- What Is Process Improvement
- Process Improvement Methodologies
- Process Improvement Failure: A Breakdown In Communication
- Process Improvement Engagement and Communication Strategies
What Is Process Improvement?
There is relentless pressure on senior leaders to improve performance by increasing profits, reducing costs, increasing production or increasing sales. Process improvement is a structured approach to delivering performance improvement. From the highest view, all businesses have a similar supply chain – Process inputs (ex. raw materials, labour, equipment), are utilized in business processes (ex. development, manufacturing, sales, logistics), to produce and distribute final outputs (products and/or services), to customers for a profit. Process improvement aims to maximise the profit generated from the supply chain by increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of business processes that convert process inputs into process outputs.
Process Improvement Methodologies
Process improvement is executed using a variety of methodologies…six sigma, lean, process reengineering, prosci, agile, total quality management, kaizen, just in time, poka yoka…and many, many more. All methodologies adopt the same basic approach:
- Current processes are modelled and performance issues are captured.
- Improvement targets are set.
- Improvement ideas are generated and prioritised.
- Priority ideas are implemented.
- Performance is measured against the target to validate improvement.
- Periodic assessments are performed to ensure results are locked in.
Process Improvement Failure: A Breakdown In Communication
Process improvement ideas fail regularly. A study of 50 Australian businesses ($250m+ revenue) conducted by Partners in Performance confirmed that only ~23% of the expected benefits from process improvement ideas were delivered and sustained after 3 years.
77% of the expected benefits from process improvement ideas are never achieved or are lost within 3 years. This poor return on investment has major implications for senior leaders. The performance improvement that senior leaders are held accountable for delivering is dependent upon a successful process improvement program. While there are many contributing factors, resistance to change is a very common cause of process improvement failure. Employees establish a way of doing things, a routine, and become comfortable working in it. The longer they’ve been working in this routine, the more resistant they are to it being disrupted and changed. The process improvement team is charged with changing the way the organisation operates. Typical employee reactions are uncertainty, nervousness, resistance, and in the worst case scenario, actively trying to stall or stop the process improvement idea. To overcome this resistance to change employees need to be engaged and communicated with effectively throughout; from modelling the current process through to sustaining results. Starting early is critical. Process improvement ideas fail when engagement and communication start too late. As a minimum effective engagement and communication will reduce nervousness, resistance, and negativity. When executed exceptionally well engagement and communication can convert employees to be supportive of process improvement, actively help deliver it, and sustain it long term. I use the following six-part strategy to engage and communicate effectively throughout the implementation of process improvement ideas: Communicate “why” process improvement is required. Embed functional and communication expertise in the implementation team. Drive employee ownership of the solution. Develop reference materials, train effectively, and track competence. Ensure leaders walk the talk. Communicate success and reward effort. Using these strategies will ensure process improvement ideas are effectively implemented, and expected results are realized and sustained long term.
Process Improvement Engagement and Communication Strategies
1. Communicate “why” process improvement is required
Simon Sinek explains how great leaders inspire action by starting with “why”.
Senior leaders must clearly and consistently communicate why process improvement is needed. This provides organizational context, demonstrates how process improvement supports company strategy, confirms the expected benefit, and shows employees that senior leaders care about how the changes will impact them. A well-structured “why” statement explains the problem – “Our manufacturing defects are 15% higher than our competitors”…the objective – “Our objective is to reduce manufacturing defects by 50%”…the impact – “This translates to a 10% increase in revenue, enables us to capture a larger market share, and ensures our business is viable long term”. This can’t be communicated effectively via email. Front up to impacted employees before the process improvement idea kicks off, let them voice their concerns and ask their questions. Answer honestly and openly. If an answer isn’t known or cannot be communicated, a commitment has to be made to follow up at the appropriate time. Don’t expect employees to be 100% on board after this conversation. Whilst critical, this is the first of many senior leadership conversations that will be required throughout process improvement implementation.
