What are you improving?

Be careful what processes you are looking at when doing improvement work.

Continuous improvement professionals have a job to do when they encounter new situations. We are often asked to come in an do assessments of the current situation and create a path to new and improved operations.  Usually this has to do with "fixing" a broken process.  Jamie Flinchbaugh describes a different twist on this with his Don’t just change the process if people aren’t following the existing one

Many people who get immersed in process improvement practices have such a focus on improving the process, that we don’t know when to pull up on the reigns and consider whether it’s the right approach.

For example, I’ve noticed several situations lately at clients that I’m coaching of people working on process improvement when the process wasn’t the real problem. For example, I heard the following: “our old process really wasn’t that bad, we just weren’t following it.

What happens if the problem with the process is that no one is actually following the process? It is the process around the process that you need to examine - the management system. It's time to start diving into the why's of the management system, rather than the operation of the process in question.  Why has the process been discarded?  Is there another process people are following that is easier, older, different, the-way-we've-always-done-it?  Do they know there is an "official" process?  Is it a barely repeatable process that someone has shoehorned into a rigid process?

Improving a system that isn't operating to begin with isn't going to get you very far.  This is one of the reasons I like stepping back from the specifics of the situation to try to see the larger system.  I've learned about this through Theory of Constraints (What is the Goal of the system? what is THE constraint to achieving more of that goal?).  But in my wider reading, I see similar systematic questions appear in Lean an other systems disciplines.

So, why don't we do it?

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