Quick Wins: A Fast Track to Failure
I get it. When it comes to process performance improvement, everybody wants quick wins. We want impressive improvement with as little effort as possible, and by Thursday of next week. And we'd like to win the lottery as well.
Of course, there are quick wins and we must seize them whenever we can, but, by definition, there won't be many of them. We get stuck in, sort out the quick wins, and then … and then … then what? That's it? Job done, everything is perfect and we can get back to business as usual? Seems unlikely.
Every organization needs a systematic approach to genuine continuous and measurable performance improvement based on continuous 'problem finding'. That's the first hurdle. Surely every organization would be happy to espouse continuous improvement; perhaps not so happy to continuously find and acknowledge problems. When was the last time you went to an office celebration put on because someone found a new problem?
The 'continuous' part of continuous improvement conflicts with the idea of quick wins; one suggests an ongoing effort and the other assumes a short-lived focus on the obvious and easy-to-fix problems.
For many, process improvement doesn't have a good track record. Frustration with the non-performance, or at least under-performance, of process-improvement projects over many years has understandably led to suggestions for 'rapid process-improvement' approaches of various kinds. Strip out the waste from the process of process improvement and get on with delivering real improvements rather than just fancy methodologies and vague promises.
The main thrust of these approaches is to make short, focused projects that will deliver change in a fixed timetable, for example, five or twenty days. Such projects that have minimum costs and maximum return are a welcome change from projects that take a long time, cost a lot, and deliver little.
However, rapid doesn't necessarily mean continuous. Focused, effective process-improvement projects are a significant improvement, but they are not, alone, the systematic approach that is required to achieve genuine continuous improvement.
A systematic approach where there is an unflagging search for problems, opportunities, improvements, and innovations will deliver a better result than any form of ad hoc project. This is way beyond quick wins.
The objective needs to be, not just rapid projects, but an unrelenting cycle of efficient and effective projects based on a constant, proactive search for process-improvement opportunities. These opportunities are not only about measured under-performance, but should also include ideas triggered by innovation thinking, and organizational and market change requirements. Just because nobody is complaining about a process doesn't mean it can't be improved. This needs to be a common part of business-as-usual thinking and practice; it needs to be embedded in the organizational culture.
When we focus on quick wins we unnecessarily set an end point to process improvement. The number of low-hanging fruit is finite and process improvement becomes a short-term project rather than a way of life.
Organizations need to replace ad hoc process improvement activities, these seemingly random acts of management, with a practical system whose intent and effect is to enable evidence-based decisions about effective, continuous process improvement.
That's not as hard to do as you might think. Here are the six basic steps:
- Identify the key processes, starting at the highest level.
- Make it someone's job (part-time role) to worry about the cross-functional processes.
- Decide the critical few measures of performance for those processes.
- Collect current performance data and assess against the target levels.
- Intervene as required to correct or prevent a problem, or to realize an opportunity.
- Repeat, continuously.
This takes some persistent effort, but it's not particularly hard to achieve. You aren't trying to change the world overnight. In the medium-longer term, process-based management will change the way work is managed and executed, but the steps outlined above are not disruptive to daily operations.
A calm, controlled pivot to process-based management will deliver all of the benefits of the quick wins, and then go on to find and deliver additional benefits.
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