Common Process Improvement Challenges

car stuck in mud

Process improvement is certainly not without its challenges. Whilst redesigning a business process is hard enough, eliciting sufficient information to truly understand any underlying problems can be even harder. Actually implementing the change (and making it stick) can be harder still!

Process improvement initiatives often involve conceiving of many different possible solutions, before refining and focusing in on the most appropriate. This can lead to changing the way that the work is carried out, and whilst some stakeholders may enthusiastically support these changes, others may need more convincing. This is understandable – after all, change can be unsettling, particularly when a comfortable pattern has emerged and set in over a period of time.

There are a range of dangerous phrases that we should look out for in our process work that indicate a level of stakeholder discomfort. You’ve probably heard many of them:

"But we've always done it that way..."

"We won’t even consider it. That would never work here."

"We totally get the need to harmonize processes. Except our work--ours is far too complex to even consider changing what we do".

Use of phrases like these by stakeholders indicates both attachment to the ‘status-quo’ and, by implication, resistance to change. While some stakeholders may accept that others need to change, they may be far more reluctant to change their own team's processes and working methods. This reluctance to change may stem from a lack of common agreement over the problem that is to be addressed, or stakeholders may simply be unconvinced regarding the benefits that a particular solution will yield, or both. Either way, appreciating and responding to these types of issues early on is crucial. Taking the time to understand the perspectives of the stakeholders involved, and providing them with real opportunities to input into projects, does much to garner buy-in and ensure change initiatives deliver the benefits they set out to achieve.

A crucial conundrum: Why aren’t they on board?

There are a seemingly infinite number of reasons why a stakeholder might not feel bought into a potential process change, and getting to the underlying reason is crucial. It is worth spending time with stakeholders informally, preferably one-to-one, to understand their concerns and see their perspective. When doing this, it is valuable to consider the following common reasons for resistance to change, and ways of overcoming them:

1. Change is imposed and not co-created: If stakeholders feel that the solution (or even the whole idea of process improvement) was invented somewhere else, without their views being considered, then they may be reluctant to buy-in. This can be preempted by good stakeholder engagement and management techniques, but if we are parachuted into a project where the right level of consultation hasn't happened, it is still possible to get things back on track. Spending time reviewing the proposed changes with the stakeholder, and being prepared to ensure that their key requirements will be met, can go a long way.

2. Burnt by previous initiatives: In other cases, stakeholders may have been made promises during previous projects or initiatives that never materialized. Perhaps they accepted a 'temporary workaround' on the understanding that a more automated solution would follow – and then found out that the budget had been cut and the follow up work was never going to take place. This can (quite understandably) lead to a certain element of cynicism, and so it's crucial that we're open and transparent about what will be delivered and when. So it is crucial we do not ‘overpromise’ when it comes to benefits, and try to be transparent about the change process. Remember that the best way to build credibility is to repeatedly deliver sustainable and valuable change.

3. Fear of change: For a whole range of reasons, change can be scary--and this fear can apply to just about anyone. While it is unlikely we will be able to eliminate the fear of change entirely, much can be done to reduce it. Ensuring that people know why the change is necessary, and ensuring that changes are communicated in a consistent, timely and sensitive manner will help. As will showing people 'what's in it for them'. Often fear of change is based on a more specific underlying fear (or set of fears)—Perhaps job security, or the fear of no longer being an expert. The closer we can get to the underlying reasons, the more likely we'll be able to provide information and plan the stakeholder engagement so that we can address them.

It’s clear that when it comes to overcoming resistance to change, engagement and communication, paired with genuine openness and transparency, are key. It’s all too easy to ascribe resistance to mere ‘stubbornness’, when in reality it’s often the case that not enough has been done to understand and respond to stakeholder needs through the change process. By putting ourselves into the shoes of stakeholders and addressing their concerns, we can work to co-create a solution that has the maximum chance of delivering long-term success.