July 1993 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. Introduction: 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 activity. 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 the change. 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. Summary: 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.