On Continuous Process Improvement.

In most organisations, if you ask why something is done a particular way the answer is that “this is the way that is has always been done”.

The very fact of questioning a process is often perceived with suspicion, as if you are questioning the intelligence of the people that are doing the work.

This is hardly ever the case. You can have towers full of smart people doing stupid things if they have the wrong structure, process, and historical precedents.

The best way to approach organisational process is in a scientific manner. We need to have a theory of why things are done a certain way, and clear, simple written descriptions of how we do things. This gives a foundation to be able to question the process, without questioning the humans behind it.

When Darwin introduced the theory of evolution, he was not attacking particular scientists, but purely the theories that came before based on observation, data, and logic.

This shift towards questioning processes and systems in a scientific manner represents a tremendously positive impact on organizations. It reflects an optimistic perspective of employees – the view that if given the opportunity, people are willing and able to improve upon the status quo. When processes are merely accepted as “the way things have always been done,” it suggests a lack of confidence in staff to change or innovate for the better. However, implementing measured, thoughtful analysis of processes taps into employees’ intellect and motivation to do good work. The results can be processes that are not only more streamlined and effective, but also more engaging and fulfilling for staff tasked with executing them.

The shift to scrutinize processes and systems scientifically is greatly beneficial to organizations. It shows a hopeful attitude towards employees. It suggests that people can and will enhance the current state if given a chance. Accepting processes as “how we’ve always done it” hints at a disbelief in the staff’s ability to innovate or change for the better. But, when we apply careful and thoughtful analysis to these processes, we tap into the employees’ intelligence and drive to do well. The outcome can be not only more efficient and effective processes but also more rewarding and satisfying ones for the staff responsible for carrying them out.

The belief in human potential can sometimes be overly idealistic. Some staff may not like questioning the methods they’re used to. Bureaucracy and office politics can hinder the analysis and improvement of work processes. But, companies that embrace a scientific approach boost their staff’s confidence. This culture of constant improvement allows employees to see themselves as agents of positive change. Work becomes less about blindly following orders, and more about working together to eliminate ineffective business practices. A setting where ideas are tested instead of accepted without question helps both employees and organisations to reach their highest potential.

While questioning processes is important, wholly decentralized approaches are not always the answer either. Employees immersed in specific workflows often understand the problems intimately. However, they may miss potential solutions outside their direct experience. Here, a degree of top-down guidance can be useful. Leadership can provide principles and guardrails aligned to the broader organization.

Yet rigid universal rules from above can also be problematic if they miss local nuances. The ideal scenario is thoughtfully integrating both perspectives. For example, Toyota is renowned for this through constant communication between managers and assembly line workers to align problems, ideas, and objectives. It takes openness on both sides – leadership seeking input and staff freely sharing it. T

his embodies the scientific approach described earlier, with observations and issues raised from the bottom-up, and principles and theories flowing top-down. With transparency and trust, these can be continuously tested and refined in pursuit of optimal processes.

Shifting entrenched corporate mindsets to achieve this balance of perspectives is hugely challenging. However, for organisations willing to undertake the challenge, the payoff can be immense in performance, innovation and alignment.

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