But involving people in improvement is crucial.The goal of sponsoring improvement initiative is to empower people to enhance their capacity to create. For improvements to have net positive impact on an organization’s efficiency, they have to be driven by practitioners.

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Join in the conversation. What ideas would you suggest to involve practitioners in improvement game? What are the best ways to empower people so that they initiate improvements rather than just executing the instructions?

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8 Pointers On Balancing Improvement and Efficiency

When leaders undertake process improvement/change initiative, they walk on a tight rope.

On one hand, they have to improve the processes to deliver positive business outcomes. On the other, they have to ensure that improvement/change initiative does not slow down the current work and bring the overall efficiencies down.

Both are crucial and striking the right balance between improvement and business efficiency, between standardization and evolution is a big leadership challenge. Based on my recent experiences in implementing large scale changes, here are a few lessons I would like to share:

  • Avoid Big Bang implementation of major changes. When it comes to processes and changing habits of people, there are no direct cut-overs. People (and culture) need time to change.
  • Improve Incrementally by implementing high priority (and high value) changes first. When people start seeing value in those changes, implement a few more.
  • Have a Strong Purpose behind each change being implemented. People will not subscribe to change unless the purpose of the improvement initiative is clear. People want to know how improvements will help them do a better job.
  • Keep Communication Tight during the change implementation. On going trainings, one to one facilitations, interactive audio/video based training go a long way in ensuring that people are aligned.
  • Focus on “Value Delivered” when looking at a change/improvement. There is a lot to improve, but focus on improvements that have direct impact in value delivered to the organization/customers.
  • Understand People because effective change implementation is not possible without understanding how people operate. With this understanding, managing resistance becomes a little easier.
  • Innovate In Process itself, without getting fixated on best practices. The “wow” customer experiences delivered are always a combination of remarkable people and innovative (yet simple) processes that makes customer’s life easier.
  • Look For “Exceptions” because they are the opportunities for improving and simplifying. When people don’t follow a process consistently, it may be a process problem.

Additionally, here are 5 things a leader should avoid when implementing any significant change. Read more about insights on managing process improvements and change.

Join in the conversation:

What have been your lessons in implementing change? What best practices would you like to share when it comes to balancing improvement and business efficiency?

Managing Process Changes and Disruption

Two things we know about change:

  • Resistance is our natural reaction to any change that disrupts our current way of working.
  • Things only change when the pain of change is less than the pain of remaining in current state.

Ability to foresee, plan and implement change for better alignment to the market and generate better outcomes is a huge competitive advantage.

Over at Harvard Business Review Blogs, I read the post (and the comments) “Overcoming The Disruption of Process Change” by Brad Power with great interest. Any one who is trying to improve the processes by implementing meaningful changes must read the post. Here’s what I learned.

Involving people in process innovation is critical to ensure that improvements are driven by practitioners and it generates better buy-in as well. However, leaders have to allow people to experiment, fail and learn. In his post, Brad says:

To overcome objections to the expense and riskiness of process innovation, it should be advanced through fast, inexpensive, and flexible experiments. The focus shouldn’t be on permission for resources but rather permission to behave differently. Failure and iterative learning should be built into the improvement process.

I wrote earlier about treating resistance and criticism as an opportunity to learn. Every change is an opportunity to learn as well. Consider the following:

Toyota selects its people for their openness to learning, and then develops their work habits through practice after they are hired. All managers are expected to be involved in process improvement and adaptation. Problems are welcomed as ways to help understand why things go wrong.

Finally, every change must have a significant positive impact on the organization – be it higher customer satisfaction or improved productivity. The post reinforces:

Leaders need to demonstrate that they value high customer satisfaction. The gap between current performance and what is needed to win must be always visible to everyone.

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Join in the conversation: What other ideas have worked for you when implementing significant changes?

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Related Posts at QAspire Blog:

“Value” and “Waste” – Watch Them Constantly

Delivering Value” is the buzzword these days. Companies are working ways out to deliver more value, people in organizations are evaluated based on value they create and clients seek “value-adds” in products and services they purchase.