2. Embed functional and communication expertise in the implementation team
Employees are not receiving enough communication throughout the implementation of process improvement ideas. To overcome this the implementation team has to have the right balance of process improvement skills (to define and execute the required changes), functional subject matter expertise (technical knowledge and business relationships) and people skills (to engage, communicate, and train employees to embed the changes). Functional and communication skills are always overlooked. The Process Champion and Communications Advisor are two critical roles that need to be embedded in the implementation team to enable effective engagement and communication.
The Process Champion
The Process Champion is a functional subject matter expert, passionate about their job and section of the business, and has excellent business relationships with their colleagues. The Process Champion ensures the right people are engaged in problem and solution definition (see below). They identify risks and issues from the functional area and report them through to the implementation lead. The early identification of these risks and issues enables them to be managed before they become problems that threaten the success of the process improvement idea. The Process Champion leads the communication back to the function of how the risks and issues they raised will be resolved. When the Process Champion delivers this message to their colleagues it has 100% more impact and credibility than an outsider delivering the same message. The Process Champion is also invaluable in embedding the process changes once the implementation team is disbanded. The Process Champion transitions back into the business, is a key point of contact for questions on process changes, trains colleagues, monitors performance, and raises non-compliant behaviour.
The Communications Advisor
Two things hold true on every process improvement idea I’ve worked on: 1) We think we’re far better communicators than we actually are and 2) Communication plans are non-existent or are developed on the fly. As a result messaging is unclear, delivered too late, and not delivered to key employees. Poor communication of the process changes has a major impact on already nervous employees. When communication is poor, employees revert to the worst case scenario in their minds. Vocal employees then perpetuate this unnecessary worry to their colleagues. This can derail process improvement ideas rapidly. The Communications Advisor creates a structured approach to what needs to be communicated, when, to who, and through what communication tools. Communications are scheduled at critical milestones, contain clear messaging, and are delivered to the right employees, through the most appropriate communication channels.
3. Drive employee ownership of the solution
Employees own what they help to create. If employees are not involved in the definition of process problems and the creation of the solution they will feel like the changes are being inflicted on them, will take no ownership, and the process improvement idea will not be sustainable. This is especially important for process improvement ideas that require behavioural change. Behavioural changes are notoriously difficult to make sustainable because they are not easily controlled. If employees are not engaged, they will revert to the old, easy way of doing things and put the kibosh on the process improvement idea. Use the Process Champion to gather a good cross-section of employees. Ensure there is a good mix of old heads, new starters, and representation from all locations (if relevant). Engage these employees to map the current process, gain an understanding of what’s not working, why, and the impact on performance. Obtain their opinion on achievable performance improvement targets. Involve them heavily in the idea generation and prioritization process. This early engagement and communication transfers ownership of the process problems and solutions to the employees rather than the implementation team. This breaks down resistance to change and makes process changes sustainable.
4. Develop reference materials, train effectively, and track competence
Final process changes have been agreed and are ready for implementation. Verbally communicating the process changes is not enough. An effective training program is critical to the successful implementation and sustainability of a process improvement idea. At this point, the implementation team has typically faced challenges, are behind schedule and over budget. Reference material and training costs are highly compressible. It’s really tempting to claw back some of that lost time and money by cutting back in these areas. Do not do it! The money and time saved from cutting the material development and training scope are meaningless compared to unrealized or unsustained benefits from the process improvement idea. Use the Process Champion to develop a training program for impacted employees. Develop concise, visual reference materials that instruct employees on how to execute the new process. Ensure the training program includes demonstration, group discussion, and hands-on practice. These elements result in significantly higher levels of retained knowledge as outlined in the hierarchy below. Track the competency of employees to execute the new process. Provide targeted, additional training where it is required.
5. Ensure leaders walk the talk
Peter Drucker (Philosopher and Management Consultant) conveys “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”. Leaders set behavioural standards on which employees model their own behaviour. The graph below demonstrates the impact of leadership effectiveness on employee engagement and commitment. It shows employees who worked for low performing managers, had low engagement and commitment scores.
