What kinds of tweaks and improvements do people make in organizations? Are these improvements merely change for the sake of change, or do they actually improve the bottom line of the organization?
APQC's Jeffrey Varney wrote a short piece on continuous improvement that I've had staring at me for a couple weeks. Cut the Clutter of Random Acts of Improvement.
When discussing process management and improvement, I often talk about the concept of “random acts of improvement.” People, with good intentions, are off trying to make their part of the organization better, more efficient, simpler. But often these changes are done locally, in silos, without considering the end-to-end impact of the change – how that change might have a positive or negative effect elsewhere in the organization.
This is a tough argument to make. On the one hand, we want people to be involved and participating in the operation and improvement of their business (dare I say engagement). On the other hand, we also want to make sure those improvements make a real difference to the bottom line and to the people. Obviously Varney is leaning toward the second option. The one comment (as of today) suggests there is a way to balance the two.
From my perspective the issue isn't so much "random acts" as much as a problem with limited attention span and limited capacity for making those changes. If we are going to encourage people to improve their work - and the work of those around them - we have to acknowledge that not every brilliant idea can be implemented. We just don't have the time in a day to do or try everything that might work.
My general direction is similar to what Varney suggests, though: instill process thinking in people. Engage people in looking at the value chain of the organization. What is the goal of the organization? What is our part in that? How can we make it easier for the next step along the chain of activities? What might we request from the steps before or after our work to smooth the flow for us. Those "random ideas" should be subject to some kind of thinking along these lines. In the Theory of Constraints world, we might especially look for changes that improve the flow and quality at the constraint. Since the constraint is usually only one of many pieces of the puzzle, can we create a situation for better alignment with along the work: making the overall process faster.
These ideas apply to knowledge work just as much as they apply to physical work. One of the challenges I have for knowledge work is that we often don't know what we are doing. I have seen big improvements come from making that work visible. Encourage people to make their work visible - get them to write about their work or use Kanban-like systems to visualize the work and the steps they go through.
Whatever you try, make them experiments. Think about what problem you are trying to solve, and how you think the experiment will change that problem. Try it out for a time, and then check to see if the problem is removed or diminished. Happily this allows for both the try-it-because-it-sounds-interesting variety of experiment, as well as the more well-planned and directed experiments.