When we talk about continuous improvement typically we have it fall into two categories; systems or process dynamics and people dynamics. Process dynamics is the approach that looks at all the processes in a company and is based on the premise that continuous improvement can be achieved through the application of science and data around a company’s processes. It is the approach that someone with an engineering background is most comfortable with. For them it is show me an issue and the data and I will create a process to correct it.
This was highlighted for me at one LNG plant that I did some work with. There had been a few safety incidents with golf carts. (These carts were used to get around the rather large facility) The management team was an eminently qualified group of engineers and the first response was to do a risk assessment and come up with a process change to address the perceived issue. Seat belts were made mandatory. Then there was a second incident and a second after action investigation was done and the result was that governors where put on the carts to further limit their speed. You get the idea.
This approach is valid and certainly those were sound safety systems to implement. What no-one bothered to explore was the fact that all of these incidents happened with one individual. Every time this person had a safety event with a cart a new system was put into place.
At the operational end of this process the front line leadership and crew got together and assigned a mentor to this individual and forbid him from driving the carts until the mentor was comfortable that he was ready to do so. With a little coaching they also made cart safety a highlight for the shift start meetings. Each shift someone was called on to discuss one aspect of cart safety. Those daily discussions provided a wealth of insight and innovation for the crews around this issue. This is a people dynamics approach.
Both are valid and necessary tools for continuous improvement but I am going to go reveal my bias in that I believe that in exploring continuous improvement you have to start with the people dynamic. In fact, I am certain that starting with a people centered approach will actually enhance the process dynamic of continuous improvement.
Let me share another example. In an oil and gas company I had been coaching the front line leadership and crews around implementing continuous improvement. As they started to run with it they had developed a pretty detailed agenda for post engagement reviews. They used these to assess what had gone well, what had not and what could be done to address those issues in the next engagement. All of this had developed from the bottom up and the crews and their leaders were quite pumped about it.
At the same time at the corporate level of that company someone had also been looking at what systems could be implemented that would further move the crews toward a continuous improvement mindset. Running along the exact same thinking that was now driving their crews (albeit being unaware that was happening) they implemented a new process of doing after action reviews.
I remember when the memo came out and there was almost instant resistance to it. Why? To put it simply, even though both the front line crews and the corporate leadership were actually one the same page the instant the crews had a sense that something was being "imposed" upon them from above they resisted. This was regardless of the fact that it was essentially asking them to do exactly what they were already doing! With a little coaching of their leaders we were able to convince the crews that everyone was in fact looking for the same result and so things proceeded. We were also able to coach the corporate leadership to give the front line crews an opportunity to come up with process improvements on their own.
It wasn't long before crews were coming up with process improvements that either aligned with plans that corporate had already been entertaining or were in fact new and better approaches to some of the issues that needed to be addressed. It was a win/win for everyone.
I can't tell you how many times I have seen companies struggle to implement continuous improvement through the imposition of a process dynamic approach because they had underestimated the importance of the people dynamic. Both are necessary but you may find yourself taking the long way around to that solution if you fail to put your people dynamic first.