Three Warning Signs Your Process Improvement Effort Will Fail


image of garden hose with kinks

“Constraint: anything that limits a system from achieving higher performance versus its goal.” Eli Goldratt, What Is This Thing Called Theory of Constraints and How Should It Be Implemented?  (1990)

So many efforts toward continuous improvement begin with great intentions. The idea of attacking waste and ramping up productivity is exciting, and there’s a whole arsenal of tools available to help you accomplish your goals. So if an organization has the will to create change, what could possibly go wrong?

In my experience, three things.

If you’re contemplating a process improvement initiative right now, there are three major potential roadblocks to your success, and they could doom you to failure before you even get started. Familiarize yourself with the warning signs.

One: you don’t have strategic alignment.

This boils down to a lack of leadership. If management approaches lean as an item to check off a list of activities—yep, we’ve done that now; what’s next?—you’ll never see the improvement you’re hoping for. Lean requires time for implementation, follow-through, and allowing the improved system to start producing results. If you treat it as just another activity to try, as a week-long workshop of good ideas instead of a comprehensive strategy, your efforts will fail.

This superficial approach to lean is usually a by-product of failing to articulate your organization’s mission properly. Consider the quote above from improvement guru Eli Goldratt. To see improvement, you must remove the constraint to your performance. But if you haven’t properly articulated, documented, and communicated your mission, it will be impossible to define the constraint. You’ll be chasing your tail.

Two: you aren’t focusing on the constraint.

This brings us to the second major failure that can derail process improvement: not focusing on the true constraint. If you can’t define it, you can’t eliminate it. Once you do define it, you must focus on it exclusively—and at any given time, there’s only one constraint that matters.

What’s the problem with focusing on the wrong constraint? Think of a garden hose that’s full of kinks. Most are slight, but one is a hard bend that cuts off the flow of water. If you focus on straightening out the slight kinks, it may make the hose look better, but there’s still no water coming out the other end. The big kink is the only one that matters if getting water is your goal.

In process improvement, focusing on minor constraints at the expense of the true bottleneck means you may improve localized metrics, but your efforts will have no positive effect on the overall system. It’s a feel-good exercise that yields no return. And you can bet that leadership will notice that, and quickly lose their enthusiasm for improvement.

This is the biggest reason I became so passionate about applying lean in the business office—if you apply it only to the shop floor but your main constraints are in, say, legal or HR, you’re wasting your time.

Three: you’re using the wrong process improvement tool.

Yes, there are lots of shiny and exciting process improvement tools out there, but you still have to pick the right one for the job.

It’s well-documented which tools are appropriate for which situation, so you should select one based on your needs (not based on what someone wants to sell you). Then, you should use them as they were designed to be used (unfortunately, most organizations don’t). Here’s a brief rundown:

  • The Theory of Constraints identifies and mitigates an organization’s bottleneck—the one thing that limits revenue or hampers the mission. Given that resources for improvement are almost always limited, TOC is the only acceptable starting point for your efforts. Leaders at all levels should follow this theory wherever it leads and use it as the North Star to guide process improvement.
  • Six Sigma is a methodology applied to a constraint in high-volume, low-variation processes where you need statistical tools to see the variation.
  • Business Process Reengineering is used when the process is so broken you need to start over from scratch, and only when you have the authority to make the necessary changes.
  • Lean is the methodology used to visualize low-volume, high-variation processes and identify and exploit the constraint. Lean helps you eliminate or mitigate wastes and non-value-added steps that disguise themselves as work. The time saved is used to add real value for internal or external customers, increasing the quality and throughput of the entire organization. But lean must be applied systematically and as part of a well-communicated growth strategy; otherwise, there’s no point applying it at all. With lean, you’ll depend on your employees to develop their own best practices, so you need buy-in, which can be achieved only by clear communication of the end benefit.

How can these tools be used in the wrong way? Here are a couple of examples I see often. If the variation in business or knowledge processes is so great that the only answer to the question “How long does this process take?” is “It depends,” then using Six Sigma to find and measure the variation is excess precision, and lean is a better choice. Within lean, if you try to brainstorm solutions without first going through value stream mapping and root cause analysis, you’ll just be creating a temporary fix—throwing money and/or people at the problem rather than taking the time for correct diagnosis. This will only make future execution more difficult.

If you’re at the beginning of your process improvement efforts and you recognize any of these red flags, consider this blog post your wake-up call. Get right with the process now before you waste precious resources on an effort that can never succeed.

My next Lean Applied to Business Processes course runs September 24–28 at the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business. Whether you attend as an individual or as a team, it’s a great way to get a handle on these concepts so that you don’t derail your improvement efforts before they even get off the ground.

Learn more or register here.



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