It is all a value game, I agree, and focusing on value delivery is at the core of any business.

To deliver higher value to customers, business leaders implement complex strategies, restructure the organization periodically, lay out new initiatives, improve upon they existing processes, focus on sales, training, people etc.

Somewhere, in this process of constant realignment and improvement, ‘waste’ is introduced. Unwanted complexity, bureaucratic structures, complex systems, increased time on unproductive activities, rework and time spent on things that may not contribute directly in delivering value.

It almost becomes cyclic – in pursuit of adding more value, you are creating more complexity. Waste resulting out of this complexity keeps you from delivering the value to your customers. Waste, in simplest terms, is any activity within the process that does not add value to the customer. “Eliminating Waste” is the key to a lean and productive organization.

Bottom line: In pursuit of increasing value delivery to customers, do not add more complexity and waste, because it may just be the thing that keeps you from delivering value. Eliminating waste, is the one of the best way to increase value, simplify and quality of outcomes.

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Related Thoughts at QAspire Blog

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P.S.:

"The HR Carnival" by Mike Haberman (at Omega HR Solutions) features my post "Don’t Just Punish Them If They Don’t Comply" along with 32 other great posts on HR, Leadership and Organization Development.

Gandhi, Leadership And A Few Lessons On Simplicity

I have been a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi – one of the greatest leaders India has ever produced.

I recently visited Sabarmati Ashram, one of the residences of Gandhi, where we got a glimpse into Gandhi’s life as a national leader. One thing that really struck me was the simplicity of his life and his messages (like the one below):

Photo by Tanmay Vora at Gandhi Ashram, AhmedabadPhoto by Tanmay Vora at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad

Gandhi was a simple leader who used simple language and lived a simple life – yet he was able to concert energies of an entire nation towards achieving Indian Independence. I couldn’t resist myself thinking about simplicity in a business setting and wondering, “how many leaders can really do this?

Leaders frame complex strategies, use heavy weight terminologies to describe their plans, set up complex processes and use a lot of jargons when communicating for a change. They spend heavily on getting those strategies across the board and aligning people to it. Yet, strategies fail because people fail to connect. Leaders always have a choice to simplify or complexify.

Here are a few things I learned:

  • Simplicity for leaders is important just because the easier it is for people to understand the motives of a leader, the easier it is to follow them.

  • Simplicity stems from clarity of purpose. When leaders are absolutely clear of their vision, goals and the means to attain those, they can simplify things a great deal.

  • Simplicity and integrity are highly inter related – when leaders are integral, they think, speak and do things uniformly. People never have to wonder what’s on a leader’s mind.

  • Leaders have to nurture simplicity in their teams by challenging them often to think laterally and come up with simple solutions. Simplicity within a team is a product of leading them well.

  • People will try to add complexity for a variety of different reasons – from an unclear vision to downright negative motives. Keeping them (people who add complexity) at bay is a constant challenge for leaders.

  • Simplicity is to know what to keep and what to let go, be it the complexity in your processes, or removing excessive clutter around.

  • Simplicity is the essence of good communication, because it makes connecting with others so easy. People relate better to things they easily understand.

  • Simplification enables better focus, elimination of waste and higher speed of execution – all of which have been at the core of great companies.

In 20th Century, when Mahatma Gandhi and the nation fought for independence, simplicity worked. Today, in 21st Century, we have seen/are seeing the results of over-complexifying things. Hence, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School believes, “The next big trend is simple: to simplify.

So here is a BIG question: How are you contributing towards simplifying the business (of your organization or your customer’s organization) and life (yours and people who work with you)?

5 Key Lessons From Learning Organizations

Problems, challenges and inefficiencies (in one way or the other) are a part of any organization. How organizations deal with them makes all the difference.

In my career so far, I have (broadly) seen two kinds of organizations.

