True Process Improvement and Innovation? Or Just “Tightening the Vise”?

I have yet another new term I’ve started using lately. It’s called, Tightening the Vise. So what does it mean? If you know me by now, you know what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell a story!

So once upon a time, there was a recurring business process in a medium-sized organization. Let’s say 10,000 people. And the organization had a recurring business process that was not going well. So the enterprising leader of this organization brought in a new team of amazing, intelligent, well-organized go-getters to improve the process, with the goal of it being completed faster. So off this team went. They studied the process, gathered data (such as the average time to do the process), and designed a set of metrics and dashboards to report on the status of the process, and thus be able to show improvement over time. They created a checklist with milestones for the process, so that it was well-defined what the steps of the process were, and the status and completion percentage of the process execution was easily tracked. They updated the process and added steps for scheduling and reporting. Thus, whenever the process was initiated, there was clear visibility and expectations for when the process needed to be completed by, including milestone dates on the calendar and periodic status checks.

All this sounds great, right? Well, fast forward six months and the dashboards show something disturbing…the process is actually taking LONGER than it used to. How could this be? There was now a dedicated team to ensure the process would improve!

If you go look carefully at the story I told, you’ll notice something. At no point did the actual technical steps of the process itself change or improve. Instead, all that happened was that the persons actually executing the process now have a bunch of extra reporting and bureaucracy steps.

I have seen this exact scenario play out many, many times in my career. The new team brought in to improve things are working really hard, and I’m sure in their minds they are doing great things to help. But the reality is that nothing really happened to actually make the process itself go faster. All the team did was Tighten the Vise.

As a business leader, this is critically important for you to look for this in your organization. Are you really helping people do their job faster, better, easier, more efficiently? Are you giving them tools, training, freedom to innovate?

Or…are you just tracking KPIs and setting goals, and then verbally encouraging them to meet those goals? Are you just Tightening the Vise?

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