Continuous improvement – now more than ever

In an era of digital disruption, IT organizations need to move faster. Given this, should CIOs be active enablers of continuous improvement?

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Several years ago, I reviewed ITIL Version 3.0. When I got to the continual improvement volume, I asked the team whether the message was about continuous or continual improvement. I was told that continual improvement was chosen because improvement wouldn’t ever be nonstop in IT. Clearly, in the disruptive era, improvement may need to occur continuously. Jeanne Ross, in her upcoming book, Designed for Digital: How to Architect Your Business for Sustained Success, suggests in fact that CIOs should aim “to make a company agile so that it can create an innovative and constantly evolving portfolio of digital offerings in response to rapidly changing technologies and customer demands.”

How many organizations have moved from a cluster of improvement projects to embedding continuous improvement into their DNA?

One of the CIOs in our weekly #CIOChat Twitter chat session kicked off this part of the conversation by saying they don't believe in "organizational DNA." They said an organization's behavior and culture are a series of practices and people. They felt that CIOs should make it easier to do the right thing. By doing this, the above CIO claimed, people will make improvement happen more often. CIOs in general believe that continuous improvement requires management intent, resources, people, and a genuine level of care in the culture to make it real. Importantly, CIOs see continuous improvement as being a set of evolutionary steps.

CIOs suggest, however, that while continuous improvement is almost everyone's goal, most IT teams are not there yet. One problem is that only some organizations have the required processes such as agile retrospectives and follow throughs. This is because these are hard and time consuming. Nevertheless, several CIOs suggested a good way to get started is to embed in the business, special teams working on projects of importance to them. The results for these kinds of efforts will get continuous improvement embedded into the corporate DNA. CIOs suggest that when you reward and celebrate continuous improvement, more of it happens organically.

Former CIO, Tim McBreen, shared that in his IT organizations, he created 2 rotating SWAT teams. The first was for solution capability improvement and the second for data analytics. These teams rotate through different business units on a quarterly basis. Their focus was upon short-term, high value improvements. His business partners loved this. In the first 30 days, they figure out the what and how. In the second 30 days, they would build it; and in the last 30 days, they would deploy and support it. In this manner, value is received quickly in each group that they touch.

CIOs suggest that if your organization hasn't started continuous improvement as an initiative, you will cluster your way to irrelevancy. Clearly, success does not just require IT management; it requires the rest of the business. Continuous improvement needs the right business culture to flourish. As well, embracing continuous improvement involves admitting that something within the organization needs improvement. For some this can be a step too far. CIOs, however, suggest culture change starts by admitting you can do better. Clearly, organizations cannot change until they admit that they have flaws worth fixing.

What role do CIOs have in establishing a culture of continuous improvement?

CIOs believe they often have a leading role and it is essential that they develop a shared responsibility. CIOs stress that technology cannot be an island anymore. It relies on seamless connections everywhere. One CIO stated that CIOs need to use some of the concepts from Patrick Lencioni's "The Advantage" to create a proper culture and environment.

Unless we assume that only IT processes can stand continuous improvement, the CIO has the same role as every other business leader in the digital age. CIOs, however, should be in the center of helping apply technology to other line of business’ efforts. But CIOs can only be part of the puzzle. The leadership team needs to buy in. Jeanne Ross agrees when she says in her coming book that “digital business design is a shared responsibility of senior executives in a company”.

In some cases, the CIO needs to push for the involvement of the leadership team and build the process as part of the "grow" component of budget. Unfortunately, many leadership teams are only quarterly driven. These leaders like quick wins that provided immediate value. According to McKinsey & Company and Geoffrey Moore, it is a mistake not to also have mid-term and long-term investment horizons.

To succeed at continuous improvement, it is critical throughout the process to reward improvement, thinking, and partnership. CIOs should actively coach and mentor their immediate staff and require them to do the same for their teams. They need to be leaders and questioners, but they also need to be someone worth emulating. It is worthy that CIOs stress to their team that every time they hear some variant of "we've always done it that way,” the speaker ‘owes the kitty’ a nominal amount.

It should be clear that typically, the CIO is the only executive who sees every process, across the organization from top to bottom. They're in a unique position to see what's needed holistically. They need at the same time to ensure that their organization is good at creating and deploying tools to map, change, and automate processes. This requires positive energy and proactive action to make sure that the right things happen at the right time.