First are the ones who know the problem areas, but are not willing to invest in having the necessary structure to prevent them in future. So, they try to correct it instead. They create teams and structures where people are driven (and sometimes forced) to work harder when problems occur. Same challenges show up in each project. It is almost like knowing the problem but not doing anything about it. Processes (and improvement) are seen as costs.

The end result? Dissatisfied customers, unhappy team members, disengaged middle management and difficulties in scaling the business.

The second type of organizations are what we call “learning organizations”. Even they face similar challenges and problems, but only once. When problems occur, they first correct it but then, give a careful thought to how it can be prevented. They create focus groups on process improvements, document the lessons, relentlessly train teams and incorporate preventive measures in their processes. They realize that it is perfectly normal to have problems, but not  to have same problems again and again. They treat processes and improvement as an investment in future.

A few key takeaways from these observations:

  • Problems are a part of business. Growth depends on whether you face same problems every time, or the new ones.
  • Setting up processes and sponsoring improvement teams may look costly initially, but it actually saves money – by having mature processes and improving on people’s ability to deliver value to customers.
  • Improvement may not always be expensive. You can form small focus group from your current team and improve in small iterations. Once you see significant results, you can invest more.
  • The earlier (in life of your business) you think about processes and improvement, the better (and inexpensive). Problems multiply in scale when not addressed.
  • It is important to realize that it is virtually impossible to develop a process/approach that will foresee all possible issues organization will face. This is true for all businesses large and small.

Stay with me, as I explore other aspects of a “learning organization” in days to come. Peter Senge has done some amazing work on organization development and systems thinking.

What about you? Have you seen such organizations? What are your lessons? Come forward, join in the conversation and express yourself.

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Acknowledgements:

The Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ Blog Picks of the Week – 2010 Rewind Edition includes my posts. Thanks Chris!

QAspire Blog was featured in Management Improvement Carnival Blog Review by Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership Blog. Check out some fantastic blogs at Curious Cat Annual Management Improvement Carnival 2010 hosted by John Hunter.

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Have a great start into the week!

Don’t Just Punish Them If They Don’t Comply

I have seen organizations that do the following.

They define their work processes and implement them across the organization to get certified against a certain standard (like ISO). Standards enforce compliance and sometimes, leaders falls in a trap of linking the level of compliance with performance of individuals. This is how a “constraint” mindset works. If people don’t comply, punish them. We get so obsessed by the process adherence that we overlook the ground level issues people face.

In my book “#QUALITYtweet – 140 bite-sized ideas to deliver quality in every project”, I wrote:

If you don’t treat your process as a tool to generate quality, process has a tendency to drive you.

This is highly counter-productive in my view. Process improvement demands that improvement leaders practice an “abundance” mindset.

When people don’t follow a process, it only means that either they don’t know how to use the process or the defined process simply doesn’t work for them. In either case, it is an opportunity to improve.

Here are a few questions that can help in introspecting, when a process does not work:

  • Is this process (or a sub-process) really helping people do their job better?
  • Do people have knowledge of why this process is required and how it makes them more effective? Are they clear on the purpose of having this process?
  • Can this process (or a sub-process) be simplified further in a way that it is equally/more effective?
  • Is there a work scenario that has not been addressed by the current set of processes?
  • Do people have knowledge of how to perform the process? If no, what additional training/counseling is required? Is the necessary guidance/references available?
  • Are middle managers aligned to the organization’s vision for having processes, and are they setting the right examples for people to follow?

Bottom line: Adopt a pragmatic approach when implementing processes. When processes are not followed, ask “Why?” often, instead of punishing people right away. Get to the root of the non-compliance and you will find the actual problem. Non-compliance is just a symptom. Ask right questions, involve your people and assess if process really serves the purpose.

Teaching, Improvement and Change: A Few Parallels

12 years back, I started my career as a tutor who taught Oracle and PL/SQL to students belonging to different age groups. One thing I realized very early in my career as a tutor is that everyone of us has a different rate of learning – the speed with which we grasp new things, accept changes and change our own thinking.

Another important realization was that however good the tutor is, students only learn when they actually practice the lessons and apply them in the real world.

