This week’s brief post is inspired by another recent blog article: Brad Power’s Where Have the Process Owners Gone? on the Harvard Business Review website. I recognize the importance of having a dedicated Process Owners and formal process improvement governance and I would love to work with a company that really makes it work. Throughout my career, I have seen various attempts at putting such roles in place but they failed for the same reasons described in the article. I have to admit I have never seen it succeed.
However, I have worked in companies that had a culture of process improvement and ownership. Everyone was a Process Owner at some level. When a process wasn’t working and we decided it needed to be fixed, anyone could ask “Who owns that?” and the appropriate person, usually based on role, would take an action item to address it, pulling in whoever needed to be involved. There was a habit of follow-up, so that action item was not forgotten.
So how and why did that work? It’s a combination of the following four factors:
1. Culture had strong sense of process and process improvement. In my experience, the places where process improvement was central to the culture were manufacturing organizations. The core business is driven by assembly lines and supply chains, so all roles understood process concepts. In one company, they made sure that culture was seeded in the new employee orientation on Day 1. In the other, they only hired people with that experience or those values.
2. KPIs were rooted in cost reduction. Metrics all boil down to reducing the cost of the product by reducing the cost of producing it. Our metrics all had targets. From all levels of management, we were continually asked what we were doing to meet or exceed those targets.
3. We were all shareholders in the company. Having actual ownership in the company certainly instills a sense of ownership in the company culture. Having employee shareholders is not a prerequisite for creating that culture, but it certainly does help. Private companies can still create that sense of ownership toward the success of the company in many different ways. For both private and public companies, the most important ways to create that sense are transparency, communication, and allowing employees to have autonomy to make important decisions in their areas of expertise.
4. Most importantly, we had a strong customer focus. There wasn’t just one voice of the customer. Our customer’s voices echoed throughout the organization. In one case, there was a lot of direct contact with the customer: engineer to engineer, buyer to buyer, project manager to project manager. The result was that there were a lot of people who understood what was important to our customer. We knew immediately when they were happy and when they were not. In the other case, we had no direct contact with the customer, but we still had a strong commitment to meet their needs, which was fostered by those who had direct customer contact.
It is the combination of all of the above factors that creates a culture of process improvement ownership. Only one or some of these factors is not enough to sustain the commitment needed to create a culture of process ownership.