IT Best Practices

Where Process-Improvement Projects Go Wrong

Process improvement programs such as Six Sigma and “lean manufacturing” are, in a way, similar to weight-loss plans. It’s an odd comparison but they both start off promising. However, they both fail to have a lasting impression as participants slowly lose motivation and revert to old habits. In this Wall Street Journal article, author Satya Chakravorty writes about her insight after studying process-improvement programs at large companies and how and why so many of process-improvement programs fail.

But Why Do Some of Them Fail?

Many of the process improvement programs such as Six Sigma aim to improve the quality of products and streamline processes, disposing of those that create waste and don’t contribute value to the final product. Chakravorty quotes that companies that decide to use Six Sigma, about 60% of them, usually fail to yield the desired results. Her findings conclude that when these programs are met with increasing stress over time, they respond in “the same way a metal spring does when it is pulled with increasing force,” stretching and yielding before failing completely. This is known as a stress-strain curve in engineering and the stages of the curve include stretching, yielding, and falling stages.

The Stress-Strain Curve Stages

  • Stretching Stage

Early on, participants in a process-improvement project usually are willing to do more than they can do, thus “stretching” themselves. At an aerospace company where an improvement project took place, a Six Sigma expert was brought in to guide and train the team. They started off great with a goal that made producing more error-free bills an importance.

  • Yielding Stage

As the metal spring is being pulled continually, there will be a point when the material gives way as it struggles to support the increase in pressure. As the Six Sigma guide moved on to a different project, performance started to slip up and workers struggled to implement their new habits without any guidance.

  • Failing Stage

Over time, pulling will cause the material in one area of the metal spring to narrow, creating a neck that becomes smaller and smaller until it is unable to sustain any pressure at all. At that point, it breaks into pieces. Similarly, in the final stage of a process-improvement project, team members find themselves unable or unwilling to tackle improvement tasks, and the effort ultimately collapses.

Process-improvement programs can lead to sustainable improvements when implemented with discipline by a motived team. That is why is it is important that the knowledge is practiced by all teams members as to not lose momentum and to continue with improving.

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