10 things that tank process improvement projects

ISE Magazine November 2018 Volume: 50 Number: 11
By Jiju Antony, Babak Taheri and Sandeep Gupta

In this competitive era, businesses have been facing various kinds of classical and neoclassical challenges. Common classical challenges include shortage of labor, demand uncertainty and inadequate knowledge, whereas neoclassical challenges include change adoption, customer retention and supply chain resilience.

Business process improvement has become indispensable to overcoming these challenges to sustaining competitive advantage. And in the last few decades, many progressive business enterprises have incorporated various process improvement initiatives such as lean, Six Sigma and lean Six Sigma, to name a few, for tackling process- and quality-related issues.

However, many in the business and academic press have reported that the impact of these process improvement initiatives, which are generally implemented as business performance projects, are untimely terminated or ultimately fail. To avoid these implosions, let’s take a look at the literature and discern the top 10 reasons frequently cited by researchers and practitioners.

From fast food in Brazil to international cosmetics to emergency services in London, it’s a good idea for management to understand not only what works but what doesn’t, accounting for such foibles when choosing risk mitigation strategies.

  1. Lack of commitment from top management

The temporary nature of projects makes it essential to have full commitment from upper management to have any chance of meeting to overall objectives of the projects.

Management should get involved in each phase of the project life cycle, specifically in conceptualization (goal setting and project selection), planning (resource allocation) and implementation (monitoring and control). To align project objectives with overall business or corporate strategy, the project sponsors (organizations’ senior managers) and project champions (the heads of various business functions) have to support and commit to process improvement initiatives.

Though it is necessary for top management to get involved and committed, all levels of the organization need solid leadership for process improvement projects to have any chance at successful implementation.

  1. Poor communication practices

Communication has been perceived as one of the most crucial catalysts to drive change management in process improvement projects. It is important to identify communication barriers early in the project design and implementation phase, otherwise it may lead to catastrophic failure.

Complexity of communication practices arises from many reasons, such as semantics, power politics and organizational and technological issues. Therefore, conceptualizing a project requires thinking about all sorts of queries related to communication management.

An efficient communication process triggers information sharing in a project, which leads to knowledge management (KM). In the KM framework, “The combination and application of different tools and methods allows the data flow between different systems, analysis of production operations and the failures occurring in the production process”, according in Advances in Information Systems and Technologies.

Thus, KM can be used to develop an early warning system for a failing project. Even at the business-to-business level (B2B), communication is the key to resolving conflict and building trust among buyers and suppliers, which has the greatest impact on business performance in our modern times.

  1. Incompetent team

The importance of team in an organization is the competent individuals works as bricks to give strength to an organizational structure.

Similarly, a process improvement project cannot fly unless it is run by a team with skills, problem-solving expertise, knowledge and motivation. The project team has to be optimized based on detailed task description and allocation analysis. Team composition is linked to shared cognition, information sharing, performance and innovation. For many technology projects, there is even a need to respond to the changing business environment by dynamically learning new skills.

As a process improvement team is generally multifunctional in nature, in a team, members’ skills should complement each other and must demonstrate “unity in diversity”. To have a competent team, members must have some shared goals and some degree of interdependence. As task interdependence increases,  it is important to consider the compatibility and cohesiveness between team members. However, redundancy needs to be avoided in order to enhance the overall effectiveness of the team.

  1. Inadequate training and learning

Learning at the individual level and organizational level are two essential elements for sustainable deployment of process improvement projects.

In the case if process improvement projects, a matrix structure of the organization can intensify the pace of learning by ensuring adequate training of project team members who belong to different functional departments. Thus, for continuous improvement projects, organizations must rely on strategies that support organic learning between projects through various training programs and experience sharing sessions.

The content of the training program has to be designed judiciously, keeping in mind the evolving need of the projects in the dynamic business environment. You must determine what characteristics team members need to have while deliberating about training type and training content. Many companies use training courses as a part of annual employee performance reviews to address competency gaps. This also helps your team members improve in areas where they desire to learn.

