Why Process Improvement Projects Fail

Interesting times.  There’s an emerging consensus that Lean, Six Sigma and other process improvement programs are failing, and a myriad explanations why.  And yet – I just saw a(nother) Nimbus client video on a remarkable success in sustainable process excellence.

There’s no shortage of doomsayers.  In a PEX Network podcast just released, Nigel Clements, who will keynote at the Process Excellence conference in London in April, estimates that up to 70% of process improvement projects fail.  In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Professor Sakya Chakravorty estimated that 60% of Six Sigma projects fail. And the PEX Network poll launched last week on ‘the biggest barriers to continuous improvement’ has already attracted 500 voters.

But why? That’s where the divergences start.  There may be common agreement on the symptoms, but there are many different diagnoses of the underlying condition.

Nigel Clements, for instance, points to Deming’s ‘five deadly diseases’ as the root causes: lack of constancy of purpose; emphasis on the short term; compensation that distorts incentives; over-mobility of management; and only using visible figures.

Professor Chakravorty suggests the need for Six Sigma ‘experts’ to be retained on projects for longer; for smaller project teams; and for tying in performance appraisals to adoption of change.

Both though agree on what must be the single over-arching truth here: that success in continuous improvement (CI) is about creating an enterprise-wide culture of engagement and collaboration.  And that it is impossible without leadership from the top.

Even Nimbus is not, dare I say it, an essential for success in sustainable process excellence.  It hugely increases the chances of success in setting up and maintaining any CI program. But, ultimately, it is simply an enabler.  Without executive vision and commitment, nothing sustainable can succeed.

The client case study I just saw is on the launch of a global CI program in a Fortune 100 organization. It brings new levels of creativity in how it leverages Nimbus. There’s huge attention to graphic design as one of the keys to users engagement.  It has real-time metrics that look beyond process performance to cover as well process adherence and popularity. It also extends the standard RACI model in a way that brings a new clarity and productivity in compliance. And subtly, and throughout, it reinforces this organization’s values.

What made it possible? Executive energy plus the adoption of Nimbus as the process platform, and UPN as the process language.  But it was also the Nimbus methodology: the creativity inherent in live workshops in the discovery phase, facilitated by an experienced Nimbus consultant, to map out new ways of working.

It’s confidential right now – for obvious competitive reasons – but hopefully might make it into the public domain in due course. It’s a sparkling glimpse of the future in a world of CI gloom and angst. And exactly the kind of story that can fire up C-Level imagination and commitment.

Hello Checklists, Goodbye Process?

The Checklist ManifestoMy little world wobbled as I read Atul Gawande’s bestseller The Checklist Manifesto.

It seemed to challenge head-on my conviction that process matters most because it provides the language that enables effective collaboration amidst complexity.

It’s superbly well written (Dr Gawande is an eminent surgeon but he’s also a staff writer on the New Yorker). It was ravishingly reviewed in the FT, the NY Times and The Economist, whose reviewer described it as ‘a meditation on the growing complexity of the world, and how to cope with it’.

The book sets out the evidence on the value of the humble checklist in saving lives (and much else – injuries, time and costs) in even the most highly complex activities – in the operating theater, on skyscraper construction sites, and on the flight deck. It is utterly compelling.

Why do checklists work? Firstly, because ‘they get people talking’, suggests Dr Gawande. They break down hierarchical barriers and encourage the teamwork that can ensure the best possible outcomes – in surgical teams, among construction engineers, even in due diligence teams working for private equity investors.

Checklists also encourage discipline. They recognize that, in a fast-paced world, we can all too easily forget the obvious. Kitchens in top restaurants use them. Checklists can ‘force reflection’ says Dr Gawande, even in complex and dire situations like the loss of an aircraft engine.

As I read the book, I feared I was hearing the distant rumble of a paradigm shift. It seemed entirely plausible that my approach had been turned upside down, that process had been a wasteful diversion – and that checklists were the new process.

The truth though seems to be more subtle and interesting. Checklists and process may overlap but they are essential, and complementary, in enabling us to deal with our enormously complex world.

Both enable collaboration and ensure compliance. ‘Checklists are not comprehensive how-to guides’, says Dr Gawande, ‘they are quick and simple tools to buttress the skills of expert professionals’. Sometimes a checklist could be easily substituted by an end-to-end process and a Storyboard. In other circumstances, only one of them will work. What’s appropriate will depend entirely upon the context.

Context is one of the exciting themes of the book. The best checklists work because their creators are painstaking in understanding the context in which they will be used. They care about the tiniest details because they know that it matters in effective communication. Those who have advocated ‘publishing’ business processes that are static, generic and described in technical gobbledeegook might want to read and ponder these sections.

It’s also, in an odd way, heartening to read of the widespread resistance to checklists, despite clear evidence of their value. Organizations and individuals, across all industries, often applaud the idea of checklists – but have some reason why they are ‘special’ and should be exempt. They have to be won over – even if they subsequently emerge as the strongest champions of the idea. Inviting us to re-think how we define heroism, Dr Gawande reflects on this inertia:

“…We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us – those we aspire to be – handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocol and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.” [p.173]

Replace ‘checklist’ with ‘process’ and it’s the journey of most organizations towards process thinking, and towards a recognition of the process platform as an essential enabler for sustainable operational excellence.

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10 Nov 2011 Value Chain or Process? The Costs of Confusion

© Text Michael Gammage 2013

Chalk One Up For Sustainability

Delighted call yesterday from a client whose CEO had made a stand for sustainability.

