Opinion: Unleashing your Improvement Culture

by External17 Sep 2015
The culture of an organisation has a significant impact on the overall success rate of change initiatives. Generally, human beings want to improve. They like to make things better. The key is to normalise this behaviour so that improvement becomes your organisation’s natural state.

It's much easier to achieve this when your teams are excited, empowered and motivated, because when teams feel powerless and are not engaged, they lack the motivation to drive change. The result is a weak process culture.

How can you spot a weak process culture?

While every business is different, the signs of a weak process culture are the same. People spend their days fire-fighting issues and problems. There is little or no collaboration amongst different teams. Morale is low, and process and change initiatives frequently seem to fail.

In companies with a weak process culture, teams tend to push back on change. Because it’s not normal practice to look at or talk about process, the general attitude towards process improvement and ownership is defeatist - processes aren’t working but what can I do about it. I’m just a cog in the machine.

Causes of a weak process culture

One of the biggest causes of a weak process culture is invisible leadership. The CEO and senior management may believe in the value of process and customer centric improvement, but they fail to clearly demonstrate support. In other scenarios, management may verbalise support but deep down, everyone knows they view process as merely a compliance requirement.

The introduction of external experts can also hamper a process culture by disenfranchising the true process owners – the employees on the ground. 

Sometimes, a project triggers an initial positive change, before gradually losing momentum as months go by. As this occurs, motivation and engagement falter and people revert to their old ways.

How to make positive change go viral

You may recognise some of these causes in your organisation, but the good news is that with the right foundations in place, weak process culture can be turned around. Following are five steps you can take to unleash an unstoppable improvement culture:
  1. Demonstrate active leadership
Get your leaders on board right from the beginning by proving there is an issue that needs addressing. Use numbers and evidence gathered from sources such as customer feedback or employee surveys to convince the executive it's time to take action. Then get out among the employees, encourage and gain true commitment for change.

Assign a Chief Process Officer the responsibility as figurehead to communicate the process vision to the organisation. This leadership empowers champions in the organisation, people on the ground who set the expectations, and who can make sure improvement opportunities are acted upon.
  1. Empower the real process owners
Make process ownership real by dividing it into two tiers – owners and experts. Owners are the people with overall responsibility for the process operating effectively, but can be a barrier to change without the support of the local process expert. This expert is the person working on the ground with the process every day who knows it inside out. Success depends on an environment where owners and experts work in tandem. 

Support them with tools that make managing processes easy and you'll find processes will come to life. Suggestions for improvements will be debated and acted on, rather than forgotten. When you set the right expectations, ongoing change and improvement becomes the natural state, taking over once the initial transformation has been delivered.
  1. Sustain momentum – deploy into structured change
To retain process improvement as a day-to-day priority, set up a structure and a schedule for improving processes. Build a process forum and give it a name that resonates with people within your organisation.

Hold improvement opportunity workshops regularly and get your CPO to come along. Instead of making it feel like an audit or process review session, focus on problems, opportunities and customer satisfaction. Share ideas and encourage cross-fertilisation between teams. Everyone needs to participate in these discussions, just as everyone needs to be involved in the drive for incremental change, including process participants and especially the process owners and experts.
  1. Provide process guidance
Let’s face it, process documentation hasn’t been considered easy to use by most teams for a while now - so they don’t use it. If it’s not working, change it. Meaningful guidance should help teams get it right, learn new processes and drive consistency across the organisation. Aim to provide information that explains the process so well, it’s comprehensible (at a high level at least) in ten seconds.  If it’s easy to understand and easy to use, teams will go back to it again and again.

Make processes easy to access by embedding them into the places and tools that teams already use every day, so the information is available where and when they need it.
  1. Sustain communication
Good communication is what it takes to get people involved and driving change. So how do you do it well?

Choose the right people to be your process champions. They can’t be so senior that they’re inaccessible, they must know the people and processes inside out. Just be aware that if your champion leaves or is promoted, your process culture may be at risk.

Here are some proven tips for your champions to build into a simple communication plan to sustain an improvement culture:
  • Celebrate successes – people are often more productive when their successes are recognised.
  • Share information – send out automatic notifications of changes to processes to all stakeholders.   A personal dashboard is a great way to share what’s going on, what’s coming up and what’s out of date.
  • Keep it fun by fostering the spirit of competition and holding team building exercises.
  • Use discussion threads and ‘like’ buttons to make it easy for users to give feedback.
The building blocks of improvement

For years the focus of process improvement efforts has been on tools and methodologies, at the expense of harnessing the real engine of change – engaged teams that are driven to improve and succeed.

With the building blocks for a strong improvement culture in place, your teams will feel empowered to collaborate on improvement efforts. Engaged teams armed with the right attitude can take any tools and turn their efforts into real improvement for your customers and for your bottom line.

About the author

Ivan Seselj is the CEO and founder of Promapp, a company that works with hundreds of organisations worldwide to foster a thriving business improvement and process management culture.