Have you ever led a Continuous Improvement transformation (CI), achieved considerable early success only to see it go off track and fail? If not then you haven’t lived!
From my experience there are 4 categories of causes:
- The intervention team lost sight of its purpose and therefore shifted its posture
- The intervention team failed to morph as the organisation developed its CI abilities
- Executive interest was lost or lost the executive.
- The sustaining systems of the organisation were not treated to effectively support the CI transformation.
In this article I will be dealing with the intervention team losing sight of its purpose.
If the organisation is shooting for true CI then the intervention team’s purpose is likely to be something like:
“To be the catalyst, coach and mentor to initiate and embed CI in the organisation so that it delivers the required business value in a self-sustaining way”
After intervening in about 3 locations the team will see a few patterns emerging and an opportunity to make changes to the approach. This, of course, should be encouraged. We should all be seeking to find better ways. The problem starts when those changes are inconsistent with the purpose of the intervention (purpose drift).
By way of example. The training modules for a particular program were designed to be a deep discovery and learning experience. This enabled participants to gain a better appreciation and integration of the learning into their daily work practices. This was consistent with the purpose and the learning posture of that intervention. It was very successful.
After the 3 cycles it was decided to simplify the approach to save time and codify the training into detailed manuals so that a general trainer could recite the material. This saved time and cost of implementation (or so they thought). What occurred here was a drift in purpose away from being a catalyst to embed an improvement system to being an efficient delivery of information. A significant part of the learning posture was lost and the meaning of that training diminished. The recovery work to achieve a successful implementation far exceeded any perceived time and cost saving in the training.
Things to consider to prevent Purpose Drift:
- Will the change being considered further the purpose or compromise it?
- Be alert to attempts to be more efficient in delivery at the expense of effectiveness of take up.
- Each “client” assignment must start where the client is at not where the intervention team has evolved to.
- Don’t get too smart. What you have learnt may be perceived as arrogant and damage the long term goal.
- Avoid the complacency of success. You should remain as alert and attentive in your next assignment as the first. You owe it to your new client team.
In summary, protect your purpose and hold your learning posture. To do otherwise will result in an intervention team that is mechanistic rather than a catalyst for transformation.
I have participated and led numerous transformations in my career including new business models, M&A, cost take out, performance and productivity initiatives (LEAN, 6σ), technology led initiatives etc. One thing they have in common is an underestimation of what it takes to transform a large organisation.
There are many reasons for this including:
- A weak learning culture.
- The existing systems and processes are so ingrained in the organisation and the people that it is very difficult to un-program and reprogram.
- There is a very strong emphasis on compliance.
- A developed distrust of major change.
- The sheer number of people that have to make the transition.
Often the transformation effort involves a study of the issue within its business context, solution definition, action plan and estimation of the benefits followed by implementation including some training. When presented this way it appears that all you need to do is follow the bouncing ball, create tension by implementing the changes and watch the employees’ catch-up. Unfortunately this rarely leads to true transformation.
Why is this unlikely to be the complete answer? I think one of the main reasons is that the organisation’s ability to change is determined by its speed of learning (not to be confused with the speed of training). Training is an action taken to impart knowledge. Learning is a human state that enables new knowledge to be absorbed and integrated into actions.
Learning involves motivated enquiry, a deeper understanding of the environment, a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo, a desire to know and solve problems, courage to experiment and a sense of empowerment within an effective control framework to achieve the right things. It also requires trust within the group. I call this the learning posture.
The deeper the learning posture is engrained in the organisation’s culture the faster transformation can be effected. If the organisation learns too slowly it is likely that the CEO will kill it off believing the transformation is not working. The good news is that with careful design and implementation a strong learning posture can be developed and nurtured as part of the transformation. The faster a transformation is expected to occur the greater the emphasis should be placed on actively nurturing a learning posture.
To develop a learning posture:
- Create little hubs as a starting point so people can see and experience the learning posture and what the transformation means. Showing people is far more powerful than trying to explain it.
- Let the work be the learning and the learning be the work. This means creating and maintaining a short cycle review and learning process that the workgroup conducts on itself. The role of the leader is to encourage a constructive mindset that involves honest critique in a safe environment. In this situation the work experience is also the learning experience.
- Introduce short duration training as appropriate. This training should occur after the need is experienced by the team rather than in anticipation of the need. This is counterintuitive but will yield better results. Participants are more likely to be attentive and in a learning state if they have a personal felt need for that training.
- Training should be experiential rather than information sharing. It should be designed for participant discovery not a platform for the trainer.
- Develop skills in how to ask effective questions. Extensive real time coaching should be incorporated here especially for managers who are accustomed to directing action rather than creating a learning environment.
- Maintain an environment of mutual respect and trust. Again real time, in the field coaching may be necessary.
In summary, to achieve a high impact and speedier transformation then the design and implementation of the transformation should have at its core the establishment and maintenance of a learning posture.