Three Critical Success Factors For Making Process Improvement Successful

Kathy A.  Long
Kathy A. Long Global Upstream Process Architect, Shell Oil Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Kathy A. Long

Many organizations are pursuing projects related to the concept of business process improvement.  Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of 'real' success stories.  Through conferences and seminars, I've met a lot of people who work for organizations that have previously attempted, or are currently working on, process improvement projects.  In most cases these weren't completely successful, and now they're trying again or they've given up.  Several organizations are on their second or third attempt at process improvement.  In fact, organizations spend an enormous amount of time and money analyzing and redesigning processes that are never successfully implemented.

An unsuccessful project is usually defined as a project that doesn't meet the original expectations or one that gets shelved.  So, what are the critical success factors for assuring we are able to achieve true process improvement?

The three critical success factors for true process improvement are:

  1. Acknowledgement that "people are the process"
    • Understanding that it's people, not technology, that makes an organization successful.
  1. People enabled with the correct skills and capabilities
    • Everyone in an organization must be educated with an appropriate level of process understanding.
  1. Alignment of the 'Political' Ducks
    • People in the process must own the process through active participation and empowerment.

People Are the Process

Let's start by looking at what it means to say the "people are the process."

Most process-based change is motivated by a desire to improve business performance and/or the implementation of some new type of technology.  Business processes are influenced/constrained by six basic factors: 

  • Organization structure,
  • Technology,
  • An organization's physical assets (like facilities),
  • Rules (which include, laws, regulations, events, procedures/policies/knowledge, and culture),
  • Human resource issues (such as motivation, career opportunities, and capabilities), and
  • The alignment and empowerment associated with roles and jobs.

Ultimately, when all extraneous factors are removed, it's people that make process improvement successful or not.  It's important to understand that it's not just one group of people that will make successful change to process possible — all levels of human resources must be involved.

Therefore, in stating "people are the process" we are ultimately saying that:

  • People are an organization's most important asset.
  • People believe that their current situation and environment are understood at the appropriate levels.
  • People believe that their views, opinions, and concerns are heard.

During the definition or start-up phase of most process improvement projects, very little is said about concerns for the people in the process and the effect that changes will have on an organization's human resources.  Rather, I hear quite often from organizations that, "We just need to get moving with the project; we'll worry about the impact to the 'staff' later."  In fact, in many organizations, they're not even called people.  They're called staff, or associates, or employees.  I prefer to use the noun "people."  It removes all distinctions such as levels within an organization, gender, education, and experience and seems to make them more human.

I'm often asked, "Can't we just start designing our processes and forget looking at the current environment?"

My response is "How do you get to Disney World if you don't know your departure city?"

I agree that it is much more fun to design new processes than it is to examine the current environment.  However, there are some things we must do.  Understanding where you are today is like establishing the "you are here" dot on a map.  It is only when you find the dot that you know how far it is to your destination, the obstacles you face, the direction you must go, and the pitfalls you should avoid.  Understanding the current processes helps us understand and analyze why things aren't working so we don't make those same mistakes when we redesign or design new processes.  How many times must we be told to learn from our mistakes before we learn from our mistakes?!

Most of the time the problems found in the process cannot be blamed on the people.  The problems are the result of time, growth, acquisitions, mergers, and other general changes in the environment of the organization.

I wrote an earlier article about the "The Next Pendulum Swing."[1]  In that article I proposed that organizations will start to realize just how important the people are when they have to respond to unanticipated events.  Successful response to these types of events requires that an organization utilize the vast knowledge and experience they have.

Several companies will make statements like "People are our most important asset."  Unfortunately, when 2nd quarter or 3rd quarter or 4th quarter results must look better for the analysts, companies take a quick look at expenses and often find that their 'most important asset' is also their most 'expensive' asset.  The next thing that happens is that those assets are liquidated.  Usually when an organization makes the decision to liquidate assets, those assets are considered to have little or no future value to the organization or can be easily replaced by the organization. 

However, the asset called "people" is somewhat different.  The organization has much more invested in this asset than the original purchase price.  This asset has built a social network, has specific knowledge of the company, and understands the culture of the company.  This asset has special relationships with customers.  The organization has invested an enormous amount of money in training, mentoring, and educating this asset.  There have been statistics collected on the replacement cost of 'good' employees, ranging from four times their monthly salary and benefits to twelve times salary and benefits.  However, this cost does not include the cost to replace the knowledge of the asset.  It also doesn't cover the cost of lost loyalty to the organization that the liquidation of assets creates.

