Monday, May 22, 2006

Process Improvement as Decision Avoidance

From my previous posts it is possible to get the impression that I am against process improvement programs in general. I am not. Process improvement techniques such as Balanced Scorecard, Lean Six Sigma, High Performing Organizations and Whole Goals provide frameworks around which you can improve. There are times when you need such a framework.

In the most elemental sense, a company exists to fill customer demands with products in a profitable way. I sell something to you and you pay me more than it took me to produce that product. I then go off for a week on the Riviera. Oops! I only meant to think that part.

When corporate management is unsure of how to go about improving their company, process improvement techniques can provide a structure for that improvement. Balanced Scorecard guides management in developing a balanced way to improve. You set simultaneous goals for customer relations, internal financial processes, employee learning and growth and so on. You assign metrics to each area and measure them over time. It’s a well thought out methodology for improvement.

It is not a substitute for leadership. If you are totally adrift, you cannot whip out your balanced scorecard map and suddenly find yourself rocketing off to success. It is also not applicable in all cases. Plenty of firms have a strong grasp on their business and don’t require such help. Process improvement techniques add inertia to your organization. When decisions are made by measuring them against a scorecard, it takes extra time and effort.

Process improvement techniques pay off for organizations that need a structure for improvement. They pay off for companies where leadership is struggling with organization and goal setting prior to making decisions. One example would be a young company with technical leadership that is unused to making business decisions, such as a video game company started by brilliant computer programmers. Without a business background, they could profit tremendously from using a foundation developed by much more experienced professionals. In the absence of such a framework, the company might make many serious mistakes.

Once a process improvement technique has been chosen, it is crucial to follow it and not get sidetracked into yet another and another. Each of these techniques has a start up cost. Each is a tool that takes time to learn before it begins to pay off. When you try several at the same time, it is like being at the rifle range and going “Ready, aim, aim, aim, ready, aim, ready, aim, aim…”

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