When process improvement is ingrained, it becomes less disruptive

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In my previous column, I focused on the limitations of change management systems and indicated that a model of continuous improvement better positions organizations for ongoing, as well as monumental, change. Little did I anticipate at the time that column was written the degree to which our entire world would face a very practical test of that thesis over the intervening months.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought rapid change that has been unprecedented in most of our lifetimes. My colleagues and I have had to shift all instruction online, adapt business processes to accommodate employees working from home, bolster technology resources to meet increased demands and maintain quality of education while meeting the needs of students striving to complete their programs of study and enter their chosen careers.

Times like these present continually moving targets, and no organization can respond perfectly. But thanks to a strongly developed culture of continuous improvement at Tri-C, my colleagues on the faculty and staff have risen to the challenge with commitment, skill and unwavering passion to see our students succeed.

The practice of continuous improvement owes much to the Japanese principle kaizen. Applying kaizen in a business setting in turn owes much to the visionary work of W. Edwards Deming, who worked among top managers and engineers in postwar Japan. His theories and methods, adapted to cultural distinctives, contributed significantly to the dramatic turnaround of the Japanese economy and have benefited many companies worldwide.

While Deming identified 14 points to guide his concept of continuous improvement, John Anderson and his associates synthesized Deming’s writings, observed the method in practice at 41 manufacturing plants and conducted investigations using path analysis to determine cause and effect patterns. Their research confirmed that the principles remained effective when isolating seven underlying determinants.

Anderson’s research has been replicated numerous times in varied industry sectors. In particular, Jesse Barfield and Manus Rungtusanatham separately highlighted the critical role of leaders in developing and communicating a vision that leads to a system of transformation. In this system, cooperation among employees and other stakeholders becomes an advantage. There is willingness to engage in learning, and it is easier to implement improvements to business processes.

An ongoing focus on process improvement increases organizational efficiency. More importantly, it counters the belief that change occurs only on an organizationwide basis. When improvements to processes become part of everyday operations, the organization becomes more agile, and employees come to see change as normal.

Monumental disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic very quickly render old processes obsolete. But when leaders have cultivated a culture of cooperation and process improvement, even such significant shifts can be accomplished as a natural part of the organizational culture.

In times such as these, it is crucial to develop leaders who will move beyond the confines of change management to conscious change leadership. But what does such a leader look like? How can we, as leaders, develop these qualities for the benefit of our own organizations and communities? We will return to these questions in October.

Alex Johnson, Ph.D. is president at Cuyahoga Community College.