THE BLOG
10/27/2014 09:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

(Process) Rules Are Made to Be Broken

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By Romolo Tavani, via ThinkStock

By Ruth Henderson, President & Co-Founder, Whiteboard Consulting Group Inc.

It's true. Rules are made to be broken. Even in the world of Process Improvement.

"Wait, what?" you ask. "But Ruth, process improvement is all about rules and statistics and doing things the same way every time, yada yada yada. You're contradicting the very foundation of what you teach!"

Ah, nothing is so black and white, grasshopper. Hear me out.

Process Improvement is Changing

In my process career I have witnessed and/or been part of many process improvement initiatives -- big, small, fully funded and supported, done "off the corner of a desk," successful, and unsuccessful.

The two things that made the difference between success and failure -- in addition to the usuals of effective communication, engagement, and senior management commitment -- were:

  1. Early evidence that the new methods work and are worth the effort, and
  2. The ability to be flexible and change your mind.

And this last one, flexibility, seems to be growing in importance. In fact, it also influences the first one - "evidence of success."

Traditional and, dare I say it, soon to become "old school" methodologies like Six Sigma and to some extent Lean, are based on strict methodologies that work really well in some organizations -- usually those in a manufacturing or highly repetitive/operational industry. In other industries, particularly serviced-based, these methods have a more difficult time taking root. It's not impossible, and there are many very successful examples - but it is harder.

It's OK to Change Your Mind - Just Don't Squirrel

When Nicole and I teach The Whiteboard Way to aspiring process-improvement practitioners, we are careful to point out the need to be flexible, and to change things along the way if they aren't working. The ability to do this is refreshing to people who are often nervous about adopting a new method, or taking on "this process stuff."

I recently did some strategic planning with a client -- he was a little nervous about planning tactics for goals that were 12-24 months out. "Things can change, Ruth," he said. And he was right. That's why it's important to have a plan and a process, and then if (when) things change you can make intentional decisions to veer away from or modify the plan. But, the modification is then intentional, not just because you saw a fun-looking squirrel and decided to run after it like the dog in the movie Up (love this clip). Some people do this so frequently, that Nicole and I actually use "squirrelling" as a verb.

In the Four Disciplines of Execution, Sean Covey stresses the importance of using and tracking lead measures -- those which you can influence and which drive the progress towards a goal - in the execution of a goal or strategy. His theory is that a "cadence of accountability" ensures that people develop the habit of reviewing their commitments and assessing whether those tactics (or lead measures) are making the progress they expected. If they're not, then they change the tactics and the things they measure until it has the desired result.

Combining traditional process improvement tools with modern theories about being flexible yet accountable is the new way to facilitate and teach process improvement in organizations. If done right, this approach will generate increased engagement and better results.

Ruth Henderson is one of the Founders of Whiteboard Consulting Group Inc., and an experienced blogger. You can read more blog posts at www.whiteboardconsulting.ca, or follow her on Twitter @whiteboardcons.