Conversely, employees who worked for excellent leaders had very high engagement and commitment scores. When employees see senior leaders actively supporting process changes through their behaviour they are more likely to support and adopt the changes themselves. When employees see senior leaders behaving contrary to the process changes it opens the door for widespread poor and/or non-compliant behaviour. Consider this – Vehicle to vehicle collisions have increased at a factory. Three changes are rolled out in a process improvement idea 1) Cars give way to all other equipment, 2) Speed limits are lowered to 10kph, 3) The horn must be sounded before exiting and entering. The Factory Operations Manager communicates the changes to his employees – reinforcing the importance of safety and supporting the new processes. He then, late for a meeting, cuts off a forklift and doesn’t sound the horn before exiting. His behaviour sends a contradictory message to his team about the importance of the process changes. His team now has a reference point for not complying. His behavioural messaging is more impactful than his verbal messaging. Senior leaders must walk the talk by visually supporting process improvement ideas.
6. Communicate success and reward effort
Momentum builds motivation. Motivation is critical to overcoming issues, maintaining focus and driving process improvement ideas through to completion. When momentum stalls, motivation declines and the process improvement idea is at risk of failing. The best way to build momentum and motivation is by frequently communicating and celebrating the achievement of process improvement implementation milestones with impacted employees. A McKinsey survey of 1,047 employees supports this. The survey highlights that praise and commendation from an employee’s immediate manager are more effective at building motivation than financial incentives.
Build momentum and motivation early and maintain them until the idea is complete. This can be achieved using a variety of communication strategies:
End of week team achievement emails and impact charts
These are sent to employees early Friday afternoon, thanking them for their effort, and concisely communicating key progress, achievements and next week’s priority tasks. This shows employees that their efforts are recognised and builds motivation to continue implementing the process improvement idea. Use performance charts in the email to visually communicate the positive impact of employees efforts. These charts should also be placed in high traffic areas around the organisation. The example below is from a contractor cost reduction idea. Note how the chart links positive behaviour (process compliance) to the impact on the business ($2.5m saving).
Regular off the cuff leadership check-ins
Not all communication needs to be planned and structured. Informal communication is really powerful. It feels more casual and genuine to employees. As a result is broken down barriers and promotes two-way communication. The framework below provides excellent guidance on the key differences between formal and informal communications.
Frequent off the cuff leadership check-ins to reward progress or performance, or show empathy on recent setbacks is a really powerful way of building and maintaining momentum as process improvement ideas are implemented. Leaders need to resist the urge to plan to message, or create PowerPoint decks that support these conversations. This removes the informality and associated benefits. The best way to start an informal check-inn is to simply stop by and ask employees “how has your week been?” The conversation will flow naturally from here.
Call out great individual performance and manage slower adopters
Certain employees will adopt process changes quicker than their colleagues. Call out these employees, reinforce their positive behaviour, and encourage their colleagues to follow suit. This creates healthy tension in the team and will bring employees who are slower to change along for the journey. The example below is from a customer satisfaction improvement idea. Note how the chart highlights exceptional performance vs. the team average and provides a summary of key contributing factors.
Never call out negative or non-compliant behaviour in group communication. Show respect to employees who are slower to change by meeting with them one on one. Ask open-ended questions to gain an understanding of why they’re struggling with the process changes. The true reason for their struggle will often be very different from your assumed reasoning. It’s easy to assume experienced employees who don’t support process improvement are just being cranky and cannot change, the reality is usually very different. These experienced employees designed and implemented the original process. Changing the process can make them feel like they’ve failed and that their expertise is no longer required. Thank struggling employees for their honesty, reinforce the importance of their role in the business, and confirm that they have full support as the process changes are implemented. This approach enables leaders to find and address the real issues that are preventing the implementation of the process changes.
Senior leaders cannot engage too early, listen too much, or over convey critical messages. Use these tried and tested engagement and communication strategies to ensure your process improvement ideas are implemented effectively, and expected results are realised and sustained long-term. The performance of the business depends upon it.