When you try to perform process improvement, whether for cost, quality or other reasons, you will often find yourself in an environment where the status quo is the status quo. You may be new, and find yourself awash in a sea of this-is-how-we-do-things. People are in their comfort zones. Management may or may not get that there will be growing pains (even for them) in the process of improving processes and culture. One approach of choice (it may not be a choice if you are simply an individual contributor such as a manufacturing or quality engineer) is to drive change one project at a time. This can be as effective in creating a climate of continuous improvement as an apprenticeship is in creating skilled workers. The message may not get out to as many people as quickly as a company-wide training program, but the impact can be deeper and more sustained if you can show success and create new change agents in multiple functions – one project at a time.

Tips for driving change one project at a time include the following.

  • The goal isn’t just to improve processes (technical goal), but to also create the spark of change, and the mindset of effective continuous improvement (behavioral goal).
  • Know the difference between an “expression of pain” and a problem definition.
  • Keep statistician W. Edwards Deming in mind: It isn’t enough to do your best; know what to do, then do your best.
  • Gather information and perspectives from knowledgeable stakeholder representatives, as can be defined by supplier and customer functions on a SIPOC (suppliers, input, process, output, customers) diagram as shown in the figure below.


  • Think in terms of what “good” looks like in the future for a given process or, even bigger picture than the particular process that you are looking at. Maybe the process that is causing problems is itself merely a compensation for a bigger problem that gets in the way of what “great” looks like at a higher level. This is where conversations with the customer and customer stakeholders come in handy.
  • Before you focus on improving an existing process, think of good and great, and ask, “Is this the process that I want to control, do we need a different process, or can we eliminate the need for this process?” Keep this in mind all the way through the project. Eliminating the need for specific processes is the biggest win of them all.
  • Remember that the further upstream that you can make a positive change, the more the benefits grow as they trickle down, allowing downstream users of the improved information or materials processes to reduce the time spent compensating for inefficient, untimely or erroneous inputs.
  • Define good or great in high-level terms so that how to get there is as open as possible, and allows for more stakeholder creativity, excitement and ownership.
  • Be aware of the temptation to take shortcuts; or for people wanting to do what is comfortable to get there, or close to there, in ways that create manual processes or impede other efforts to get to good and great.
  • Talk to the high-knowledge people not just in terms of how we do things now, or even why we do it that way, but in terms of what has to happen to make the vision of good happen.
  • Be open to a new vision of what good looks like, not as a consolation prize because of “how we do things,” but because there may be other ways of getting to good or great.
  • Be okay with just good (as long as the flavor of good that is implemented allows for great later without process rework or new organizational inertia that makes great a less appealing option later) if you find that you are creating behavioral change (creating new change agents and cooperative, enthused partners).
  • Meetings, and when possible conversational interviews, should involve action items that move towards clarifying or removing obstacles to good or great.
  • If the problems cannot be resolved in a few days, hold weekly stakeholder meetings.
    • Participants should represent stakeholder functions at a level to take action items, make decisions and speak for the function with a high confidence level.
    • There is no rank in a cross-functional team other than project leader. But you are the influence leader and action item tracker. Authoritarianism will not work.
    • Keep the meetings short – review action items, have new discussion about direction, create and review new action items.
    • Action items should be due at the next meeting, so they may be step actions.
    • Send minutes to participants and invitees within 8 working hours of the meeting.
    • Focus on the vision of good, the path to the end goal and knocking down roadblocks.
  • When you encounter intractable antibodies (stakeholder representatives that will not envision a better future, withhold knowledge, etc.) don’t damage your position as facilitator or project leader by going after them yourself. Ask your manager if he can think of a more effective representative from that function or if she can help you understand the issue. You may be wrong or it may be a problem better handled at a higher level. It isn’t a sign of weakness to ask for help. The last thing you need is to have a team fearful or resentful of you, withholding their true opinions and efforts, or see you go off the deep end if you are wrong.
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