Imagine an organization where people are so loyal to the organization that it's common for them to voluntarily work fourteen or fifteen hours a day, sometimes for seven days a week over extended periods of time.  Imagine an organization where people won't even consider leaving for anything less than two to three times their current salary.  Imagine an organization that really does consider people its most important asset.

Now, imagine that the same organization forgets about its 'most important asset' and becomes solely concerned about the bottom line and quarterly results.  It seems easy for organizations to forget that the dedication and loyalty of those assets is one of the major reasons for their success.  So, the organization liquidates 10% of those assets to make the 3rd quarter financial results attractive to investors.  The result? ... an organization where people work 7 (not 12-14) hours a day, 5 (not 7) days a week, and will leave for any good reason.  Eventually, it means an organization that is incapable of adjusting quickly enough to unanticipated events and goes bankrupt or is acquired by another organization.  Final result ... very unhappy investors.

Unfortunately, this scenario is occurring throughout North America.  The 'real' cost to organizations is enormous and will only increase as the workforce loyalty and knowledge continue to decrease.

People enabled with the Correct Skills and Capabilities

It's critical that as much as it is feasible, the organization's own resources define, document, and improve their own processes.  The use of consultants to do all of this work will ultimately create a great deal of damage because all the knowledge of the processes, how they work, and what needs to be done to fix them is in the consultant, not the organization.

Therefore, the organization's employees need the proper knowledge, skills, and capabilities to perform this work.  It's critical that this aspect of successful change not be ignored.  Nor should it be assumed that these are skills or capabilities that can be acquired on the job.  The need for a common approach and vocabulary should not be taken lightly.  The success or failure of a process project is largely dependent upon these concepts.  Ultimately, everyone in an organization should be educated at some level about process and its importance to the organization.

I was constantly amazed by what I found happening in successful companies around the world.  Each time I would think, "This is the most amazingly inefficient, ineffective, and inflexible group of activities I have ever experienced."  It made me wonder how they could possibly be succeeding in the current environment.  Then I realized that successful companies are often succeeding in spite of themselves.  How do they do it?  They have incredibly good people making incredibly bad processes work.

Many organizations address organization structure and/or technology issues alone to resolve process issues.  There is a fairly common theme of "If we move the boxes around on the organization chart and apply really good technology, everything will improve."  This is sometimes referred to as "paving the cow path instead of looking for a better route" or implementing technology without understanding or improving the process.  The result is usually that the really good technology makes the 'bad process' run faster, creating an environment where issues and problems surface more often and take longer to resolve.  As a result, the information technology staff is often blamed for selecting or implementing the wrong solution or inappropriate technology.  The question is:  How do we know if the technology is good or bad unless we know whether the process that technology is supporting is good or bad?

Sometimes it surprises organizations that they cannot throw technology at their problems to get solutions, even if the technology fits the strategic direction of the organization.  Technology supports process.  Processes should not be designed to support technology.  This almost always results in disaster.  Processes are what we do, even if we haven't identified them.  Processes are the foundation of business.  If "people are the process" then people are the foundation of business, not technology.  Someone has to use the technology effectively for the technology to contribute value.  For technology to be used effectively, "people" must 'buy-in' to the process the technology is supporting.

I spend the majority of my time talking with people about how to define, document, analyze, and improve processes.  But I never neglect to remind people that a drawing on a piece of paper or in a modeling or drawing tool is just that, "a picture."  It cannot implement itself.  Management of an organization cannot force implementation of a new process or technology.  Likewise, management cannot force people to change.  Management can create an environment where people simulate change for a period of time.  Usually, within a few weeks or months they revert back to their old way of doing things.  Unfortunately these 'work arounds' may make the process even more inefficient, ineffective, and less adaptable than the original processes.

Aligning the 'Political' Ducks

And finally, all the 'political' ducks must be aligned.  All of an organization's process efforts would be much more efficient, effective, and adaptable if only 'politics' didn't play a role.  But it does, so this must be addressed.

Under this topic, "buy-in" is the key phrase.  Whether it's the boardroom, an executive, or a mailroom clerk, there must be buy-in for change to have a chance.  It is not enough to create models that represent this current environment.  There are emotional aspects of a process that cannot be modeled but that must be observed and addressed.  There must be "real" high-level management commitment as well as buy-in from "the people in the process."  Both are equally important.  Real process change only occurs if both are present. 

