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Operational Excellence Challenge: How to Sustain Improvements

By Kevin Duffy, Kepner-Tregoe

Too often the greatest challenge to a process improvement initiative is sustaining change. It is not unusual for improvement efforts to disappear, overcome by inertia, misunderstandings and a general resistance to change. In our experience working with clients worldwide to make targeted operational improvements or support continuous improvement programs, people are the key to sustainable change.

The best engineered processes, ISO-certified SOPs and intelligent use of automation all require humans to execute effectively. Analyzing the human side of operational performance relies on gaining an understanding of why people work the way they do and to ensure that the work environment holistically supports them in achieving their goals. The following four components summarize the things that need to be addressed at the system level to improve overall operational effectiveness and to affect lasting change and consistent performance.

1. Situation: the immediate work setting. Expectations to perform must be clear, measurable and attainable. Adequate resources must be committed to the change. If not done upfront, improvement programs lose because of the waste that follows later.

2. Performer: the person or group that is expected to carry out tasks and duties. Do the people affected know WHY they have to change the way they work? Without the requisite capabilities and understanding, people will not commit to changes in practices and procedures that they have found historically acceptable.

3. Consequences: events that increase or decrease the probability that a response will occur again, given the same situation. A behavior change usually has unpleasant side effects for employees. People have adjusted to their jobs and now they need to change—a negative consequence for them. To change a behavior successfully, focus on the positive consequences of making the change.

4. Feedback: performance-based information the performer receives to modify his or her behavior. Without feedback, employees do not know whether they are performing well or poorly or how they should modify their behavior. Developing standardized feedback loops can readjust behavior and prevent it from drifting off-target.

While many of the solutions that are implemented on the road to operational excellence will be technical, tactical improvements, all will require that the people expected to use the new processes, tools, equipment and information, be capable of doing so. And, once capable, they need to be provided an environment and performance system that encourages appropriate behaviors and performance. This does not happen by accident. Time and resources must be devoted to addressing the understanding, skills and capabilities necessary to successfully execute change and use new processes and tools. By systematically addressing “people” issues, process improvements can be actively supported and sustained.

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