How to sweat the small stuff without ending up stinky

Small steps can be just as important as the big ones

Business process re-engineering doesn’t have to be a boil the ocean approach to transforming your business. I don’t have any scientific evidence to support this but I believe that the most missed opportunities to improve are the little ones we have in front of us everyday. I’m not advocating against “Thinking Big,” I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be so focused on enterprise transformation that you miss the 1% improvements that add up over time. I believe that many managers miss out on maximizing their value proposition to the organization because they aren’t able to execute on small change initiatives in a meaningful way. These smaller 30, 60 or 90 day initiatives include re-engineering internal workflows, automating internal processes, and course corrections to major programs. The dollars are generally small and the rewards for any one won’t get you an award at the annual holiday party, but over time these are the types of improvements that move the needle for an organization as a whole. Here are 5 things to think about before you decide to move out on that small change effort you’ve been thinking about.

  1. Take the big picture or system view: I know this post is all about little improvements—just remember the big picture and try not to work against it. Thinking big picture helps you ensure you don’t miss the really important thing that happens just before the process you are focusing on.
  2. Think about the data: In most organizations, everything else changes faster than the data. People, technology, and processes—they all change fairly quickly. Understanding information requirements around a process improvement opportunity often gives you a chance to think about it without the confusion of technology and other factors. In the end, many of the improvement opportunities you will find in any organization center on more effectively moving, manipulating, or otherwise acting on information that has been used for years to support the business.
  3. Remember the human factor: Ever sat in a place and wondered how it was possible that nobody had fixed problem “x” yet? You’ve been on site for five minutes and you can tell right away what’s wrong. Most of the time there is a reason that obvious improvement opportunities go unexploited. Many times it’s a people issue. Many times an unwillingness to change comes from a fear or uncertainty about the effect of change. People are often the biggest obstacle to change and you often need to be prepared to sell people on why they should change, even when the existing process seems so obviously broken to you.
  4. Beware scope creep: Little improvements have a way of morphing into massive programs over the course of a cup of coffee. The temptation to keep pulling on the thread of an improvement opportunity until you have completely re-organized the company is hard to resist.
  5. Remember you still need to manage change: Little improvements can go a long way, but one of the downsides to smaller improvement efforts is the costs of change management isn’t anticipated and the effort falls short because there is no money to update the SOP, provide training, etc. The bells and whistles that get included with major transformation efforts often get left out. Informal or small programs still need planning to ensure that there is documentation, training, etc. Without these, the value of these small changes is severely limited.

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