  1. Selecting the wrong methodology or tools

A business enterprise may make mistakes in selecting the appropriate tool or technique for identifying the bottleneck in its operations, or it may pick the wrong tools in devising the solution.

There are many process improvement methodologies; each is developed to address a specific type of operational issue. Each methodology has a set of specific tools. While it is possible to fix most issues with any process improvement methodology and associated tools, it is not efficient. We should select the method and tools that best fit the problem and the resources at hand. The aim should be to minimize the overuse and underuse of tools and techniques by developing a primary set of key tools for implementation.

  1. Inappropriate rewards and recognition

Many practitioners and academics strongly support the idea of rewards and recognition to boost the workforce morale. This, in turn, can lead to higher productivity and performance at the individual and organizational level.

Due to their time-bound nature, project-based activities keep employees on their toes. And sometimes certain employees are engaged with more than one project at a time. Recognition and rewards can incentive their efforts.

  1. Scope creep

Though process improvement projects are time-bound in nature, many things can drive teams to go beyond the project’s initial scope, a common factor for failure. It is essential for a project champion to define the scope of the project to ensure what the team is responsible for – and what the team is not.

It is important to incorporate scope management techniques in your project’s planning stage. Scope is often defined by a work breakdown structure, and changes should take place only through formal change control procedures. By working on unapproved features, a project team devotes time to unauthorized changes. The work to incorporate these changes must be done within the predetermined time and cost estimates.

  1. Suboptimal team size and composition

Team size has been considered an important parameter to ponder during project design and conceptualization. Size generally depends on project scope, duration and complexity. Team size was more significant than structure, as the larger the team (a group of eight or more) the more it “stretched” the manager. As we know that an ability to work in teams demonstrates organizational competency and is a good sign for a learning organization, your enterprise must optimize the team size with a focus on long-term benefits.

More importantly, the composition of your project team is a critical element to decide. There should be adequate representation from relevant functional units. Though diversity is a much-needed feature, team members should be given enough time to understand each other’s personality for better team cohesion.

  1. Lack of expert supervision

Monitoring and control in project management are more important than any other stream of management science. Many projects fail either due to an ad-hoc arrangement (or no arrangement whatsoever) of process improvement experts.

As process improvements are considered part of continuous improvement initiatives, there should be a permanent expert for consistent monitoring and control. This expert should have a fair understanding of organizational business process. One of the most commonly cited failure factors – the irrational escalation of commitments – generally occurs when management continues to allocate increasing amounts of resources toward an ineffective course of action without consistent monitoring and control. This kind of management irregularity not only costs millions of dollars when projects fail but also hurts the spirit of continuous improvement or quality culture in an organization.

Monitoring systems should be designed and developed to track the progress of a project on a real-time basis. The systemgenerated output or report should be consistently disseminated with the help of visual displays at the workplace, seminars, meetings, interim reports, etc. This creates awareness among members and employees, which helps them take corrective steps, maintaining the momentum of their activities and boosting the confidence of management.

  1. Resistance or partial cooperation

Organizational change projects affect all, as everybody needs to accept the new culture. Jobs may be lost, working practices might be revised, processes and procedures might change, systems might become obsolete, and new managers might be hired, requiring employees to get used to a new culture.

Therefore, employees have a crucial role in the success or failure of any process improvement project. Ample evidence corroborates that employees’ participation and involvement is the key for successfully implementing change management. Hence, management must understand the reasons that employees resist or underperform, and leaders must take immediate action to avoid any setbacks in the long run.

Employees’ opinions and cooperation must be integrated into each phase of DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, implement and control) because the ultimate responsibility of implementing the suggested changes rests on them.

As researchers have noted, even if the change is positive, employees are not always willing to embrace the improvements identified through DMAIC projects. After all, many projects end up providing solutions to your employees. But if you involve the employees early in the problem-solving process, then you solve problems together. Thus, practitioners can help assure that their employees buy into process changes and fully own the outcome.