I guess that most of you know the story that describes how a fully-grown elephant is kept in place by a relatively small spike in the ground. Simply stated, an elephant baby is steaked to the ground with a substantial stake, chain, and ankle cuff. The baby elephant isn’t able to pull the steak up or break the chain, and after wearing itself out by trying, it learns that it is useless to tug at the restraint. An adult elephant could easily pull that steak out of the ground or break the chain—without even trying. But the elephant remembers the lesson, so when the chain gets taught, the elephant stops tugging. Having a memory like an elephant isn’t always a useful thing!
Many times, we humans do the same kind of thing. We learn a particular way of doing things, and it becomes a habit. When our circumstances change, we may still cling to doing things the way we’ve always done them even though there is a better way.
I find it hard to take the time to research new ways of doing things instead of just “getting the job done the best way I know how.” There are exceptions to that rule. When using complex software, I will frequently research to find a better way to do what I want to do. If I am under a deadline, I may resort to just getting things done the best way I know and making a note to research new ways later.
It’s all the harder to get many people in a business setting to change a business process. Each individual believes they are under a deadline and have to get the job done the way they have learned to do it. There is minimal incentive to find a better way. They have some job security in keeping their part of the process as it is.
The best way I know how to improve the business process is to have a cross-functional team assigned to continuous, incremental process improvement. Of course, that is easier said than done. It’s not that people do not like change; they don’t like being changed. My experience is that if making a change to the business process is my idea, I’m okay with it. But, if an outsider tells me I have to make the change, I am reluctant to do so at best.
The business process improvement team must be cross-functional to facilitate system-level thinking. To optimize a complex system, one or more of its sub-systems will not be optimized. A team with all the functions represented will look at the big picture and make the required trade-offs. That team will have credibility because it represents the whole business, not just one vertical function.
As leaders, we must recognize that our people are often buried in the details and will not have time or incentive to improve the overall processes. It falls to us to make sure that we create a culture of continuous, incremental improvement. Depending on my leadership position, I may either be on a high-level team of peers assigned to change management or be responsible for putting such a team together. Either way, it is best practice to make sure that process improvement is not left to chance.
As Peter Drucker reminded us, “Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.”