Process Improvement is Too Small a Piece to be Effective

Process Improvement Image

For years organizations have engaged in process improvement exercises to help improve their performance.  Each client that I have consulted with had binders of process models defined for them that may have included As Is models as well as To Be models.  When working with these clients it became apparent that the process models were used for historical purposes, but rarely were they implemented and still operational.  The reason may be in the lack of focus on sustainable capability rather than simply the process piece of capability.

Probing a bit deeper and asking about why the process improvement initiative was undertaken, the answers were diverse.  Most often organizations were looking to simplify process to make it more efficient and, thus, more productive.  Another common goal was to define process for application selection and implementation only to find that the organization had to adapt to the application’s supported processes instead.

While simplifying and cutting out unnecessary activity to achieve results can be very valuable, it is more difficult to say that all contributors to a process are able to apply their capability in their role to an optimal level.  Process alone was not always very helpful enough.

In the mid-1980s, I coined a phrase called “Foundation First” regarding technology implementation.  That is a topic for another discussion yet for capability enhancement, it applies just as nicely.  The foundation for a capability needs to be solid for it to sustain itself over time and allow for continuous improvement.


Sustainable Capability

You might be familiar with terms like capability model and capability maturity.  To sustain a capability there were many facets of each model that exceeded the process definition.  The depiction to the right is a structure to help define the requirements for a capability to be sustainable.  This model was defined when working with a number of research companies in the early 2000s including Forrester Research whose definition was closest to this model.


Architecture Image


The color and shape of the model has no significance.  The structure is simply to annotate what is required to make any business capability sustainable.  The portions of the model and the reasons required for sustainable capabilities are explained in the next section.  This structure is the foundation.

Note that if an organization were to work on any portion of this model across all of its capabilities, it would still need to address all the other factors for each of the capabilities to ensure sustainability.  The argument would perhaps cause organizations to focus on a few capabilities and to build around those capabilities to enable some teams with holistic definition to enhance their performance.


Definition of Capability Segments and Impact on Sustainability

  1. Purpose: Regardless of the perception of importance for each “capability” used within an organization to achieve its required results, the scope of the capability needs to be defined including why that scope is important to the mission. Each person needs to understand why they are doing what they are doing and what the vision is for their role to help them focus on the right level of performance.
  2. Required Results: Required results are the measured indicators of each capability that demonstrate the capability is operating at the level required to contribute appropriately to other capabilities to achieve higher level results. With this, and the measurement within the capability foundation, an individual in the capability can tell if they are delivering what is required as part of the capability they represent.
  3. People: It is important that the appropriate knowledge, skills, and abilities are applied by each individual performing within a capability to optimize the intention of its contribution to required results supporting even higher-level achievement within the organization. Only the right KSAs make performance possible.  Management of people resources external to the capability would generally contribute to its sustainability.
  4. Process: Process is a delicate topic. Too much process could mean bureaucracy and stifling of creativity and too little could jeopardize the consistency of outputs.  The type of capability will drive the level of process definition based upon need for consistency and/or creativity.  Sustainable also means that items like process could change over time.  Without having a starting point, what are you changing from?  It is better not to guess at what might work and to have a baseline from which change can be defined.
  5. Information: Each individual in a role that is taking a step in the process might need information to execute the step correctly. Not all steps require much thought, yet some require reference to information to make an informed decision to execute the step correctly.  Often this analysis finds that the information is not as available as thought and may be one of the more critical contributors to executing the process incorrectly.
  6. Measurement: If the individuals performing within the capability can’t tell if they are performing at the right level, the value of the capability can be dissolved. Measurement enables individuals to understand their performance and to correct it.  This can be one of the more valuable aspects of a foundation for a capability.  This is the most important element for sustainability.
  7. Technology: Technology might not be needed for every capability; however, there is a greater percentage of capabilities enabled with technology every day. Technology infrastructure can be significant for an enterprise and very light for each capability.  It will be increasingly important for technology to be flexible and available at the level required to be affordable in support of each capability.
  8. Infrastructure: This element of the foundation represents everything that a capability has to depend upon to be able to function. Things like finance, legal, HR, facilities, and administrative technology belong in this category.  Governance and other program support groups would also be documented here.  Focusing on these items would destroy the ability for each capability to manage itself.


Implications for Use

When looking to improve, an organization needs to start somewhere.  I prefer to build upon a foundation.  Some might say they have a process foundation upon which to build (as an example).  I would ask what good the process is if you don’t have the KSAs in people to executed it correctly.  How would you sustain it and continue to improve it without appropriate measurement.  I could go on.  This is why I like the Capability Foundation – you can work on one capability at a time to make it sustainable and gradually move to others adjusting to avoid sub-optimization across the organization.

For this concept of suboptimization, consider that each capability is a pipe.  Then all the work flowing through the organization needs to traverse through the pipes to be completed at the end of the flow.  This implies that the work has to flow at the same rate through all the capability pipes, or one less capable pipe will restrict all others for which it is involved.  If you are prepared for this concept, you can make adjustments as the bottlenecks are discovered.  This is the topic of other popular methods such as the Theory of Constraints.

Meanwhile capabilities could be improved in any order, or in a specific order if there are synergies for handling some areas together or in close sequence to one another.  Because a capability can be defined with its expected performance, as changes occur, the appropriate capability to receive priority in changing might be best identified with methods like Sensitivity Analysis.  The effort might be the same for each capability to change, but the ability to meet the change characteristics might improve with a selected sequence of improvement.

When addressing a capability also consider that the change is localized and more able to be controlled in smaller increments of change than larger initiatives.  Localized effort can also be better addressed by those involved with the capability making disturbances from organizational change much less likely.  Teams may be the best ones to handle the capability level change without management intervention which adds to the more immediate readiness to execute the capability that is re-defined.


My Favorite Three Steps to Improving Capabilities

My three steps include:

  1. Start from where you are: don’t be afraid to recognize whatever the truth is about the capability you help to define. By gradually defining each of the foundation pieces of the capability you can see how each can impact the other.  Improper skill would not execute process correctly.  Lack of technology may inhibit performance or limit information required to do the right thing right.  If the required change is significant, consider more than one initiative to establish an incremental improvement that can be institutionalized prior to taking on a much more significant change.
  2. Focus on one capability to build competence in establishing something sustainable: major initiatives that tend to address many capabilities can suffer from the lack of sufficient coaching to build the right foundation. Focus on what you have the capacity to enable with knowledgeable resources as coaches.  Each capability may prove to be faster than anticipated and allow rapid movement to other capabilities.  Many capabilities at a time could cause significant slowing in readiness conditions in the involved capabilities and with the overall cost of disruption.
  3. Stabilize, then expand: establish a revised capability and let it operate sufficiently to become the new “muscle memory” for involved people. Ensure that things are stable before taking on another increment of change.  Since the method is holistic and sustainable, there should be no problem in understanding and gradually taking on other changes with less and less disruption.



While the title implies that process improvement might be the only part of a capability that is too little a piece to be effective, the truth is that any piece taken globally as a change within an organization would have the same issue in trying to get the remaining elements of all the capabilities to support the single element that changed.  Isolate each one and think it through.  As an example, conduct an enterprise training initiative.  Who would organize it?  What would they train on?  Would each capability needed even be identified and enabled with any form of improvement?  Would training have to recur after introduction of new process or technology?

I will leave the other elements to your own analysis of independent improvement.  Meanwhile I strongly urge you to consider building upon a foundation that is holistic, simple, and leads to sustainability.