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You need more than Hot Air

Another tell-tale sign that an Improvement initiative may be in trouble is where the programme is deluged in meetings, reviews and general talking shops. It is well recognised that you can never communicate enough when it comes to managing change, but the requirement is for effective communication, not merely the production of hot air. If your programme is a “Process Improvement Initiative” then it is probably being run as a project, and some form of governance is in place. Typically this will consist of a top level Steering Group, a lower level Change Control Board, and a number of Process Review Boards supporting the pyramid. The core process improvement team will be involved at all levels to provide continuity, consistency, guidance and facilitation. It is important to make the distinction between governance and work (by which I mean the physical activities involved in designing, building, and implementing the change). Governance provides the mechanism for management and control, and strategic and tactical decision making. It supports the work activities of the process group. Governance bodies do not perform the work of the process group or associated working groups. Often an organisation has a governance structure that is similar to the one outlined above in which the improvement leader simply spouts out the same old progress updates to a different audience at different levels of the governance chain (albeit with different levels of granularity). The governance bodies listen to what they are told, perhaps ask relevant (or not so relevant) questions, may even make a minor decision (usually by agreeing to the initiative leader’s suggestions) and generally leave the meeting under the impression that everything is fine. However, at some stage in the initiative someone at an executive level is going to realise that in actual fact progress is not as expected, costs are increasing, and all is not well. For the next few months, the improvement leader is repeatedly warned that things must change or the programme will be canned, before finally the axe comes down. For some reason, executives rarely treat internal programmes with the same degree of rigour as client facing programmes. Steering Groups are led but don’t steer, Change Control boards argue about how things should be done rather than making decisions, and Process Review boards write processes. In other words the governance system fails, and problems are not uncovered until it is often too late to take effective corrective action. I believe that there are several reasons for this failure of governance. Firstly, the governance process for the initiative is not properly defined, communicated or understood. Often it is assumed that executives and sponsors fully understand their roles and responsibilities, but this is often an invalid assumption especially in change management initiatives. Secondly, the wrong people participate in the governance process. Individuals who do not have the knowledge, understanding, authority and responsibility to make effective decisions should not be part of the process (although individuals may be given responsibility and authority to do this under the terms of the governance charter). Finally, governance bodies need to be provided with relevant and objective data, against which they should be making decisions. If such boards are not provided with such data they must demand it, rather than rely on subjective information selectively produced by the initiative leader. If participants in governance meetings find they are spending much of their time in fruitless discussions, repeatedly reviewing historical data of little relevance, and generally going nowhere, they have a responsibility to do something about it. Their first step should be to review the governance process itself. Actions and decisions bring about change, not hot air.
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