How do you make short term operational and process improvements ‘stick’ for the long term?

Most change initiatives fail to deliver on their early promise. You get some short term improvement, some changes made, but the effectiveness of the process dwindles with time.

I often see failed improvement initiatives, usually labelled ‘Lean” or ‘6 Sigma’ by those involved, that leave a pile of paper, some awareness and knowledge, and from time to time some useful results, but nothing like the promises of the expensive consultants as they signed you up.

Why is that?

Nobody goes into a change process expecting it to fail

In my observation, the single most common reason these initiatives fail is because they ignore one of the basic tenets of Lean: respect for people.

Lean gets a start because management sees problems they have failed to solve, or do not know how to solve. So they bring in some Lean consultants who reach into the tool box and come out with some of the common tools, go through an education process, implement, and get some quick and sometimes impressive wins, and victory is declared. After that declaration, the focus moves elsewhere,  and the process slowly deteriorates.

Why is that?

Everyone was so committed, excited at the early results, the consultants were paid a shedload, so it should have worked.

In 30 years of doing this stuff, there is always one dominant reason they fail.

The initiative is top down, not bottom up.

Those at the top see problems manifest in the P&L. Their motivations are financial, operational and strategic. They talk about alignment, and people being the most valuable asset, then ignore them.

By contrast, building initiative from the bottom, asking those doing the work how to improve it, then giving them the tools to improve, and rewarding them with acknowledgement as well as a more secure job and maybe a pay rise, is where the action is.

However, for managers, they are trained to see their job as managing. Having some stuff bubbling up from the factory that has not gone through the formal approval processes and subjected to the discipline of  the accountants mandatory NPV  and ROI analysis is uncomfortable and challenging to their authority as managers.

This is where the distinction between managers and leaders comes in.

Managers, usually unwittingly, kill off the grass roots enthusiasm to make their workplace safer, more interesting, and more productive because it makes them uncomfortable, less in control.  By imposing rules, they interrupt the productive flow evident in successful initiatives. By contrast,  leaders encourage and promote the ambiguity that sometimes results, and works with it.

Which are you, Manager or Leader?