Continuous Improvement: Let’s Learn from our Failures

I have been fortunate enough to work in the continuous improvement field for over fifteen years now. First as a black belt and then master black belt practitioner, then as a leader of continuous improvement in organizations like Siemens, Nike and Radial and now as a consultant who is passionate about helping organizations in their journey of continuous improvement. More and more organizations are looking to leverage the power of continuous improvement to empower employees, smash silos and enhance their bottom line. However, the truth is that a vast majority of continuous improvement efforts will fail. I propose that rather than writing more articles about the death of continuous improvement or trying to develop the “next great methodology”, that we embrace the failures that occur, learn from them and share that information so that the high rate of failure is reversed.

Debashis Sarkar, in his 2011 article Eight Deadly Faux Pas of Continuous Improvement lays out several reasons, based on his extensive research, that many improvement efforts fail. In my experiences in the continuous improvement field, I have seen many of the issues he discusses in his article. For example, he cites not having mindshare of leadership when it comes to improvement efforts. He states that leaders at all levels of the organization (not just the C-suite) must be actively engaged in the improvement journey. I have worked in several organizations where the CEO or other key leader gives a mandate that the organization will begin a continuous improvement program. What follows is normally various leaders and practitioners hired to start a program and they attempt to leverage the support from that senior leader to drive a culture of continuous improvement.

What is missing is the fact that while a top-down approach is often used in developing a continuous improvement program, middle managers are often forgotten in the equation. When you start rolling out training, kaizen work, process mapping, hoshin planning and everything that goes into a CI effort, without the active engagement and support of mid-level leaders in a manner that “brings them onboard” with the effort, you have now taken a critical component of the leadership team and alienated them; often turning them into detractors of the program.

Sarkar also sites organizations not working on the right business priorities for a reason so many improvement efforts fail. We have all seen organizations go down a journey of continuous improvement and there is much fanfare and excitement at the beginning. Some training is done and as part of that training, or soon thereafter, projects begin being done across the organization. Often these projects are selected by employees going through training as part of their certification or by leaders who have certain “pain areas” they want addressed by this new continuous improvement effort. What follows is a very predictable, yet painful, serious of events where what started as excitement turns into cynicism because all the projects being done don’t really “move the needle” in terms of improving the organization. In other words, the improvement efforts aren’t aligned with the strategic objectives of the organization, so leaders across the organization see this new continuous improvement effort as nothing more than a “flavor of the month” of a senior leader rather than a way of doing business that can enhance the bottom line of the organization.

There are a lot of other factors that research shows influence the exceedingly high continuous improvement failure rates, such as: not having the right number of change agents, not properly leveraging cross-functional teams, and having a continuous improvement program that is too complex. I propose that we leverage the research out there which tells us why so many continuous improvement programs are failing, along with the collective experience of leaders and CI practitioners as a means to “change the course” of continuous improvement. We should embrace these failures as lessons by which we can learn, improve, and ultimately build a roadmap that will help organizations create successful, sustainable continuous improvement programs!

Over the next few blog posts, I am going to publish a series of articles on the main drivers of continuous improvement failures. I am not saying I have all the answers, but rather hope to begin a dialogue on the topic where leaders of organizations who have experience with continuous improvement and CI practitioners can share, as a community, what has worked and not worked in an effort to build a roadmap to successful CI program.

If your organization would like information on how we can help you improve your latitude through continuous improvement coaching or training, project management coaching or training or leadership coaching and training please contact us today.