Disruptive By Design: Stymied by Progress? True Leaders Don’t Fear Innovation

May 1, 2015
By Anneli Lambeth

Fiscal struggles persist as businesses and government agencies continue to be called upon to fulfill expanding mission requirements while confronted with ever-tightening budgets and diminishing resources. Sure, leaders look for the cost savings and business-boosting solutions, but many are reluctant to delve deep into their business process to look for problems, perhaps afraid of what they might find. Leaders also might fear the cost associated with having to fix problems with new solutions unfamiliar to them, especially in government agencies. What is the cause for this fear of the unknown?

It really does take a collaborative team effort to improve performance and methodically reduce waste. Imperative in business success—particularly during trying fiscal times—is the need to envelop a business model that takes into account not just the whole process but also a high-fidelity scrubbing to uncover root causes of problems such as redundancies that, in essence, rob businesses of their value. For some leaders, it can be a frightening leap to look.

When a tweak here or a fine-tuned adjustment there is not enough, true innovators rethink and embrace the entirety of a different business model. It is one that focuses on the statistics of eliminating errors and unnecessary tasks that provide no value, resulting in quashed problems, an enhanced product or quality of service, improved cost savings and eliminated inefficiencies.

Much of corporate America is on board, and yet the federal government, once again, is bound by bureaucratic stagnation and sluggishness that prevent it from embracing disruptive change—even if it works.

Consider a real-world application: A task as simple as requiring multiple signatures to move a document through reviews or departments to receive approval causes a huge waste of time and money. Here is another example: One agency had a business process requiring hundreds of meetings, at an estimated cost of $5,000 each, to complete a certification. One solution, such as that offered by Lean Six Sigma (LSS), would systematically look at the whole meeting-requirement approach; discern which meetings actually provide value; and eliminate those that are unnecessary.

Motorola Incorporated developed Six Sigma in the mid 1980s to control variability in business processes. Simply stated, Motorola concluded it could not compete with Japanese businesses by using the current “concept of quality” because the eventual cost of producing a product of poor quality, in the end, was too high. Leaders wanted a method of producing a commodity with zero defects. Zero. This process, however, did not focus on the elimination of unnecessary tasks. Motorola was highly successful, reducing defects to 1/20th of previous performance. The leadership was recognized for the improvements in quality with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1988.

Today, many of the Fortune 500 firms have the Six Sigma program built into their management structure.

Successful businesses focus on what is important and critical to customers, creating and adhering to detailed steps deemed necessary to create real value while eliminating those that do not. What is convenient about LSS is that it is applicable to many kinds of processes: manufacturing, software, operational, transactional and service processes, including all phases of the product life cycle, from design to operations. When adopted, it can provide a long-term solution to driving efficiencies, but perhaps more importantly, it empowers all levels of an organization to help drive process improvement.

Similar approaches have worked within the private sector. And yet, in an environment where government agencies are compelled to do more with less and leadership is forced to reduce its costs while increasing efficiency and quality of service, the powers that be are not embracing proven approaches that begin with the very simple approach to reducing the causes of defects or errors. Sure, some have expressed interest in switching gears, but they have taken no action. Some leaders are just resistant to change, holding strong to the age-old risk aversion model and grasping at the adage: “It’s the way things have always been done.”

There might be merit to the hesitancy. In general, business process re-engineering methods can leave negative connotations, especially among the employees directly affected by them. Too often, re-engineering approaches lead to budgets being slashed across the board, a decrease in employee benefits, stagnate wages or the elimination of jobs. These are not exactly morale-boosting endeavors. Is it any wonder the work force might cringe at the mention of re-engineering methods? However, while it is one way organizations have tried to gain better business practices, especially during periods of economic recovery, it is not the best or most effective way to enact a long-term change and growth strategy. Given the success of business management programs to drive efficiency, cut costs and increase quality, you would think that more government organizations and agencies would not only have contemplated adoption but also enacted it already.

Anneli Lambeth is an associate at Markon Solutions. She is Lean Six Sigma certified, Shipley trained, an ISO 9001 certification candidate and an active participant in AFCEA’s mentor-protégé program. The views expressed are hers alone and do not represent the views or opinions of Evoke Research and Consulting LLC.

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