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10 Barriers to Improvement

Just about anyone you talk to grumbles about how some things are “done around here”. But, try to get something changed and suddenly you become the Grim Reaper.

So why is it so hard? What are the barriers that prevent us from improving the way we work?

1. It is not my job

How wrong-headed is this? There is no one more capable of identifying opportunities to make the process better and faster than the current operator of that process and there is no one more likely to gain from the improvement.

2. Fear of offending

Let’s not upset our prima donna, best coder, Stewart, by asking him to document the customer’s requirements. Let’s not upset our functional expert, Indira, by asking her to justify her assumptions in a business case. Beware of Dez. He is likely to fly off in an angry, defensive rant if asked to change something.

We’ve known for 40 years that the irony here is that the manager who is too afraid of challenging the status quo because of the ‘pinch’, will likely face the ‘crunch’ of having to lay people off when their department doesn’t perform. *Sherwood and Glidewell (1973, 1975)

3. Worried that changing will lead to delays

“I don’t have time for continuous improvement. I’m too busy to change the way I’m doing things. “

Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to think about it when the company cuts your product line or moves it to another state or country because it is no longer competitive here.

4. Not wanting to get delegated the task of fixing it

I knew a senior manager who responded to all improvement ideas with, “Great idea. Please form a task force and report back when you’re done”. People stopped suggesting changes because they always led to more work for them.

5. Unable to change it anyway

For whatever reason, we feel powerless to make changes. These might include we know it is not working but we don’t know how to improve it, we are new around here, we’ve tried to change it before, or the problem is in an upstream or downstream department. These are all just cop outs because it will take some effort.

6. Blame game

Too many of us fear being singled out and blamed for a failure or poor performance if we bring attention to the process failures that affect our work. This is really a failure of management to differentiate system or process failure from the failure of individuals within that process. I hope you don’t work in a place like this.

7. Fear of the career limiting move

Higher up the chain, expensive programs are often put in place on the whim of a powerful, senior executive. No one wants the black mark of suggesting the matrix isn’t working, or that HR’s new bonus system is un-motivating, or that the new perfume for dogs won’t sell.

This kind of resistance is probably the only one with any credibility. You usually have very little power in the scenario. Luckily, many companies offer an anonymous suggestion box. Unfortunately, few employees believe that it is truly anonymous and most won’t use it.

8. Past Success

Perhaps the most insidious of all is past success. The more successful a person has been in the past doing something, the harder it is to convince them there that they should be doing something else. Think for a moment about how this played out for Kodak as digital photography overtook film and they failed to adapt.

9. Strategy is a secret

God help the manager who shares the plan with those charged with execution. Way too many staff are treated as part of the problem rather than the answer to any challenge facing the company. Make staff feel like soldiers and they can move mountains. Make them feel like victims and that is what they become.

10. Fear of losing their jobs

People are afraid that if we become 5% more efficient, then we might shed 5% of jobs. Well, that might be true but the opposite thinking is rarely applied. If we don’t improve, we’ll lose our competitiveness and potentially lose 100% of our jobs. Another way of looking at it is that we can do 5% more work that customers are willing to pay for, innovate more, respond to threats and opportunities and thereby make our jobs more secure.

We have to improve at the same or faster rate as our competitors or we will lose our market share to these more agile adversaries. How do we overcome these barriers to even suggesting Improvement so that we can create a culture of continuous improvement?

*Sherwood J. and Glidewell J. (1973, 1975) Planned Renegotiation and the Pinch Model

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