Most process improvements start with plenty of momentum, but their changes don’t always stick. In fact, just 54% of major change initiatives stick long-term—a concerning statistic, considering the number of dedicated resources to these types of projects.
Whether you are a beginner to making digital process manufacturing improvements or a seasoned veteran, to enact change that lasts, we must identify why operational improvements don’t stick in the first place. Often, it’s not the tools used but the psychology behind the improvements that come up short. Improvement requires change, and to support that; we must accept that we aren’t perfect and recognize a need for change. Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of the barriers to change as well as ways to dismantle them.
Why Don’t Operational Improvements Stick?
There are several reasons process improvements fail to last:
The Law of Averages
Most people automatically assume that their performance is above average, but statistically speaking, half of us are wrong. In reality, the pursuit of a process improvement indicates that something isn’t working as it should. Accepting that there’s a need for a change can be uncomfortable and requires vulnerability, but it’s an important foundational step.
Each day there’s a new fire to put out, and priorities shift as a result. With a need to focus on the most immediate, pressing concerns as they arise, leaders often lack the capacity to step back and assess what could be done better.
Paralysis by Over-Analysis
Even when we do have the time to consider change, it can become overwhelming to think of all the “what ifs.” Fears and doubts over something going wrong can hold an organization back, preventing the pursuit of any sort of improvement.
Failure as a Teacher
Failed endeavors from the past can cast their shadows on the idea of future process improvements. Many leaders find themselves with many ideas and little time to enact them, let alone follow up to make sure they’ve stuck. As new methods are continuously rolled out, teams are left exhausted and confused. The result: change fatigue, leaving employees less likely to embrace new initiatives fully.
With that in mind, it’s essential to consider that leaders can create significant swings down the line with even small movements from the top. For leaders to foster meaningful change, however, they must first achieve visibility. You can’t manage what you can’t see, after all.
A straightforward way to test your visibility is by seeing if you can identify the top five problems within your business right now, as well as their root causes. If you’re able to do so successfully, you’re already in an excellent position to roll out change. Don’t stop there. Take this a step further: Would your teams agree with the problems you’ve identified? If so, this is a fantastic indicator of alignment and likely success for future change initiatives.
The Deming Wheel & Its Inherent Flaw
Many leaders use the Deming wheel, a cycle of planning, doing, checking, and acting, to promote ongoing improvements in their facilities. While processes certainly benefit from it, the issue is that it can condition teams to become apathetic. They might think that once one change is achieved, there will just be more on the horizon. This ongoing cycle becomes exhausting and can leave employees feeling as if their efforts will never be enough. As a result, they begin to resist change.
Fortunately, there’s a way to break free from the cycle.
Learning From Mistakes
Instead of leaving teams to experience the pressure of constant change, leaders must communicate the beginning and endpoints (where you are now versus the goal of where you want to be). Then, after establishing the goal, allow the team to map the trek. By doing this, you give your team ownership over the process. Further establish buy-in by using the Socratic method: Ask your teams, “How do you think we could get better? How should we go about improving?”
Keep in mind that while it’s critical to establish buy-in from the team by giving them some level of independence, you must also guide them to keep them focused. Circle back continuously to what you’re trying to accomplish, and zoom in and out to remind them of your big-picture goals and how the results of the change align with that.
Failures will occur, but they allow them to happen quickly and stay aligned with the primary objectives when they do. The old adage of ‘practice makes perfect isn’t necessarily true; it’s the right type of practice that yields optimal results. Keep your teams connected through extreme ownership; make sure everyone understands the “why” behind the change, and not just the change itself. Additionally, you must model the behaviors you want to see by demonstrating your commitment to the objective and the process.
While it can be a challenging balancing act, it’s essential to stay involved while letting the reins go. This means giving your teams the autonomy they need to reach goals and engaging with them, coaching, celebrating wins, and rewarding them along the way. Sometimes, a reward can simply be an acknowledgment of efforts.
