Title: Process Improvement: a managers job
Author: Lowell Boggs
Abstract: The author believes that process improvement is principally a
management function but since it is a confusing, tedious and
often unrewarding activity, the work may get delegated to
those least likely to succeed -- individual contributors.
Regular, rigorous management reviews can improve success rates.
Process improvement, as a corporate activity, typically begins both at
the top and at the bottom -- but rarely the middle.
High level managers latch on to the idea as a way to reduce cost and
improve quality -- hoping this will result in increased customer
satisfaction. Individual contributors get tired of repeating the same
boring, ineffective daily routines and would much rather spend their
time inventing new processes than turning the crank on the old ones
till their arms get tired.
Middle managers, however, are the ones most likely to succeed in the
process improvement arena: They have a good working knowledge of
organizational activities, they can make money decisions and they
direct the activities of their subordinates. They have the authority
to let one area suffer while another benefits -- something that
individual contributers, who get reviewed based on their work output,
simply don't feel comfortable doing. It is unreasonable to expect
individual contributers to put off their own work to help someone else
get "his" process improvement project done. Middle managers are usually
more approachable than upper managers.
Middle managers don't have proper incentive:
Middle managers, however, get squeezed from several directions at once:
yes, their superiors want them to improve the process, but no they
can't have any more people or money to do the work. AND they've still
got to get their products out the door on time and as close to budget
as they can. In fact, their group might even be downsizing.
It is a good rule of thumb to expect that projects which are reviewed
more often and more thoroughly will have more progress than those which
aren't. Projects essential to the profit of an organization naturally
get more scrutiny than those which don't. A lack of zeal in the
reviewing of process improvement projects can provide an incentive to
put that project on the back burner.
Also, changing an organization's processes is difficult, time
consuming, potentially error prone, and has debatable return on the
investment -- debatable at least by those having to do the work.
In all probability, existing processes work, are well understood, at
least by those who execute them, and are frightfully complex. And,
everyone is already very busy getting product out the door. It's easy
to underestimate the value of process improvement and easy to
overestimate the difficulty.
If these dificulties did not exist with process improvement, a
corporate push wouldn't be necessary: the improvements would already
have been made by those using the processes.
The results of insufficient management interest:
Since middle managers are very busy ensuring that they are successful
in those projects which are being carefully scrutinized, they often
delegate responsibility for projects which are on the back burner.
This gets them off the hook with their superiors -- after all they've
got a resource assigned to the problem -- but doesn't necessarily get
the job done.
Process improvement teams may then be made up of which ever individual
contributors happen to be free to serve, rather than with empowered
managers capable of making decisions and acting on them.
In order for a team of individual contributors to be successful at
organization wide change:
* members must be very knowledgable about the organization
* members must be widely known and accepted by the organization
* members must be sufficiently comfortable with their own job
positions that they can frankly discuss organizational
processes with whomever the team must interact -- especially
if a manager is in charge of a process being changed
* managers must actively review the plans and goals of the
improvement team and communicate this interest and confidence
in the success of the team to the organization at large
* members must constantly review their ideas and plans with their
co-workers, particularly those whose jobs will be changed, to
insure that they are moving correctly and to keep their cohorts
informed about the coming change
If these things aren't true, the team will be stone walled into
ineffectiveness by their comrades who are heavily entrenched in the
existing way of doing things.
Skills needed to improve the process:
Process improvement is a very complex task. It is usually necessary to
understand the minute details of what are often big, convoluted,
un-documented, manually executed processes which interact with one
another in subtle ways. It may well be that there is no one in the
organization who actually understands what the processes are. Further
complications arise because of the need for the organization to
continue to function effectively while the improvements take place.
Significant system engineering skills will be needed in order to deal
with the technical complexities.
Project management skills will be necessary in order to plan and
schedule changes to the running processes without bringing the
organization to a halt.
Communications skills will be needed to document, communicate, and to
overcome the natural resistance of those whose jobs are going to be
changed by the improvement process.
Solving some of these problems:
Planning process improvement activities is a complex task but doesn't
have to be invented from scratch. The corporate division (SC, DSEG,
IS&S, etc) may have established a Software Engineering Process Group
(SEPG) to assist individual projects with plans for doing the work.
Having them provide template project roadmaps, plans, document formats,
team descriptions, etc can save enormous amounts of time. They can
also assist in convincing others that improvement is a valuable
Upper levels of management should regularly and rigorously review
process improvement projects to ensure that everyone understands the
importance of the projects and ensure that progress is occuring. The
reviewing process will help communicate their interest and the need for
Managers should take part in the process improvement teams to provide
wisdom and instill confidence in other team members. They don't have
to attend every meeting, but they need to regularly and rigorously
review the team's work.
Everyone in the organization needs to be made aware, and constantly
reminded that its "our" process improvement project, not "the team's"
process improvement project.
Team members should be chosen from among those who have the knowledge
and skills necessary to be successful, not just whoever is available to
serve. If at all possible, members who have a vested interest in the
success of an improvement activity should chosen.
Even if the right team members are chosen, it is important to realize
that a group of people told to work together to solve a problem isn't a
"team", its a "committee". Teaming training and change management
training both for managers and team members would be beneficial in
converting the committees into teams.
In order for process improvement to be successful, management must
accept responsibility for the activities. Managers dont' have to do
all the work, but they have to manage the improvement activies and
provide an occasional helping hand.