Steve Spear on Process Improvement — Avoid Zombie-Like Thinking

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Overcoming inefficiencies in the workplace is an ongoing struggle for most leaders. Your team is counting on you to create and maintain systems that result in optimized productivity, profitability, and customer experience. That’s no easy task in today’s complex, global marketplace.

Steve Spear is an expert in helping leaders create competitive advantage by optimizing internal operations. In addition to being the author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed book, The High Velocity Edge, he’s a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

He says that today’s leaders need to be far more proactive and intentional about not only pursuing process improvement but making it a distinctive part of their leadership approach.

Ignoring Small Process Problems Creates Big Problems

Spear refers to small process problems as “work arounds”—because even though they’re usually known, everyone has consciously or subconsciously decided just to carry on and adapt their routines to accommodate or avoid the issue.

While individual unsolved problems may be minor, over time they can coalesce to create a much bigger problem. Leaders are often tempted to soldier through and coexist with ongoing problems. After all, no one wants to be the squeaky wheel.

Spear has a term for organizations full of people who don’t want to be squeaky wheels— zombie organizations. In such companies, information goes missing, instructions aren’t clear, resources aren’t allocated efficiently, and communication is poor, yet leaders and teams just keep going— like zombies.

Zombie-like thinking, he says, is rooted in the idea that senior level leadership doesn’t have time to think about small problems. “Most of the time, when given a chance to think about organization ‘performance,’ we think about efficiency, productivity, quality, and the like, with their corresponding customer-side measures of satisfaction, brand loyalty, and the rest. But here’s the problem. All those measures are gathered and calculated on a delay.”

When leaders are solely focusing on the big picture of performance, they often fail to see the small problems with processes and workflows that can drastically impact organizational functioning. These small problems often go unnoticed until it’s too late.

Download the free Process Improvement Playbook: Overcoming the Hurdles of Manual Processes in the Workplace.

Process Improvement Playbook - Free eBook

Over time small problems can aggregate in such a way that they begin to derail major functions within your organization—negatively impacting operations, draining productivity, and weakening a team’s ability to respond to new opportunities or threats.

If enough problems snowball out of control, catastrophe can strike— like scandal, loss of market share, bankruptcy, or even worse. Spear reminds us that the Challenger explosion, BP oil spill, and even 9/11 were all series of countless small errors coalescing to weaken a system’s ability to guard against tragedy.

Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement

The best way for organizations to optimize internal operations is to adopt a continuous process improvement strategy that involves all stakeholders, not just senior leadership.

Spear says, “We have an unfortunate bias in how we educate managers, particularly those with seniority and responsibilities spanning large swaths of the organization.  The convention is that they are supposed to be presented with data and from that make decisions that work systemically and locally. But when we have organizations embedded in complex, dynamic ecosystems, then we’re faced with the reality that stuff can be going wrong everywhere all the time. No matter its talent, no select group is going to see everything everywhere all the time. And those that get missed have the potential to be the ones that cause havoc.”

We also can’t depend on technology to detect all problems. “Sure, uber-technophiles might hope for a day of embedded ubiquitous sensors that can detect all that happens, and it may well be that there are technological systems that allow for such an extent of monitoring that no human involvement is necessary. However, those are the few and rare.”

Rather than depending solely on senior leadership and data systems to detect problems, he encourages organizations to create an organization-wide culture of continuous improvement and to encourage stakeholders to go ahead and be squeaky wheels.

“Make it safe to call out problems early and often—when they are tractable and before they’ve snowballed to cause a crisis situation,” says Spear. “More often than not, it’s people who experience difficulty, inconvenience, aberration, and are at a point to call it out long before any sensor can. After all, the sensors are tuned to detect problems already known to exist, not the ones that haven’t been anticipated.”

Look for Awkwardness & Disappointment

Finding and addressing problems doesn’t have to be complicated. According to Spear, it’s easy to quickly find a flaw that can be fixed. “Look for awkwardness on the part of those doing work and disappointment on the part of those who should be benefitting from that work.”

If your processes are working well, work should look fluid, responsive, agile, productive, and graceful.  If you see awkwardness, Spear says, “Try to determine why someone is not graceful. Look for searching, reworking, or the more literal smacking of the computer screen and banging a fist on the desk.”

On the customer side, always be on the lookout for disappointment. “Disappointment is also a sure sign that there are chances to improve the quality, cost, and availability of the products and services that are being offered.”

When faced with awkwardness and disappointment, leaders need to go through a triage process that includes examination, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up.  By fully understanding and addressing individual problems, we can prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

Convert Work Arounds into Learning Loops

Process improvement is about more than merely making problems go away. It’s about creating a culture in which every stakeholder feels free to call out problems, try solutions, and share what they learn in the process.

“Learning depends on first recognizing that problems exist—that there are fundamental shortcomings in how things are being approached. Then, these problems have to be solved—not in some slap-dash, make-do way, but in a bona fide knowledge-generating way that gives insights about how to proceed,” says Spear. “It’s about advancing from where we squander irrecoverable time and precious resources to where we put those to their best possible use.”

Spear adds that companies who fully embrace continuous process improvement have a significant competitive edge over other organizations. “Pick a sector—manufacturing, healthcare, high tech, public sector or private—you have those ‘anomalous’ organizations, generating way more value, more quickly, more easily than their rivals. That they can do so much more with less reflects that they have superior knowledge and skill both in determining what they should be doing and how to do it. That the operating environment is relentlessly ‘updating,’ and that these outliers sometimes sustain their leads for months and years on end reflects that they are updating what they know about what to do and how to do it way faster than everyone else. In short, they are simply outlearning the competition.”

To learn how you can overcome death from a thousand manual process-related paper cuts at work, download the Process Improvement Playbook.

Process Improvement Playbook - Free eBook

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