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Changing the Tires While Driving the Car December 13, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, strategy.
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That’s a phrase we often use to describe a chaotic work environment, but what if anything can be done when you’re faced with this situation? How should we manage when the current processes are incomplete, insufficient, ineffective, or even missing? How do you evaluate and implement process improvements without jeopardizing commitments to deliverables and performance metrics? Is there a logical way of managing these changes, or do we muddle through it, and later smile sympathetically when we hear about another manager’s struggles?

Obviously the whole point of introducing a new process or making a process change is to gain some improvement in performance, output, and/or cost. However there’s no getting around the fact that any process change will be accompanied by at least a short-term loss of productivity until you’re past the learning curve.

Will the current activities or projects continue long enough to benefit from an immediate change? If the benefit doesn’t outweigh the “distraction cost,” then it’s probably better to wait for scheduled downtime or a natural break between projects (in other words, wait until the car is stopped before changing the tires). If there is no natural break, then at least one project will have to pay the price so that future projects can realize the advantage. Which project can best tolerate the cost, or the risk of failure to meet scope or schedule requirements?

One practical question is whether it’s even possible to switch processes in mid-stream. If you’ve already started with the old process, can you finish the job with a new one? Starting over again from the beginning should be considered a last resort, only practical if the existing process is so unsatisfactory that you’re willing to sacrifice time for better results.

Another key concern is whether or not the organization as a whole is aligned with the need for a process change. It may be politically useful to roll out the new process on a small scale in order to build support for broader implementation. On the other hand, if there’s enough critical mass, it can be highly effective to “burn the boats,” essentially making it impossible to return to the old process.

If it’s the right thing to do, it’s just a question of when. If the benefits can’t be clearly articulated, it will never be the right time.

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