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Moving From Continuous Improvement to Continuous Process Management


Continuous Process Management l Quote (2)-1Continuous process improvement is a common organizational aspiration, and it is one of the most difficult things an organization can attempt. The continuous aspect is quite a challenge, as is realizing business performance improvements—especially once the easy and obvious changes have been made. Organizations need an ‘internal improvement engine’ that replaces insistence with evidence.

Organizations need more than continuous process improvement; they also need continuous process management.

Continuous improvement

When it doesn’t deliver what it promises, continuous process improvement has two common failure modes: it’s not continuous, and there are few improvements.

However, it would be rare to find an organization that does not profess a belief in continuous process improvement.

While such aspirations are often genuine and many organizations act on them to realize performance improvements, if not continuously, then at least on a reasonably regular basis, the decision to select a process for analysis is too often tactical rather than strategic, ad hoc rather than deliberate.

Which process?

An important part of process performance analysis, perhaps the most important part, is deciding which process to analyze. Organizations have thousands of processes; where is the best return-on-process to be gained?

There are many reasons why a process might be selected for improvement analysis:

  1. The process is broken or causing problems, generating complaints
  2. A new idea needs to be tested and incorporated
  3. The operating environment of the process has changed
  4. Seems like an interesting thing to do
  5. The analysis is part of a regular review cycle
  6. It looks like a problem is developing in the process
  7. The capacity of the process to sustain possible change needs to be tested

These, and there will be others, are all good reasons to trigger a process analysis exercise. Most often, an actual or emergent failure triggers the analysis; the response is reactive and without the option for thoughtful assessment of where time and money should be invested to get the best result.

For as long as processes effectively choose themselves for performance analysis, there can be no certainty that performance is optimized.

Rapid may not be continuous 

Frustration with the non-performance, or at least under-performance, of process-improvement projects over many years has understandably led to appeals for rapid process-improvement approaches of various kinds. The main thrust of these approaches is to make short, focused projects that will deliver change in a fixed timetable; for example, five or twenty days. Such projects that have minimum costs and maximum return are a welcome change from projects that take a long time, cost a lot, and deliver little.

However, rapid doesn’t necessarily mean continuous. Focused, effective process-improvement projects are a significant improvement, but they are not, alone, a systematic approach to continuous improvement.

Continuous management

To remove the role of serendipity and avoid ad hoc decisions about process improvement, we need an added layer of continuous process management.

Organizations need to create a systemic approach, where an unflagging search for problems, opportunities, and genuine continuous improvement, will deliver a better performance improvement result than reactive or ad hoc analysis.

The objective needs to be an unrelenting cycle of efficient and effective projects based on a constant, proactive search for process-improvement opportunities. Organizations need an ‘improvement engine’ at the center of their performance management efforts.

To achieve continuous process management, the organization first needs to be visualized as a hierarchical set of interconnected business processes—a process architecture. Then, starting at the top and working down at least two levels, each process needs to be assessed as to its target and current performance against well-chosen measures (KPIs). Evidence-based decisions can then be made about which processes should be improved, and in which order across the process architecture.

Elsewhere on this site, I have written in detail about the Tregear Circles (below), a metamodel for continuous process management and improvement. The PO circle has three nodes: target, assess, and respond. Target–assess–respond is the essential cycle of process-based management. Identify a process and set a performance target, assess actual performance, and respond if intervention is warranted for any of three reasons: to change the target, to address a performance anomaly, or to test a new idea. In the second and third cases, the PI circle is triggered, while the PO circle keeps turning. This is the main game; all process management and process improvement comes down to this.


Continuous process improvement AND management

To optimize the return on the considerable investment in continuous process improvement, it is important to also invest in continuous process management.

Mindfully making informed decisions about which processes need attention, rather than allowing them to self-select by squeaking the loudest, will significantly improve the return-on-process.

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Roger Tregear
Roger Tregear
Roger is a Consulting Director with Leonardo. He delivers consulting and education assignments around the world. This work has involved many industry sectors, diverse cultures, and organization types. Roger briefs executives, coach managers, and support project teams to develop process-based management. Several thousand people have attended Roger's training courses and seminars in many countries - and Roger frequently presents at international business conferences. Roger has been writing a column on BPTrends called Practical Process for over 10 years. This led to the 2013 book of the same name. In 2011, he co-authored Establishing the Office of Business Process Management. He contributed a chapter in The International Handbook on Business Process Management (2010, 2015). With Paul Harmon in 2016, Roger co-edited Questioning BPM?, a book discussing key BPM questions. Roger's own book, Reimagining Management, was published in 2016.

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Moving From Continuous Improvement to Continuous Process Management

  Continuous process improvement is a common organizational aspiration, and it is one of the most difficult things an organization can attempt. The continuous aspect is quite a challenge, as is realizing business performance improvements—especially once the easy and obvious changes have been made. Organizations need an ‘internal improvement engine’ that replaces insistence with evidence.

Process Architecture vs the Organisation Chart

  In my working life I spend a lot of time working with client organizations to discover and capture useful models of their process architecture. In every country, industry sector, organization type and size, there is a common problem that bedevils every project. We all, and I include myself here, can too easily slip into the habit of the last 100 years (or you might argue 1,000 years) of visualizing the organization as its organization chart. Comments such as “What about the work they do in department X?” might just be a useful test for a developing process architecture, or they might indicate a lack of understanding of what the architecture represents.