Off leash area ahead sign for dogs

Is Process Improvement Off-leash?

Process Improvement is a phrase with baggage that evokes a number of cognitive biases that affect behaviors, not always for the better. To test this hypothesis I asked a few people (no attempt at a valid survey). Two responses reflect the wide variety of reactions that the phrase generates. Lisa Halberg of Relativity used terms like coercion and resistance whereas Chris Teter of West Monroe Partners used terms such as meetings, tweaking, and opportunities for automation. Both answers establish anchor biases that will color how the respondent will react to the phrase process improvement. When pressed the word “process” carried most of the negative baggage. Part of the overfocus on the word process is a reflection of a not uncommon misinterpretation of the first value in the Agile Manifesto, “…we have come to value: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Some of the people that have embraced agile reject the idea that processes are required. While this does not reflect a consensus view, those that hold that belief are often the loudest voices in the crowd. On the other side of the coin are those who have adopted an equally dangerous obsession with the idea that discovery and knowledge work is as mechanistic as an assembly line and therefore can be described and proscribed down to the task level. Neither extreme makes sense except in very specific scenarios. Most of us live in the great gray area where some common process exists but nothing is perfectly deterministic. If we focus on the one core principle the greatest majority of knowledge workers can agree upon, the need to continuously learn and improve, we can find a neutral phase with a useful set of characteristics to help broaden our perspective. 

Abandoning the tag “process” and adding the term “continuous” reduces the baggage the phrase carries while broadening the perspective. Continuous improvement has to address more than just process.  There are five high-level factors all change programs need to address:

  1. Capabilities include all of the skills and knowledge everyone involved in a piece of work carries around in their bodies and the motivation to use those capabilities.
  2. Leadership represents the effort to empower and serve the people he or she leads to meet a common challenge and goal.
  3. Management owns the system and is the only one that can change the system to empower people to get things done.
  4. Environmental factors, physical and emotional, impact the ability to focus and deliver value. 
  5. Tools enable (or at least should) people to do work and deliver value effectively and efficiently.
  6. Process is how work gets done.  W Edwards Deming stated, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

At the price of over quoting Deming, “Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival” which I choose to interpret as we need to relentlessly improve all of the factors that impact our ability to deliver value in an effective and efficient manner.