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Process Improvement Essentials by James R. Persse PhD

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6. Active Feedback Mechanisms

You may be the sponsor of your organization's process program; you may even be accountable for it, liable for its success. But your people really live with it. After all is said and done, the final test of the program's effectiveness will come down to how well it fits the way your people do their jobs. If the fit is good, people will use it. If the fit is poor, they won't. And so it's important that you continually monitor the program's fit with your organization.

So far in this chapter, we've looked at a few ways you can do this. But here we discuss a technique that carries with it a singular importance: feedback.

Organizations are dynamic enterprises. They're ever-changing. So is the blend of people in the organization. So are trends in the marketplace. So are business objectives. The world of business is in a busy state of continuous flux. And because of this, you need to make sure that your process program does not remain fixed. It needs to evolve with your organization, to remain in sync with your organization. The best way to do this is to work with those closest to the program, your frontline people. This is where feedback comes into play. Your people—working the program every day—need to know that what they think and need can directly impact the shape of the program.

Through their feedback, you can work effectively to make sure that your program retains its goodness-of-fit for the organization. Here are four ways you might consider to help you establish feedback mechanisms in your organization that can work to sustain your process program.

Let Them Know Who the Ears Are

People are usually willing to provide constructive feedback when given the chance, but organizations often fail to identify who the ears are—that is, who it is they can talk to, who they can come to with ideas and requests.

Some organizations try to compensate for this by setting up web sites people can use to submit feedback. Or suggestion boxes placed around an office to collect ideas. But these are only half measures. Web sites and boxes are usually perceived as black holes: nothing that goes into them ever seems to come out.

Feedback needs human contact to make it valuable. People need to know who they can go to—not what—to offer up thoughts and ideas that can be used to make business processes more effective. It's the organization's responsibility to let them know who those ears are.

Provide a Means of Communicating

Now that your people know who they can go to with process improvement ideas, it's important to set up communication channels to encourage and foster this feedback. There are various ways to do this. You can give out a map to your office. You can hand out your phone number. You can walk around and solicit ideas. You can also conduct more formal activities.

One commonly used activity is to hold formal process program review meetings at regular intervals. You can think of these as user-group meetings, where you bring together the people who use the program (maybe for a day or two each year) and gather ideas for making the program better.

You can take smaller actions, too. You can hold focus group sessions with targeted groups within the organization, looking at specific performance areas of the program. You can use the suggestion boxes and email centers I talked about earlier, but now with a real person waiting at the other end.

Use your creativity and experience here. The goal is to encourage the various work groups to think about how they use elements of the process program, to come up with ideas and suggestions to make it better, and then to know what to do with those ideas and suggestions, how to share them with the right audience.

Provide Evidence of Actions

The positive power of feedback will quickly lose its energy if you only pay lip service to it. Unfortunately that is often what many company managers do. They say they want to hear from the workforce; they want to think that they are responsive to what their people might express. But when it comes down to hard tack, they prefer the status quo. Or if change is required, it's better if it's their change. Of course, people see through that position pretty quickly.

Realizing the value of feedback requires two assumptions: that the frontline workers probably know how best to get a job done, and that the processes you've put into place to assist job performance could be improved. In my mind, those are pretty safe assumptions. Take your position along those lines, and you'll quickly come to welcome feedback.

Feedback also requires two actions. First, demonstrate that you are collecting and analyzing the feedback you get (and accept that this will take a degree of work and energy on your part). You can do this several ways. You might create a public process improvement log or database that everybody has access to and is able to enter new data into. You might post what you judge to be the top five improvement ideas every month in some conspicuous place within the company.

Next, implement the ideas that really add value to your program. In other words, act on the feedback. That's the best way to get your people involved in the program, to get them feeling that the program is really theirs, that they exercise a degree of control over how it's shaped, and that they have a real and tangible stake in its outcome.

Seek the Wisdom of Balance

Hopefully, if you've let your people know who they can come to with ideas, and if you've opened up accessible communication channels, you'll be getting a lot of feedback. Some of it will contain gems: really solid and pertinent ideas that can be used to significantly improve the efficacy of your program.

Another portion will contain some pretty good ideas for minor tweaks and adjustments.

And then a portion of it, while sincere, may prove not really relevant or practical, or contain no real improvement value.

The point I'd like to make here is that sometimes the act of implementing an improvement idea carries with it more value than the idea itself. Now you are not going to want to continually change your process program. It needs to be seen as a stable, well-managed methodology. But you will want to make revisions to it on something of a fixed schedule, and when those times come, it might be important to your people that they see some of their ideas being incorporated into the refinements you have endorsed.

Use these opportunities to look at their suggestions. And don't just look for the Big Ideas. Small changes might not mean much to you (and so might be very easy for you to implement), but they may very well mean a lot to the people who suggested them. They may see the incorporation of these ideas as recognition of their business savvy and acumen. And when your program is supported by people like that, it soon becomes a solid asset within the company.

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