A repeated theme in post comments, e-mailed questions, and discussions about various process and business improvement methodologies is doubt about the real potential of process improvement methods. Can we really improve processes to an optimal level, or can a process only be improved to a limited degree before it must be completely scrapped and re-invented? Does the benefit of incremental process improvement really outweigh the cost?

I’ve been reluctant to invite discussion or venture an opinion about that theme for a long time, primarily because the “waters” of that challenge are “deep.” It’s not a simple discussion. However, today I’m feeling brave, or inspired, or foolish, so I thought I’d try to broach the subject.

Let me address the most pessimistic angle of the arguments doubting the payoff of process improvement. It might be summed up as, “The effort and cost to change culture, train personnel, fight the battles against resistance to change, change processes, and otherwise incrementally improve according to a structured methodology that is really just a fad are too great and a waste of time.”

What does a person say to that? After all it is really an assertion or an opinion, a belief, and any example that I bring that demonstrates that it is wrong could be countered by another demonstrating it to be correct. So, yes, it is possible to waste time and energy and money instituting an unsuccessful continuous improvement program. Does possibility make it true?

My children in elementary school are learning a concept called growth mindset vs. closed mindset. Simply put, a growth mindset is optimistically willing to learn and explore and try new things while a closed mindset believes that things cannot or will not change. Bottom line, mindset tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that you will not succeed, you probably won’t. If that is what you chose to believe, then I’m afraid that any further discussion is a waste of time. 

A mindset that is willing to put forth the effort to learn and grow and succeed is necessary for change to work. I, for one, have never been able to completely accept the status quo. Even when performance is good, I find myself imagining how something might be improved. It’s not an unhappy state of mind, just forward focused.

My point is this: sometimes truth is a matter of belief more so than evidence, especially when there is evidence for both arguments. Therefore, to the challenge that continuous improvement isn’t worth the effort, mindset is the most influential factor. 

With that point made, let’s move on to the often-asked question, “Is there a limit to the improvement without completely re-inventing an existing process?” There is the follow-on question, “If so, then how do we decide to improve or to redesign?” Also embedded in the question or challenge is the concern that the popular process improvement methodologies don’t appear to provide instructions or recipes for designing processes from scratch, which feeds the doubt about the effectiveness of improvement methods.

The answer to the challenge is neither affirmative nor denial, it’s one of those yes and no answers. I have witnessed and also participated in process improvement efforts that have so thoroughly changed an existing process that by the time it is “optimized” there is almost nothing left of the original process. So, yes continuous improvement can successfully, completely change and optimize process performance; it does not have to be limited by the pre-existing process design.

Contrarily, I have also run into roadblocks to further improvement on more than one occasion that prevented optimization. I found that in each of those cases the source of the limit was either a capital investment or a policy that the business was either unwilling or unable to alter.

While it is possible to have our improvement potential limited by decisions or designs made in the past, it’s not always the case; it’s not absolute. There must be dozens of different reasons or indicators that improvement or redesign might be preferred, but by way of providing a simple starting point I offer the following.

Evaluate the greatest limiting factor, choke point, or bottleneck of the existing process. If it can’t be changed, supplemented or bypassed with a process improvement, and it simply will not be sufficient for current or future needs, it would be best to eliminate it, which probably means that redesign is appropriate.

Also, consider how much of your existing process is broken or in need of change. When we set out to make major overhauls of existing processes, the distinction between improvement and redesign becomes difficult to make.

If you need to design a new process or re-invent a process, the popular methodologies are equipped to help us do it. The specific application of the methodology’s tools to design-from-scratch may not always be taught to us when we learn it, but it is there.

Six Sigma has a branch of the methodology called Design for Six Sigma. While some of us come to understand that the Design for Six Sigma discipline is intended for designing products and solutions to help optimize Six Sigma performance, it is also perfectly organized to design new processes or redesign existing ones.

Likewise, the Lean methodology’s methods for mapping and optimizing an existing process work very well for designing processes from scratch. Just because our trainers didn’t use examples in class to show us that it works, doesn’t mean we can’t use the same tools and methods to design new processes. In some way’s I find it easier to design a new process than to improve an old one. The key to success is to understand what performance outcomes are important or necessary before you begin.

To sum up, is incremental process improvement a waste of time, energy, and resources? It can be if you don’t commit to the continuous improvement program and engineer it for success. It doesn’t have to be, and a great many organizations have been very successful, and have even completely changed business performance through continuous improvement methods.

Is there a limit to how much improvement can be accomplished from existing processes? Sometimes there is, but not always. The limits are often fairly easy to immediately see if you look for them. If you can point to something in your process that you aren’t willing or able to change, usually a capital investment or a policy, you are pointing at the limit to potential improvement. If you can change every element of the process, there is no reason why you can’t optimize it.

Are the process improvement methodologies really suited for process design-from-scratch? They aren’t always taught in that context, but yes, the tools and methods work well for design and for improvement.

I admit that I’m asserting an opinion, when I say that we should always try to improve upon the status quo. I have difficulty arguing the point, because to me it seems so obvious and, frankly, natural. I am frustrated by people with a closed mindset that insist that things cannot get better than they are.

Improvement is worthwhile. Sometimes redesign is necessary to get the improvement we desire. The methodologies out there do provide the tools and understanding to help us design a more optimal solution. Make up your own mind about the value of improving, or not.

Stay wise, friends.

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