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.
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.
There is often a tension between process improvement and innovation. Improvement is seen to be just fiddling around at the edges, rather than making the massive gains offered by radical transformation. Continuous process improvement is important, and we also need discontinuous innovation. However, process improvement needs a performance boost; as well as counteracting weaknesses and threats, it needs to focus on opportunities and strengths. We need to work beyond the tangible current state to discover and improve non-existent processes.
Without conscious attention to cross-functional processes, nobody is deliberately responsible for the creation, accumulation, and delivery of value to customers and other stakeholders. The organization chart says nothing about this topic. All organizations seek to deliver value but, without a relentless, mindful focus on business processes, there is a critical gap between aspiration and reality. Too often, process improvement initiatives are ‘random acts of management’ without a systemic foundation. Organizations focused on continually improving and innovating the creation, accumulation, and delivery of customer value have process thinking embedded in culture and practice.
One of the most difficult aspects of creating a climate of process-based management is achieving the required level of buy-in. It’s tempting to say “executive buy-in” but we need buy-in across the whole organization—having support only at the c-level is not enough to make sustained change. Getting the right people on board at the right time, and keeping them there, is often a serious challenge. Everyone is busy. Changing to a process-based management approach sounds more like a problem than a solution. In addition, we are often working in an environment where the organization is reasonably successful, so what problem are we trying to fix?