Management commitment has been addressed by many individuals working in process management/improvement.  This work is often at the strategic level of an organization.  Therefore, I will address the importance of the human resource aspect of process at the operational level and its critical impact on the success of any improvement or change in the process.  What are the best sources of ideas for process improvement? ... the "people in the process."  After all, the "people ARE the process."  When we take the time to understand the current process, we also communicate to the people in the process that their views, suggestions, and opinions are important.

However, listening is not enough.  To help gain buy-in, we need to take some of those ideas and suggestions and implement them immediately.  These are usually referred to as "quick wins."  Most quick-win benefits are temporary in nature.  The buy-in we gain from the people is not.  For far too long we have ignored our most important asset and most important aspect of successful process change.

If we expect to change processes then we must understand that we will also be changing people.  The people created the processes whether intentionally or unintentionally.  And the people own the processes.  The people will be emotional about process change.  When we talk to people about the process, we must be very careful to separate them emotionally from the process.  Otherwise, the people may take each defect or problem identified in the process personally.

If "PEOPLE ARE THE PROCESS" then they must fully participate in the understanding, analysis, and redesign of the process.  Successful process changes must have buy-in from the people in the process.  To achieve buy-in, the people within the process must own change.  Successful change does not occur when consultants redesign the process, or when IT redesigns the process.  Yet, unfortunately, this is usually the approach organizations take in seeking increased business performance through changes in their processes.  Successful process change occurs when the "people in the process" work together with the people who have technical knowledge to design the best processes for their organization.

For organizations interested in the long-term view of still being in business in five years, even this may not be enough.  Support for the people must be demonstrated by management through actions.  For some organizations the evidence that management truly values its employees as its most important asset will come in the form of various support mechanisms.  One might be that employees are asked to temporarily work in a different job while all the aspects of the change are sorted out.  Other organizations will take this opportunity to provide additional training to employees to either make them more valuable in their current position or to provide them with new skills and capabilities that can be used in other areas of the organization.  In some situations, where layoffs are unavoidable, the organization will provide support services (such as resume writing and job search support) until the employee has a position in another organization.

These efforts not only create buy-in among the current staff but there are even broader implications for these organizations.  One might be that they become known as a highly-preferred employer or that they build such loyalty their employees will stay with the organization even when they're not paid "top" dollar (thus saving the company money in terms of salary expense, recruitment expense, training, etc.).

In Summary

If organizations are going to implement successful process change, they must realize that "people are the process," thereby acknowledging that people are their most important asset.  Organizations must enable people with the correct skill and capabilities to implement process change.  And finally, all the 'political' ducks must be aligned in order to gain buy-in for change and to remove as many of the constraints to change as is feasible.  To gain buy-in, people must understand the changes and have the skills to implement those changes; they must actively participate in the redesign of the process.  Active participation by the people will, in turn, make them feel more ownership for the process.  When people own something they want it to be successful.

Above all else, never forget, "People are the Process."  Without them, nothing of value can be delivered to the customer.


[1]  Kathy A. Long, "The Next Pendulum Swing," Business Rules Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Mar. 2010), URL: to article

# # #

Standard citation for this article:

citations icon
Kathy A. Long, "Three Critical Success Factors For Making Process Improvement Successful" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, (Jan. 2011)

About our Contributor:

Kathy  A. Long
Kathy A. Long Global Upstream Process Architect, Shell Oil

Ms. Long has twenty-five plus years of experience in all aspects of BPM as well as Continuous Improvement and Lean. She is certified as a Lean Office practitioner as well as a Kaizen facilitator. She is currently in the role of Global Process Architect responsible for Upstream Process Architecture. During past two years at Shell Kathy has managed projects which implemented a new Business Management System for the upstream business as well as designed and documented the majority of core business processes. Working closely with the Global Process Owners, Leads and Architects to create quality standards and fit for purpose processes.

Read All Articles by Kathy A. Long
The BRSolutions Professional Training Suite

BRSolutions Professional Training Suite

All About Concepts, Policies, Rules, Decisions & Requirements
We want to share some insights with you that will positively rock your world. They will absolutely change the way you think and go about your work. We would like to give you high-leverage opportunities to add value to your initiatives, and give you innovative new techniques for developing great business solutions.