Are you a Lion or a Gazelle?

Successful business improvement initiatives do not just look after themselves, they need serious management commitment…

Way back in the 1850’s, Rudolf Clausius posited the concept of the thermodynamic system. This introduced us to the word ‘entropy’, and led to the definition of the second law of thermodynamics. Essentially, entropy is a measure of how systems degrade from order to disorder. Without some form of energy put back into a system, all order is eventually lost.

All businesses and the processes that give them a profitable return are dependent on order. If systems can’t adapt to meet new demands over time, profitability will be lost. If they are able to adapt, but the changes are uncontrolled, they will decay into disorder resulting not only in lost profitability, but also lost revenues through poor customer experience. Businesses cannot survive unless there is a surplus of income to expenditure, and they certainly can’t exist without a revenue stream!

Fact! If a business can’t adapt to change in a controlled manner – it will certainly die.

ISO9001:2015 Section 10 specifies a requirement that businesses should strive for continual improvement. (10.1 General: The organization must determine and select opportunities for improvement and implement any necessary actions to meet customer requirements and enhance customer satisfaction).

Note here, the prime focus is ’to enhance the customer experience’.

The vast majority of business improvement programmes fail to deliver sustained long term benefit. Why is this so? Why, in general, is continuous improvement seen as having only a secondary value (sometimes perceived as a nuisance value) to the health of a business’ operational model? Here are my observations from past experience:

Leadership

Effective continuous improvement is NOT possible when it isn’t managed right from the very top. Every failed programme that I have encountered has this specific attributable cause, and the sad thing is that blame on the failure is always levelled at the improvement programme itself and not the people who are supposed to manage it.

In some cases, and I have experienced this several times in not for profit services,senior management don’t even become involved in the discussion. There is a tendency to vest any form of staff development into the HR function, way below where the decision-making process should originate – and where the HR function’s performance is measured in terms of ‘ticking the box’ for ensuring everyone’s training budget allocation is filled.

So, absolute top priority is that Executive and Senior management understand what continuous improvement is, what it can do for their organisation, and how it should be deployed as an integral part of the strategic needs of the business.

Communication and Engagement

Engagement with ALL staff is absolutely essential for any form of successful activity. This goes for a continuous improvement infrastructure too. The quickest route to disengaging staff from continuous improvement is to employ one or several of the following techniques:

  • Keep people in the dark about what direction the business is taking, that includes hiding the truth which can sometimes be unpalatable but necessary.
  • Not creating time for the business to effectively cascade regular and timely information down through the organisation.
  • Not providing the necessary understanding to staff about the importance of continuous improvement, and the expectation that they are a necessary part of this process.
  • Not allocating the right people, and the right resources to enable continuous improvement to be fully effective.

So, ensure your organisation has an effective system to communicate change and the need for change, and that it becomes aligned to ‘business as usual’ lines of communication.

Manage the continuous improvement mercilessly

Fair enough Executive and Senior management won’t have time to micro-manage a change programme, but it WILL need managing. Make sure you allocate the right talents and skill sets in a Senior Management position to act as a communication link between Executive managements strategic needs and the operational managements tactical objectives. For most organisations this is NOT a part time responsibility.

Commit to appropriate resources

Many organisations have now ‘Leaned’ themselves up to the point that ‘Lean’ has become ‘mean’, leaving absolutely no time budgeted to sustain the next generation of improvement activity. To some extent, management drive this trait in order to get ‘quick wins’ straight back onto the bottom line, instead of reinvesting tangible benefits back it into the organisations ability to develop and adapt.

If I count the number of times I’ve seen organisations expecting staff to train ‘over and above’ their effective working time I shouldn’t need to be here writing this article.

Yes, it costs you to implement an effective continuous improvement infrastructure and the gestation period before it starts paying itself back can be of the order of several months. Don’t make the mistake of expecting miracle returns from overexerting staff – give them a chance to prove themselves and the system. You have to take a bit of pain in order to realise the much larger gains that will ensue from an effectively managed programme of improvement.

Manage change effectively

Any form of change will challenge and disrupt current operating practices. If change is allowed to happen in an uncontrolled manner it will actually have an extremely undesirable impact on the organisation. Make sure that change is properly managed. That means ensuring your systems can

  • Ensure change is assessed by appropriate management before implementation.
  • Ensure changes are validated for effectiveness before being ‘signed-off’ by appropriate management.
  • Ensure local management actually DO implement appropriate re-training to changed processes.
  • Ensure local management continue to monitor the compliance to the latest formal operating procedures.

Note the common denominator in all four of the above – ‘Managed’.

A long time ago I heard a saying ‘Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.

Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up; it knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: When the sun comes up, you had better be running’.

I think it’s time we get back on our feet and start running folks!

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