Improvement Cost?

March 25, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, Process, Teamwork 

I was talking to a couple of people last week about the situation in their organization. To cut a long story short, suffice it to say that there were plenty of symptoms of trouble, and management had settled in on the expectation that it was going to cost millions of dollars to clean things up. Once I got up from the floor, we talked about why I believe that an attitude like that will almost surely lead to disappointment.

Any organization I have ever been a part of, or a consultant to, has had challenges and inefficiencies. It’s all part of building a team, running a business. Of all these organizations, there seems to be two broad philosophies about managing the evolution of the business: ongoing refinement and fighting fires.

By far, the larger camp consists of those organizations that focus exclusively (if not precisely or timely) on working to build the product. For the most part, these companies suffer from a wealth of symptoms and ailments, from poor product quality and dissatisfied customers to late deliveries and disgruntled staff. When a problem arises (and they often do), the reaction is to work harder to eliminate the symptoms, without a great deal of thinking about any root causes, and little effort to adjust the approach to prevent this problem from flaring up again in the future. A project becomes late, the remedy is to work crazy hours to get it out the door (often with collateral issues such as reduced quality). Next project rolls around, and the same thing happens. If it is a more severe problem than in the past, the same solution is applied, only with more effort to squelch the flames.

The other camp is not immune to problems, but they react to these problems in an entirely different way. While on the surface, their approach might appear similar to putting out the fire, if we dig deeper we see some additional work. This camp recognizes that while it is perfectly reasonable to be hit with surprises on their projects, it is equally unacceptable to be surprised by something that has hit them in the past. They are a learning organization.

While they will put out fires just as the first camp does, they will also take the time to understand how the problem started, and will take the steps to ensure that this same type of problem won’t happen again. In doing so, they don’t see this as extra effort, but they weigh the cost of this learning against all the potential downstream costs of these same problems cropping up in the future. They fix the problem for a relatively small cost, and they save the downstream costs of not having to deal with that problem again. Future projects will tend to run more smoothly, more efficiently, and all of those issues that seem to plague the first camp of businesses aren’t nearly as pressing. They don’t see improving as a cost at all, and look forward to finding new opportunities.

They also understand that there are several reasons why we can’t simply run one improvement initiative and be happy for the rest of our days. Firstly, it is virtually impossible to craft an approach to developing our products that will foresee every possible issue we will face, whether we go big and comprehensive or small and agile. Secondly, it is likely that the one-shot approach will be so different from our current approach, the culture shock of such an initiative would pretty well guarantee failure. People just can’t take too much change without a fight.

Because of all this, if an organization from the first camp wants to move to the second camp, to become a learning organization, the initial step is to recognize that a different approach is required. They need to see that if stupidity got them into this mess, that it won’t get them out (to paraphrase Will Rogers). If an organization thinks that it’s going to take a big chunk of money to fix things, they are still firmly ensconced in that first camp.

With recognition that improvement actually saves money (and reduces schedule, and improves quality) when done right, the outlook changes dramatically. A far smaller cost is needed to demonstrate a few quick wins, and a model for understanding current costs of non-quality can go a long way to demonstrate the investment model for improvement. Those first few rounds of change can be relatively easy on the team, and show significant value. Soon, everyone is on board. In that second camp, the snowball gets rolling in the right direction. – JB


Feel free to leave a comment...

  • What’s Happening

  • On The Road Again

    Jim frequently travels across Western Canada for engagements, and welcomes opportunities to meet, run a workshop, Diagnostic or Lunch and Learn session.

    Contact Jim if you would like to connect around any of the upcoming dates:

    • Blissfully at home in Vancouver, BC over the summer!
  • What People are Saying

    Jim Brosseau’s understanding of the true dynamics of the IT workplace shows through in Software Teamwork. For those on the IT solution delivery front lines, and for those who manage them, his insights and wisdom will lead to not only better projects, but a better work life as well.

    — Bruce A. Stewart, Chief Executive Officer, Accendor Research, Inc.