My focus in "process improvement" circles has to do with Theory of Constraints concepts and approaches, but that doesn't prevent me from appreciating other approaches as well. One of the ideas that comes up in the Lean world is that of Respect for People.
This is a fundamental principle. In the context of "continuous improvement" we are so often focused on improving the processes and tools, that the people somehow get left on the side. Business is made of people - people run the processes, pick up and use the tools, etc. And it is the people who best know those tools and processes. The people are the ones involved in coming up with great ideas for improvements that we test, check and revise. But how does leadership respond to these improvements? With respect and gratitude? Or with a pink slip? There was even a recent Get-It-Done Guy podcast on the topic, Beware of Being Too Productive, where he describes personal strategies to hide personal productivity in environments that don't reward it.
But back up a minute. Why are we making these improvements in the first place? So many managers are focused on "efficiency" of their department or business unit (local efficiency) without thought of the bigger picture. There is a deep belief that if each step is "efficient" surely the overall will be efficient. Or the assumption is that the local department doesn't have control over the big picture so, they can only do local improvements. And if local improvements don't have a bottom line impact, then the "improvement" leads to firing people. How's that for respect?
Systematic approaches to improvement look at the end-to-end. And they only seek to improve in areas where the output of the system will be improved. This means that some parts of the system must be more relevant to the improvement than others. And this is where TOC and other systematic approaches start. What improvements will enable us to sell more product (or services)? What limits our ability to serve the customer better? I've seen many improvement efforts over the years that haven't delivered any global benefit - even "headcount reduction" is often just headcount rearrangement, so the claimed benefits only hit the local account books. More local thinking.
Bob Emiliani has a piece this week, Hopes and Dreams that recounts his long-standing efforts to make respect for people a main pillar of improvement efforts. And he recounts the results of not doing so. (I love his "dooming cycle" as opposed to the "Deming cycle".)