Today I would like to discuss process improvement from a different angle than the methodological one. I want to focus here on the key personality traits — dare I say virtues — that can go a long way towards making a process improver successful.
Whenever discussions ensue among those who are involved in process improvement (PI), they usually hinge around the merits of one or another approach. These exchanges may also focus on the low level of process awareness or technical proficiency of the customer. The wish is often expressed for a better computing platform or expensive software tools for data collection and analysis, without which progress is seemingly just out of reach. Finally, it is common to complain about competing priorities due to budgetary constraints and PI being relegated to a corporate footnote, in a role akin to that of thorough software testing, for which there is rarely time. And yet, the personality traits of process improvers themselves are rarely tabled for discussion.
A successful process improver is a good listener
In my experience, I have found that three things lie at the core of lack of progress in process matters where the analyst is concerned: first comes the inability of the process expert to understand people — being a good listener is key — and thus to successfully engage those around him, who may know less about process techniques than he, but who the PI person should not forget are domain experts in their own right. No man is an island, as the saying goes, and this is never more true than when trying to achieve significant change and break down silos in an organization.
A successful process improver stays humble
The second failing certain process analysts exhibit is an inability to start small and proceed gradually, and with a degree of humility — in other words, the tendency to bite off more than one can chew. Projects of enormous scope where the goal is to ‘fix everything’ are started, only to end in collective frustration and having to write off the financial and time investment. Little thought is given to the simple fact that, in all likelihood, it is a large number of recurrent failures that has brought things to a head, and that in such circumstances — and in roadway parlance — to ‘proceed with caution’ is of the essence. This is not to be confused with being tentative, or hesitating when what needs to be done is clear. It does mean one should learn to walk before one tries to run. Overambitious managers are often at fault here, perhaps more than the analyst, another reason why process improvers should do their utmost to raise awareness in others as to such potential pitfalls.
Both of these failings are really sins of arrogance. One may fail to engage others for a variety of reasons, including misplaced feelings of superiority, inability to introspect, lack of situational awareness, a personal need to hog center-stage, or out of insufficient motivation to truly help, something that is all too easily detected by others. As far as doing more than is advisable, this tendency may have its roots in sheer inexperience or, worse, in a lack of conviction and ability to resist when pressured by others to move forward at speeds that are unwise.
Typically, trying to mask these deficiencies instead of being intellectually honest and actually doing something to correct them only makes matters worse. Just as the physician attempts to heal people who are ill, so the PI person tries to do his or her best for organizations that are dysfunctional to some extent. And, the same advice given to the physician should be heeded by the process analyst — first, heal thyself.
The genuinely humble process improver, on the other hand, knows his limitations, is patient, and can keep his ego out of the picture. Therefore, he is also able to view things with greater clarity and serenity, and is less likely to trip himself up due to misplaced emotion and internal turmoil. An indirect benefit of this is that others who are able to perceive this calm demeanor and objectivity may well become more open and increasingly amenable to the analyst’s suggestions and efforts at facilitation over time. Trust is not built in a day, although it can be lost quite quickly.
A successful process improver has the strength to bounce back
The third personal virtue a process improver needs in spades is resilience, or the inner strength to bounce back from adversity, which may take many forms, including flagging management support due to fear of change or simply bad politics by conflicted individuals. Being resilient will also allow the process analyst to regroup, introspect, and come at a problem from a different angle. Sustainable process improvement is more of a marathon than a sprint, which is another reason why resilience is key. Related to this, process analysts rarely have the luxury of authority to make things happen; therefore, the ability to exert influence over a prolonged time frame is important, which is only doable if one is resilient.
Clearly, the successful PI analyst should also possess technical credibility and business acumen. Nevertheless, without intellectual honesty, humility, and resilience as core values to lead the analyst’s way from within, simply having other skills will most likely fail to carry the day.
In my opinion, the successful process improver is first and foremost an ethical person. While this is something that has become almost a platitude in professional circles, I hope to have shown how in this instance being ethical and being successful truly go hand in hand.