The CEO had invited in a well-known consultancy for a year to drive a Lean program on a payment-for-results basis.

The Lean consulting team arrived two weeks ago and explained its methodology. They didn’t care that this organization had implemented Nimbus as a process platform at the heart of the business. They insisted that brown paper and Post-It notes would be used for all their work. Amazingly, they were so attached to this that they refused even to use the client’s paper. It had to be their brown paper.

When it was escalated to the CEO, he didn’t equivocate. He insisted that this organization’s process platform must be the alpha and the omega for the Lean program. It was, he explained to the Lean consultants, an integrated business management platform, but not in any abstract sense: it was supporting people doing real work 24/7. So it was the perfect framework to identify, design and deliver sustainable improvement projects.

What tickled my friend and led to his jubilant call was the CEO’s remark at the end of the meeting, as the consultants left the room, that if he saw brown paper being used in future, he would ‘personally escort them from the premises’.

The price of sustainable excellence is eternal vigilance. [as Jefferson might have put it… ]

Making Sustainability Stick

True story – and I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t heard it myself…

The global head of a Lean/Six Sigma team was explaining why a presentation to his senior leadership team didn’t go entirely brilliantly. After years of leading performance improvement projects, he’d come to see that what really mattered is sustainable improvement.

He knew how difficult it is to make cost cuts stick. He had seen for himself what McKinsey described last year: that many cost-reduction programs are “illusory, short lived, and at times damaging to long-term value creation”. And that only 10% of cost reduction programs show sustained results three years later.

So he was pitching Nimbus to his exec team, as the platform upon which to build sustainable operational excellence across the enterprise. But in the Q&A there had been some unexpected resistance, focussed on how disruptive and expensive change would be. After some dialog, the underlying objection came out:

“Yes – but if we go down this route, we are going to have to keep all our documents, everything in fact, up to date!”

You might expect that the exec who said this was taken for questioning by the Chief Compliance Officer in a corporate dungeon. But it went unremarked and was taken as legitimate. It was left to our hero to note that keeping things ‘up-to-date’ might not be a bad idea anyway (this is an FDA-regulated organization).

Accenture - The Sustainable OrganizationReading the The Sustainable Organization, published this week by Accenture, it’s easy to run away with the theory and forget how far this is from quotidian reality in many organizations.

You can’t build a sustainable high performance culture overnight. The organizational process maturity that delivers sustainable continuous improvement is a set of capabilities that can take many years to develop. One vital provision for the journey towards a culture of continuous excellence – to borrow Nestlé’s famous phrase – is a process platform. But nothing can happen without vision, understanding and leadership. And, in far too many organizations, it’s folks at C-Level who have yet to join up the dots…

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Lean Pharma: Tackling Compliance Obesity

Not to put too fine a point on it, Quality and Compliance are often completely out of control in PharmaLand. No-one doubts the need for uncompromising quality and compliance. But the way that this is delivered in Pharma today is not just over-engineered and over-expensive, it’s become a source of risk in its own right.

Things can get to a point in obesity where surgery is the only way out. Everything I see suggests that we’ve reached the point where only a radical new approach can slice through and remove the multiple, overlapping layers of complexity to expose and manage the true compliance essentials underneath.

In a recent workshop with a Pharma organization, we were attempting to condense several dozen SOPs into a standard global process. The SOPs were often vague, long-winded, contradictory and only tenuously linked to the Quality and Compliance manual. So while the formal SOPs are consulted, in practice, they are usually ’supplemented’ by informally ’asking an SME’.

That’s of course when the SOPs are readily available. Recently a global process owner offered to print out for me the two ‘foundation’ SOPs for his process. It took him 15 minutes to find one of the SOPs – and that was in the dedicated Sharepoint site for this particular process.

These organizations are not unusual: as far as I can see, this is close to the Pharma norm. The people involved are bright, conscientious and endeavour to act with integrity at all times. But they are overwhelmed with unclear and sometimes conflicting information. In CMMI terms, these are organizations operating near to the lowest point on the process maturity curve: Quality and Compliance is often being delivered through a culture of heroes.

Most Pharma organizations are pursuing programs to simplify, to standardise and to eliminate non-value-add (NVA) activities. But often quality and compliance functions are barely touched.

It’s a nettle that has to be grasped. Outsourcing and re-shaped business models can only go so far to deliver the required levels of performance improvement. Quality and compliance isn’t going away. In fact, the reverse. The compliance burden is set to grow rapidly as Pharma expands into emerging markets and branded generics, and develops global operations in an increasingly multipolar regulatory world. With the costs of regulatory non-compliance spiralling, it’s not difficult to imagine that Quality and Compliance may soon be the largest single NVA in many organizations.

The liposuction equivalent for Compliance obesity is, of course, the adoption of a process management platform. In a client workshop I supported last week, that team succeeded in condensing numerous SOPs into a single standard global definition of Validation. We spent two days creating the two top levels of the process model. The power of process visualization, the rigour of a process hierarchy, and the constant pressure to describe things simply, in the language of the user, led to real agreement on a standard global process.

There’s plenty of detail to be added. And the activities in this process, and its regional and site variants, will need to be cross-referenced to the library of quality and compliance requirements. But eventually, and after completing the review and authorisation cycle, it will be published – and delivered to process users as easy-to-follow role-based storyboards.

It’s an approach that’s absolutely rigorous. It’s also multi-dimensional. It’s designed to manage complexity. It supports rich what-if analytics. But, critically, it’s also focussed on simplicity, on user adoption and enabling real work. Which is why it’s the key to Lean Quality and Compliance – and continuous improvement.