CIOs believe IT organizations need to have a process perspective and mindset, and the tools to effectively manage change. CIOs suggest it is better to start somewhere than starting nowhere and fail everywhere. Clearly, it is important that CIOs be business savvy executives and have a business perspective when it comes to technology.

How can CIOs nurture the behavioral and cultural attributes of excellence?

There are many actions that CIOs can take here. CIOs should start by celebrating every time someone screams enough that we get it, or someone models a desired behavior. Every leader can foster specific behaviors by emulating them and rewarding/incenting properly. CIOs can best nurture and develop excellence by modeling the way. Don't expect everyone else to meet a high standard if you're not willing to meet them yourself.

CIOs must be an example of the behavior that is desired. With this said, they should provide mentoring and opportunities for ‘A players’ to learn and grow. It is also important, for CIOs to clearly articulate expectations and provide well-defined near-term and long-term goals. This includes measuring progress regularly including the increase in improvement velocity. Part of this involves providing reward and praise based upon results. It has always astounded me personally that managers don’t provide authentic praise when great work is done. It costs nothing.

Apart from leading by example, CIOs need to make it easy for diverse populations to work within IT. This means, says one CIO, throwing away the 1950s playbook and implementing a 21st century playbook that enables people of color, women, and differently abled folks. When you do this, CIOs say the magic happens. In terms of the playbook, CIOs, when demanded, should be the model for the rest of the business. One CIO gave the example of a leader complaining about their staff putting in a full day, but their boss said they were having trouble with this leader being in the office.

Finally, CIOs have an advantage because they see all data flow. They need to use this picture to help people that don’t operate at the 'process' level relate this to the big picture as it intersects business strategy. The c-suite handles 'how' so the CEO can do 'why' and 'what’.' A natural ally here is the CFO who understands how financial data flows up, down and across the organization. The CIOs can help them understand more than one dimension of the problem.

How can CIOs solicit ideas for improvement that can be responded to quickly?

CIOs had many suggestions. CIOs believe that the best way to create engagement is by being trusted. Next is by being available. CIOs referred to Tom Peter’s concept of “management by walking around”. Without trust IT Departments have no place to start. Without availability IT Departments miss opportunities. Given this, Melissa Woo, CIO of Stoneybrook University, asked “why, oh why, are our job ads/descriptions littered with technical requirements”? This is a great question. Why does one dimension of a CIOs job dominate their job description?

Clearly, public recognition of good ideas, plus support across the c-suite, often helps with getting ideas. And the reality is there is no shortage of employees who have great ideas. CIOs say it is important to ask front-line workers and middle managers, what IT is doing that prevents them from accomplishing their job. The management literature is filled with examples of companies that listen and take advantage of ideas surfaced internally or externally.

For CIOs, being at the right conferences provide external opportunity visibility. But it can be just as valuable to join LOB department meetings. Here they should see and be seen regularly. It is important that CIOs and their teams speak to people and know their business environment. Being heard and listened to is the simplest and most effective way to be available and reap the rewards. Another two suggestions are as follows:

  • Invite recent hires (new enough to remember their prior shop, tenured enough to know our 'gotchas') for coffee
  • Invite IT and business middle managers to a joint lunch and let them chat.

How important is making the improvement model simple?

CIOs say that any time you can lower the barriers to entry, you are likely to obtain improved involvement. Lowering barriers is especially important when you are trying to solicit new behaviors. Fundamentally, as with any idea, adoption will be increased by understanding. Transformation requires engagement. This means doing it 'with' the team rather than 'to' the team. Your process as a goal should foster engagement.

It is important that CIOs keep processes simple. They should make complex business solutions simple by following a simple review process. For example, removing functions to streamline a complex order handling. CIOs should, also, regularly meet with customers and prospects that picked a competitor. But most organizations have so many operational processes that need help that any function you visit will generate a long list. For this reason, portfolio management and agile, have become important skills.

Continuous improvement is an idea that has come of age in the digital era. It is needed because business today needs to do what Jeanne Ross suggests “be capable of delivering a constant evolving, innovative set of digital offerings.” The question is your business ready and if not, what do they need to change to get ready.

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