Continuous Process Improvement as a Business Management Principle rather than JUST a Tool-Oriented Methodology
We might have heard or even experienced some disappointing efforts and results of business process improvement methodologies, such as Total Quality Management, 5S, Lean, Six Sigma, and Business Process Reengineering, to cite a few. Leaving a stigma of inadvertent consequences, this impedes an organisation's pursuit towards better business results. These programmes are well-intended but they've over-promised and under-delivered in the said scenarios. Why did this happen? There have been researches conducted to unearth the reasons why, what stood out was that the failures have nothing to do with the methodologies but with the piece-meal, tool-oriented approach in its deployment.
In order to prevent this, organisations must focus on the underlying principles behind these business process improvement initiatives/methodologies. These methodologies must be sown in the nurturing culture of the organisation.
THE CULTURE OF OPENNESS
This nurturing culture must start with the leaders' openness to good ideas and innovations from anywhere and anyone in the organisation. They must be humble enough to accept that changes will happen to the organisation through the ideas of every individual and the collective effort of everyone in the organisation. With this kind of leadership, every individual is empowered to undertake every business processes with excellence in mind. This is how to build a strong foundation - to be an operationally excellent organisation. If this is purposely practiced, then, this will be the rich soil that will nurture the seeds of continuous process improvement. This approach is in contrast to just jumping in the continuous improvement bandwagon without establishing a culture of operational excellence.
LOOKING BEYOND THE TOOLS
Continuous process improvement as a business management principle requires us to look beyond the tools that each methodology advocates.
We need to focus rather on the underlying principles behind them to better drive ideal and principle-based behaviours in the organisation. This principle now becomes the basis for building a culture of excellence and executing an organisation's mission statement. The relationship between the business results and principle-based behaviour is called Operational Excellence. Looking beyond the tools influences individuals in the organisation through continuous process improvement. This begins by clearly defining value through the eyes of an organisation's customers, or simply put, by wearing the customer lenses. Expectations must be clearly communicated so that the management system (i.e., interactions and inter-relationships of business processes) can be designed to meet the needs of the customers. Every employee must know what "good" or "acceptable" quality is or whether the processes are creating good/acceptable products or services. Relevant to this, employees should also be cognizant of what are the corrective and preventive actions that must be done in the event of non-conformance. As they demystify their processes and weed out wastes, they will follow Dr. Shigeo Shingo's advice: "Improvement means the elimination of wastes, and the most essential precondition for improvement is the proper pursuit of goals. We must not be mistaken, first of all, about what improvement means. The four goals of improvement must be to make things easier, better, faster, and cheaper."
FOCUS ON ALL ASPECTS OF VALUE
The focus for continuous improvement must not only be on quality or cost but instead must incorporate all aspects of value including innovation, flexibility, fast delivery, and a view on the organisation's environmental, health, and safety. Continuous process improvement focuses on the uninterrupted flow of value which requires both scientific thinking and the capacity to identify and eliminate wastes in the process.
To sum up a successful adoption of continuous process improvement is ultimately a product of collective and conscientious effort from both management and its employees. This ultimately gives birth to a culture of strategic thinking which can help organisations propel themselves to greater heights. As in the words of Peter Drucker “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.