Speaking Process Improvement to Your Management


Have you tried to persuade your management to buy into process improvement? It's a tricky business, fraught with obstacles that you may not foresee. If you've been frustrated, you might find some insights in this article to help you with future efforts. If you haven't been in that position yet, this article can help you prepare and perhaps increase your chances for success.

One of the recurring questions in the Message Board forums, and in other discussion groups, is the difficulty we have in getting management to listen to us when we propose some sort of improvement initiative. Whether it is a large-scale CMM-based improvement effort, or a small-scale, limited-scope improvement, we see our proposals ignored at best, or trashed with attendant risk to our careers. In more than fifteen years of working in various improvement initiatives, some sponsored top down, others bottom up, and as both a company employee and an external consultant, I have had a mixture of successes and failures that may help others who want to help their companies improve. 

The last phrase, "help their companies improve," really gets to the heart of the matter. Most of the time, we see a problem, know of a solution that will solve the problem, and often assume that the solution is so obvious or logical that we blast forward without sufficient thought to the culture, environment, or support structures within the company. These elements are critical to the success of our initiative. After being severely bludgeoned about the head and shoulders, we come to the conclusion that "management (or another convenient target) just doesn't get it," and we become discouraged and cease our efforts. When these stories are posted in newsgroup discussions, or discussed at conferences, the advice I see in many cases is to "switch companies and find a supportive culture or management." I will argue that this approach is doomed to failure, and the best way to succeed is to plan your strategy to acknowledge whatever roadblocks are in the way before you start, and work around them. Beating yourself against immovable objects will not succeed, but isolating these obstacles and showing progress elsewhere will lead to success in the long run.

The "Management Problem"
While management certainly can cause many of the problems we must overcome, often management is a scapegoat. There are some real problems, which I categorize below:

PHMs Pointy Haired Managers

ADD Attention Deficit Disorder

PSI Problem Saturation Index

DHC Don't Have a Clue

However, as Walt Kelly said in Pogo years ago, "We have met the enemy and it is us." All too often the fault is ours, in that we lack a business view, get mired in detail, and have difficulty getting our point across in a short time, if at all. A boss once told me that the biggest mistake I was making was assuming others had the same interest and some knowledge in the areas I was passionately working on. To succeed, we need to present our ideas in terms that grab the attention of the decision makers (not always management—don't forget the technical leaders), in terms they understand, and within the allotted time (attention span) that they can reasonably devote to you. What may be the  biggest problem the company faces in your eyes may be only one of many that are taking management's time.


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