Stress and strain in improvement projects

Birefringence in a film of polyethyleneChange projects affect people just like an ever-increasing load on a spring will eventually deform and break the spring.  With too much load, the change projects eventually deform and break as well.

I thought I had seen this article before, as it came out at the beginning of the year, but it still makes a lot of sense.  MIT Sloan Management Review has this research report, Where Process-Improvement Projects Go Wrong, from Satya S. Chakravorty.

What do weight-loss plans and process-improvement programs such as Six Sigma and “lean manufacturing” have in common?

They typically start off well, generating excitement and great progress, but all too often fail to have a lasting impact as participants gradually lose motivation and fall back into old habits.

The article uses the stress-strain analogy from engineering to connect to process improvement within business.  Stress-strain curves describe how materials bend then deform then break under greater and greater loads.  Chakravorty argues basically the same thing happens in organizations as people get stretched to do other things after the initial excitement of an improvement project.

Chakravorty offers a number of familiar lessons and suggestions for how to avoid this trap: maintain focus, make improvement part of performance metrics, keep the teams small, and executive participation (not "support"). 

I think one element that is missing here is related to the "too much pressure" elements I have seen over and over again.  If we continue asking people to do too many things, we will continue to get only partial results.  Instead, people need to know EXACTLY where to focus their efforts and then be given the support needed to accomplish those goals.  Sure, business priorities change.  It is the job of leadership to communicate those changes.  And by the way, priorities don't change that often.

[Photo: "Birefringence in a film of polyethylene" by CORE-Materials]

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