The Biggest Roadblock To PROCESS Improvement

February 04, 2019

I had an epiphany from a recent workshop that I believe can help create clarity around why we struggle so frequently with respect to process improvement.

When I conduct my workshops on “Creating an Entrepreneurial Workplace™”, in which we focus on how to create more employee empowerment and ownership, our goal is to create improvements with respect to communication, culture and processes.

The epiphany that hit me is the importance of the order of those key improvements.   Intuitively I realized it.  When I take a client through my complete workshop series, the first two workshops focus on communication, the by-product of the next three on my “12 Behaviors of Great Leaders” and Delegation improves a combination of communication and culture and the last two workshops focus on process improvements.

After going through my series of workshops, the participants break into cross functional teams to work on critical company initiatives.  One such initiative involved Inventory Management.  It was recognized that, with respect to managing inventory and their processes for inventory control, they only had SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for roughly half of their inventory.

The feeling from the Leadership team was that the key to solving the problem was getting the SOP’s in place.  The Initiative Team however felt differently.  They felt that, while the SOP’s were important, they weren’t the key to improving their inventory situation.

I agreed with them.  The reason being, while the SOP’s were definitely going to be a critical part to improving their inventory management, I believe it wasn’t the first step.  I believe it’s the last step.

My epiphany is, in order to create process improvements, you have to start with communication, then culture then make the process improvement.  As I asked this team, if they just put the SOP’s in place, where would the miss be?   And they said exactly what I felt.  If you don’t secure input and get buy in from the team, those actually implementing the processes, the new processes can fail.

Let me share with you a personal example.  Many years ago, when I worked for Pepsi Cola, I was promoted to District Manager for our Fountain and Vending division.  One of my Departments I oversaw  was Full Service Vending.  For those customers, we would place vending machines at their establishments and fill the machines for them.

At the time, our average route sold about 50 cases a day.  I was asked to increase the number to 130 cases per day in a three month period of time.  Seems like a daunting task?  From a process standpoint it wasn’t.  Our average route would fill 20 machines per day averaging 2.5 cases per stop.  The machines held on average 18 cases.  We didn’t need to fill them that often.  In fact, we could fill just 16 machines per day averaging 8 cases (still less than ½ the machine capacity) and that would be 128 cases per day essentially hitting our target.

From a process standpoint, it was a matter of simply adjusting frequency and product mix so our customers wouldn’t run out.  I made the adjustments but we didn’t see the improvements.  What was the reason?  I started with process.

I had never gotten buy in from the route drivers.  They didn’t want to change their habits.  They were concerned machines would run out.  They didn’t want customers complaining about out of stocks.  They were more comfortable doing what they had always done.  It was a culture they were used to as they had done it for years and years.   And they were resistant to change.

I had to go back to step one.  I talked with the drivers.  I asked about their concerns.  I had them get involved with the process changes so they would be more comfortable.  We sat down side by side to adjust their routes.  I came out with them as well to help them adjust the mix in their machines so customers wouldn’t run out of stock on best sellers.  We started to see the culture shift as they realized they could be intimately involved in owning their business and getting to provide significant input as to how to run their business yet still achieve the company’s business objectives.

Within a month, after first communicating with the team, helping them adjust to cultural changes then working on the process, we started to hit our numbers.

I believe it is our natural tendency to focus on process first.  So frequently we never even talk to our people who are actually doing the work to get their input, let alone actually run their business.

It is up to us as leaders to provide the vision and goals then provide the support and guidance to help our people successfully run their business.  Instead we tell them what to do.  And if they don’t listen, we just talk or yell louder.

I received a critically important message from one of my senior route drivers.  I had been bugging them every day about making the adjustments and hitting their numbers.  And when things didn’t change, I just bugged them more.  He said to me “We hear you.  We hear you every day.  We’re just choosing not to listen”.

Instead of getting mad, I took it in and smiled.  He was right.  Unless I asked for their input, valued their opinion, got them intimately involved in the process changes, they weren’t going to listen.  And I didn’t blame them.  That was on me.

When you want to work on critical initiatives and make process improvements, to maximize your success you want to empower your employees and embrace creating an entrepreneurial workplace™.

Start with communication and then focus on the necessary cultural changes. Then you can work jointly together with those closest to the situation to make the necessary process improvements.