Why do so many improvement programs ultimately end up on the chopping block? Company leaders often sponsor these efforts in the first place, so what happens between the day a deployment kicks off with the C-suite's enthusiastic support and the day the plug is pulled?
Even projects that result in marked improvements often fail to make an impression on decision-makers.
Well, the success of the program often remains invisible to those at the top. In their 2020 Global State of Process Excellence report, Process Excellence Network said the top challenge faced by process professionals is “Linking process improvement with top-level business strategy.” This is not a new issue either — their survey responses have actually shown this to be the top challenge for at least three years.
To add to that, American Society for Quality research has revealed only 25% of senior executives receive project deployment metrics even on an annual basis. You can bet they make decisions that impact those programs much more frequently than that!
Even in organizations with robust, mature continuous improvement programs, assessing the cumulative impact of an initiative can be difficult, and sometimes impossible.
We found these 5 reasons, and we have some suggestions on how to avoid them.
1. Project Data Is Scattered and Inaccessible
Individual project teams usually do a great job capturing and reporting their results, but challenges quickly arise when projects accumulate.
A large company might have thousands of simultaneous projects active at any given time, and countless more completed. Gathering the critical information from all of them and then putting it into a format that leaders can easily access and use is an extremely daunting task.
Many organizations simply fail to do it, and the overall impact of their program remains a mystery.
2. Projects Are a Hodgepodge of Applications and Documents
In most organizations, teams have to use an assortment of separate applications for documents, process maps, value stream maps and other essential project tools. That means the project record becomes a compilation of distinct, frequently incompatible files from many different software programs.
Team members are then forced to waste time and energy entering identical information into multiple applications. Adding to the confusion, the latest versions of documents might reside on several different computers. Even in the cloud different versions could exist on different personal OneDrives or Google Drives, Dropboxes, Microsoft Teams, Sharepoint, etc. Ergo, project leaders need to track multiple versions of a document to keep the official project record current.
3. Half Full? Half Empty? Metrics Vary from Project to Project
Even teams in the same department often don't treat essential metrics consistently or track the same data in the same way. Multiply that across the thousands of projects under way at any given time in an organization, and it's not hard to see why compiling a reliable report about the impact of all these projects never happens.
Even if the theoretical KPIs are consistent across an organization, when one division tracks them in apples and the next tracks them in oranges, their results can't be evaluated or aggregated.
4. Teams Struggle with Square-Hole Tracking Systems
Many organizations attempt to monitor and assess the impact of continuous improvement initiatives using methods that range from homegrown project databases to full-blown, extremely expensive project portfolio management (PPM) systems.
Sometimes these work — at least for a while — but many organizations find maintaining their homegrown systems turns into a major hassle and expense. And as others have discovered, the off-the-shelf solutions created to meet the needs of finance, information technology, customer service or other business functions don’t adequately fit or support projects that are based on continuous improvement methodologies such as Six Sigma or Lean.
The result? Systems that slowly wither as resources are directed elsewhere, reporting mechanisms that go unused and summaries that fail to convey a true assessment of an initiative's impact even if they are used.
5. Reporting Takes Too Much Time
There are only so many hours in the day, and busy team members and leaders need to prioritize. Especially when operating under some of the conditions above, team leaders find reporting on projects to be a burden that just never rises to the top of the priority list.
With limited time available, copying and pasting information from project documents into one place and format, after it has been rounded up from various team members, computers and servers, doesn't seem to be a value-adding activity.
And if the boss isn't asking for those numbers (it appears many C-level executives don't), most project leaders would rather devote their limited time to any other tasks.
Organizations can establish standards and make sure that all project teams use consistent metrics. Leaders can take steps to make sure that reporting on results becomes a critical step in every individual project.
Reporting on Improvement Efforts Doesn't Need to Be So Difficult
Given the complexity of the task, and the systemic and human factors involved in continuous improvement, it's not hard to see why many organizations struggle with knowing how well their initiatives are doing. The challenge is to make sure that reporting on results becomes a critical step in every individual project and that all projects are using consistent metrics. Teams that can do that will find their results getting more attention and more credit for how they affect the bottom line.
This finding in the ASQ report dramatically underscores problems we at Minitab have been focusing on recently—in fact, our Minitab Engage software tackles many of these factors head-on. For executives, managers, and stakeholders, Engage delivers unprecedented and unparalleled insight into the progress, performance, and bottom-line impact of the organization’s entire improvement initiative, or any individual piece of it.
Brian Mapani, National Continuous Improvement Manager at South African food manufacturer Premier FMCG, actually credits Engage in his company's success, which he describes as starting from a company that only had a vision of continuous improvement to one that has executed and delivered way ahead of their 5-year plan and strategy. They count among their achievements saving the company hundreds of thousands of dollars by optimizing their recipe formulation process. Watch him explain more: