Process Subterfuge – When Some Companies Just Go Through The Motions of True Process Improvement

May 6, 2020 By [email protected]_84 Off

Over the past 20 years, I have seen many companies start projects to improve existing processes. In all cases, some sort of formal or informal process was already in place. Companies and their leaders embarked upon process improvement efforts with the hope of driving out process waste and increasing overall process efficiency.

Improving process efficiency and driving out waste generally fell under the heading of improving process quality. Early on, quality improvement focused on inspections, but later the focus shifted to quality management as found in the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement that peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s. W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, Kaoru Ishikawa, Genichi Taguchi, Shigeo Shingo, Phil Crosby and others contributed to the TQM body of knowledge that led TQM to becoming a huge fad.

When I started my career in the 1980s, some companies were implementing quality improvement projects based on the concepts put forth by Phil Crosby in his bestseller book, Quality Is Free. I worked in a mainframe computer manufacturing plant at the time, and everyone was trained in Phil Crosby’s “zero defects” methodology. Phil Crosby’s contributions to process management centered on four principles:

  1. Conformance to requirements.
  2. Defect prevention as opposed to quality inspection and correction.
  3. The quality standard with a baseline of zero defects.
  4. Quality measured in terms of cost to the organization – the Price of Nonconformance (PONC).

This methodology taught me the importance of defining clear, concise requirements upfront and then measuring all deviations from those requirements (i.e., nonconformance). A deviation from the requirement was a defect. From there, it was relatively straightforward to determine the cost of nonconformance, which led to quantifiable goals to reduce overall nonconformance. Consequently, the overall goal was to have zero defects. Crosby’s work was admirable; even today, many valuable lessons can be discerned from his methodologies.

In the mid-1990s, we moved on to quality process methodologies such as ISO 9000 and the Software Engineering Institute’s (SEI) Capability Maturity Model (CMM) used to measure software quality. From there, companies started focusing on Six Sigma, which among other things cleverly repackaged statistical process control techniques developed earlier in the twentieth century and made these powerful tools available to many more people within the organization.

All these quality process techniques are very powerful and, if implemented well, they tend to provide the return on investment they purport; however, in almost every situation where process and quality improvements have been implemented, they are no longer in place today. Some of the process improvements became obsolete as the organization continued to grow, but the majority of them were just ignored or rarely monitored after the fad wore off.

Today, I see companies start a process improvement initiative (e.g., TQM, ISO, CMM, Six Sigma, etc.) only to let the initiative die after a few months to a year or two. What is more alarming is that, in my experience, it appears that in some cases the intention was not to really implement the process initiative completely anyway. I observed that many managers were just going through the motions of implementing sound processes. Once the first phase of the process initiative is complete, management tends to lose focus and enthusiasm for the initiative. How often have you heard organizations state, “We’re in the middle of implementing process improvement XYZ” years after the initiative started? Instead of actually implementing sound process improvements, some companies would rather practice process subterfuge and convey a façade of process rigor, when the rigor actually does not exist.

I do not think that organizations and leaders intentionally try to deceive their employees, customers and shareholders. Many times they really want to implement the process improvements, but they find themselves “too busy being busy” and ultimately they just do not have enough time to complete the process improvements. In other cases, the organization finds that its already tight budget does not allow for process improvement initiatives to continue. Unfortunately, in these cases, management tend to decrease the budget for implementing or improving processes, which gives the impression that the process initiative is still well underway; however, an underfunded and understaffed initiative tends never to succeed. Hence, the process improvement façade or subterfuge continues literally unabated.