Where to Start Improvement

Guest post by Dave Nave

The question of where to start improvement is not an ‘either/or’ choice of top-down or bottom-up approach. The place to start is both. Leading an organization requires both a long-term and a short-term focus. With changing management practices being long-term and improving operational efficiency being short-term. The organization is a system. Optimization of any single component (management practices or production operations) frequently detracts from the whole.

For many years I firmly believed (actually hoped) the bottom-up approach would be the most effective. Especially since I came from the shop floor. However, after watching several large companies try the bottom-up approach, I realized that it didn’t work. You can show management success, but they will not believe it. Especially when the management practices involves the underlying beliefs that workers are untrustworthy, and must be dominated and controlled. I saw one Fortune 20 company turn around their operations using a process improvement program. When the bottom line numbers drastically improved, upper management scrambled for years trying to find out why. Five years later, I don’t believe they still understand how it happened, or why.

To help clarify the various arguments of top-down or bottom-up approach to implementing improvement in my own mind, I wrote a paper. Most arguments focus on ‘success’ – however that is determined! What I though was missing, was the perspective of a leader who has a broad knowledge of business, the desire to help the long-term health of the organization, but did not the ability to hold off the financial dogs of short-term results. Once I started looking deeper, two key factors came to light, time to see results versus scope of influence throughout the organization. Bottom-up produces short-term improvement however it’s effects are limited to the local area. Top-down takes a long time to see results, but it effects the very foundation of the organization. The hybrid of a top-down support for a bottom-up improvement approach is not the answer. The Fortune 20 company mentioned above, tried a high level support approach to a bottom-up improvement methodology. Looking through the lens of speed and scope, suddenly product redesign (Value Engineering) became a viable option. Providing a balance of moderate returns with a moderate time delay.

I concluded that a three prong approach is needed. But, how do you manage that? By cooperation and collaboration between improving; management practices, product redesign, and process improvement.

If anyone is interested in reading my thought paper, you can download the paper – Improvement Triad: Processes, Products, and Management Practices. I would love to hear your feedback.

Related: Lean and Theory of ConstraintsHow to ImproveCurious Cat Management Improvement portal

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