The Big Secrets Behind Making Process Improvements Stick
After identifying and learning from past mistakes, there are also some lessons you can take with you to ensure improvements stick. Consider these the “big secrets” behind sticky improvements—they’re the must-have elements that take process changes beyond initial implementations to sustainable results.
For your teams to know what they’re working towards, you must clearly define what it looks like to meet the goal. Be sure to explain your objectives in tangible terms so everyone knows what you’re working to accomplish.
Clarity and communication go hand-in-hand, as your message is only as effective as it is clear. Communicate your expectations in clear and accessible terms, and make it easy for your people to win. Practice strong follow-through by routinely monitoring progress. Automate data collection and reporting in any way that you can to make it simple for you to track metrics. This will allow you to watch from afar and step in when needed.
Employees are more likely to buy into and follow through with a change when they see that their leader is involved. But, it’s essential to be realistic about how much time and effort you can dedicate to the initiative. If you don’t have the bandwidth to support it to the degree required, consider delegating the task to energetic and passionate volunteers.
Finding the Right Tool
Much of creating lasting improvements come down to the three points above, but having the right tools certainly helps. There are so many tools to choose from to improve your processes, many of which are excellent options. Drive your odds of success by teaching your team how and when to use the ones that fit. Keep in mind that it’s not just the tool itself that matters, but the attention and focus the tool brings.
Last But Not Least
The most likely indicator of success is having a process and managing that process. That means you need to be conscious about how you are deploying your teams to improve the functional processes they use in your business and sticking to the methods and approaches you’ve adopted for getting better results. You likely have SOP’s for your personnel to follow to ensure you get consistent, repeatable results. Do you have an SOP for how process improvements are executed and managed in your business?
Overcoming the Challenges of Process Improvements: One Example
As a line supervisor, I identified an opportunity to increase the output of manufacturing lines in a former position. It involved a new productivity formula that would change how the plant scheduled shifts, how performance was measured and would call for line workers to do more work for the same pay. Despite the uphill cultural battle, I noticed a tremendous opportunity for improvement; the plant had been mistaking activity for achievement and needed to readjust its strategy.
By actively working on getting people to agree to a change and incentivizing improved performance, I helped lead my team to increase on-time deliveries from 80% to 99%, double their gross margin value, and go from $400 to $1,300 of revenue per labor hour input. One of the biggest keys to our success was the ability to easily track and trend our results automatically. It was clear the improvement worked, but publishing results every eight hours to the company made the stickiness unavoidable.
In Conclusion: What You Can Do Now to Make Process Improvement Stick
Supporting sticky improvements starts when leaders confront obstacles, driving from a place of vulnerability and making it known and acceptable things aren’t perfect—but they’re going to improve. You must remove negative incentives to change, add positive ones, and build a safe environment where change becomes the new normal. Make performance and improvement the critical focus and clarify that not changing is the failure, which isn’t an acceptable outcome.
In summation, the three critical elements of building the path forward are:
- Clear goals and expectations that are modeled and reinforced by leaders
- Teams that are armed with the tools to improve continually and are regularly shown how far they’ve come
- A process that you stick to which incorporates celebrating wins
First, assess where you are now and pick an easy problem you want to solve to start your process improvement project. Gain momentum early to power the flywheel. Use data collection and analysis to identify an easy win, for example, using data collection to ensure you’re audit-ready. The key here is to focus on the low-hanging fruit before moving onto bigger and bolder initiatives.
Remember to lead from the front and be the champion your organization needs. Even if you aren’t in a leadership role, if you have a good idea for process improvements, pursue it! Use data as your guide; while gut feelings matter, you can’t argue with data.
Finally, enable your teams and the process with visibility. Publish your wins and celebrate them, collect data, and tell the stories of your successes, so your people understand their value and your appreciation for them.
SafetyChain is the #1 Plant Management Platform that improves yield, maximizes productivity, and ensures compliance for process manufacturers. Trusted by over 1,500 facilities, SafetyChain is the only enterprise solution uniting production, quality, safety, and supplier management.