So what does these lessons have to do with process improvement?  A lot!

In my view, implementing an organizational change is pretty much like teaching, because just like teaching, it changes people/teams/organization for better. It involves creating an impact on how other’s see their work. It involves implementing change. It involves communication and connection.

We make a big mistake when we expect everyone across the organization to accept change at an equal rate. People learn and adapt at a different rate and it is important to “facilitate” change than to “push” it. My first lesson in teaching still holds true.

Change involves lot of training and counseling, but real acceptance of any significant change only happens when people actually apply the new practices and experience the tangible benefits of the change. This also means that when people implement change in their day to day work, there will be a lot of realignment and fine tuning in the process itself. My second lesson from that brief teaching experience comes in handy here.

I also saw that students learn the best when they see relevance of the subject with the real life. Ditto with the improvements, because ultimately, people will only implement an improvement action when they are convinced with the purpose of improvement.

Bottom line: Teaching, process improvement and change initiatives – they all involve people. Knowing how people learn, change and adapt helps when implementing significant organizational changes/improvements.

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Improvement, Change and Strength of Belief In Outcomes

We all find it difficult to stick to our new year resolutions beyond a few months. A lot of people wish to focus on their health and start exercising. Many people I know want to quit smoking. We have a lot of “wishes” on improvement, but we often fail to take some real actions.

Why?

Because change is hard and most of the times, we are resistant to change. Not only because it pulls us out of our comfort zone, but also because when we initiate a change, we don’t see the end results very clearly.

My gym instructor recently shared a very good insight. He observed that people who constantly focus on the pain when exercising give up sooner. He also noted that people who look for instant changes in their health after a few days of exercising also get disappointed soon.

That insight goes well with my own experience which suggests that all meaningful changes take time, demand persistent effort and are driven by strength of our belief that things will be better after a change is implemented, be it improving processes or getting in a better shape.

I realized that we only change when we “have to” change (externally driven) or when we strongly believe in the result of change (internally driven). Most people/organizations don’t think about meaningful changes unless the consequences of not changing are serious or our survival is at stake. In my view, it is always better to be internally driven to changes and improvement (and hence constantly improve) than to be forced upon by external situations. Because the latter often tends to be more painful.

Bottom line:

How much you improve (as an individual or as an organization) is directly proportional to the strength of your belief in the benefits of change.

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P.S. Read this interesting quote on Twitter, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.

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Have a great day!

The Quest of Better Outcomes: Hierarchy And Process

In quest of better outcomes (efficiency, results, productivity, improvements etc.), a lot of companies focus on restructuring their organization structure (hierarchy). Periodically, they overhaul their structure, add new positions and assign new/diverse responsibilities to people.  Tuning hierarchy and structure of the organization for better outcomes is just one part. These structural changes won’t produce the desired outcomes if the flow (process) aspect is not addressed.

Why? Because, work flows horizontally. Between teams. Between members of the teams. Between different departments. Work flows from one team member to the other. The intent, intensity and diligence with which they execute that piece of work, and how well they are equipped to execute largely determines quality of the outcomes. In my view, a lot of quality related problems can be traced to gaps in this lateral movement of work.

You need best people for sure. But to enable them for better performance, to make them effective, a system needs to be created. A system comprising of interconnected processes that act as a tool people use to execute their work. I have said this before – any organization that aims to deliver high performance consistently cannot ignore the power of process.

So, even when you frequently overhaul the structure of your organization, do not forget to think about the process aspect. How would work flow? Who will do what? How will activities be performed?

Hierarchical overhauls are no silver bullets. Long term improvements (and their benefits) can be realized if you are ready to invest time in creating systems that helps you sustain, scale, deliver and create a better future for your organization, yourself and your people.

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Also download 25 Things Managers and Leaders Should Never Do [PDF]

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Check out the latest edition of “Carnival of HR” at John Hunter’s Curious Cat Management Improvement blog. The edition features my post “Setting Expectations on Behaviors You Value: 5 Pointers” along with other excellent thoughts on HR, OD and Leadership.