Continuous improvement, Lean, process excellence, business transformation, operational excellence – whatever you call them, dedicated improvement teams have been commonplace in organisations for a number of decades. Indeed, increasing market competitiveness, ever changing customer needs and evolving regulatory climates mean that this need to continually improve or transform our organisations will never disappear.
As you will acknowledge, running an effective internal improvement team is not a simple task. You act as an internal consultancy and have challenging stakeholder requirements to meet. In order to generate the successes that justify the continued funding of your team, you must deliver tangible results that significantly benefit your organisation.
You will however be acutely aware of some key challenges that all internal improvement teams face at some time.
Challenge one: Capability
Building a crack team of experts who can solve any business problem is a key goal of a central improvement team. But developing this versatility and creating a team with such strength that they could essentially ply their trade in the external consulting market can prove a tough nut to crack.
When forming the central team, a business has two choices – to buy or to build. There are clear pros and cons of each however the decision ultimately becomes a cost vs. capability play. Most organisations choose a blended approach whereby the improvement team leaders are bought in and the team members developed from within. The content and structure of the development programme then becomes a direct contributor to the success of the team.
Of course, as time passes and the team becomes embedded, the capability challenge will remain. What if the team grows and new people are required? What if people leave to take up other roles internally or externally? These factors mean that ongoing development is a reality.
When considering the content and structure of the development programme, there are three factors that warrant attention.
- Technical skills – having the technical know-how to analyse complex problems and design solutions
- Consulting / change management skills – having the ability to make change happen
- Thinking – having the ability to push the boundaries of common knowledge and practices
All three warrant equal and ongoing attention in the development programmes designed for your internal improvement team.
Challenge two: Capacity
Increased demand for the services of your internal improvement team can be triggered in many ways. Successful delivery; change in business strategy; volatile market conditions – all of these factors can create the need for more improvement work.
Therein lies the problem – how does the head of your improvement team accurately forecast demand to be in a position to always meet it? It’s a tough ask, especially as many of the influences on demand are somewhat unpredictable.
Managing these peaks and troughs in demand also links heavily with the first challenged outlined above. It’s one thing having people available, but another having people available with the right skills to perform the work required.
Challenge three: Flexibility of product and service offering
Business sponsor – “I have a problem and need X to sort it out”
Head of improvement team – “I’m sorry, but we can only offer Y as that’s our approach”
This is a familiar conversation in organisations everywhere. The vanilla methods used successfully by your improvement team often don’t evolve quickly enough to satisfy different requirements from the business, resulting in a delivery shortfall.
Equally, internal improvement teams often suffer from the comfort factor. Things have gone well, the stock of the team is high, more of the same is required. The reality is different. Just like the need of any business to evolve products and services to satisfy changing customer demands, your central improvement team needs to become flexible. A one size fits all approach to improvement doesn’t work, so the improvement product and service portfolio needs to adapt.
Think about outcomes that the business now needs – does your approach help to achieve these? If the answer is partially or even no, it’s time to refocus the way that your team operates. Flexibility is key.
Leading an improvement team is a rewarding role in any organisation. As that leader, your strategy should always have the three points highlighted above at the heart. Keep in mind that despite the best planning there will be occasions where gaps occur, so be prepared with ‘plan b’ strategies to mitigate these gaps before they damage the reputation of your team.