Most continuous improvement programmes don't work

Dr IOAN REES

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Most continuous improvement (CI) programmes fail. Why?
And what makes for a successful?

There is a plethora of choice – and most organisations, including schools are expected to choose at least one Continuous Improvement Programme at some point in time. They all claim to raise standards, improve the bottom line and transform culture and whether it’s called Total Quality Management, SPC, Lean/ Six Sigma or any other CI programme – there’s a good chance it will fail. Understanding the reasons why failure rates are so high and result in low impact should be considered ‘before’ you start. Main reasons that cause failure include:

  • A confusion regarding the purpose and place CI programmes,
  • A lack of focus on the need change culture in the long term
  • Misalignment between the goals/rewards and performance improvements made by colleagues.

In most cases the push for CI is from the top-down; fine, as long as leadership and executives understand that for a CI programme to be effective it must not be limited to simply embedding problem-solving and process-improvement techniques. It usually requires a major culture shift that takes time, resource and the direct involvement from all levels of the organisation. So, middle management need to display a clear commitment to continuous improvement, drive its progress and hold people accountable for their performance.

The reality is, however, that events take a very different path within organisations, leading to the failure of the adopted CI programme.

  • Leadership realise that the organisation needs a CI programme and convinces stakeholders to join in the launch of a new programme.
  • Next, a CI lead/champion or manager is identified, perhaps with a Systems/Lean/ Six Sigma background, and takes overall responsibility of the programme.
  • The best CI champions/managers will know that culture is change will be required in order to implement an effective CI programme. However, they typically have little authority and insufficient influence to overcome the culture change pains requires.
  • The CI manager is provided token liberty in order to leverage some of the leadership’s formal authority to drive culture change, but as the interest of leadership shifts, wane’s and moves on, the formal authority is neutralised and everyone goes back to ‘the way it’s always been’.
  • The CI champion becomes disillusioned and feels unsupported. Some CI managers start returning to doing “busy work” and the programme slowly falls apart.
  • Most dangerously, the organisation now becomes “immune” to the concept of CI and everyone stands and watches as another programme meets its demise
  • In some cases, where there is deep commitment to longer term culture work on the part of leadership and management, the programme succeeds. However, in most cases this is absent and the entire CI drive centres around resource and technique rather than on the strategic culture change that is required. In these cases, organsiations focus on training as many Yellow, Green and Black Belts – implementing as many improvement projects as possible. However, skills are not deployed in order to maximise ROI and improved performance. What’s implemented instead are ‘easy’ projects, yielding low returns – these get the highest priority because the leadership and management’s interpretation is on technique and resource – not on returns.

In addition to these conspiring series of events, there is usually an additional factor that impedes the success of CI programmes; misalignment between the goals and rewards.

Members of an organisation that go through most CI programmes are typically only rewarded by attaining different “belt” levels to the exclusion of incentives that are based upon their impact on performance. Result? In addition to choosing simple projects to gain the desired belt level and achieve quick-wins, most members receive little or no incentive to choose larger-scale, culture-shaping projects. When engaging with organisations that implement a continuous improvement programme, it’s common place to see a preponderance of active, low impact projects in comparison to the number of qualified belts they have.

Therefore, the lack of rigorous performance management renders most Continuous Improvement programmes totally ineffective. At some point it becomes very clear that undertaking a CI programme is too expensive for the little improvement it generates and it’s unceremoniously dropped. Sadly, the programme is often blamed too, but the truth is - it’s not about the programme.

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