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Continuous improvement: How to keep your transformation alive

Kimberly Carroll
With more than 20 years of transformational experience across HR, finance, payroll, and shared services, Kimberly Carroll has extensive experience in strategic long-range planning, process optimization, and guiding clients through their transformational journey. As managing principal and co-leader of IA, Kimberly supports the needs of some of the largest, high-growth, dynamic, global organizations in the world with an emphasis on strategic vision, productivity improvement, internal realignment, governance, and prioritization.

Imagine your organization has just gone through a major transformation. After several years of hard work, with many employees working extra hours to get the program to the finish line, everyone is ready for a break! The day-to-day rhythm of work resumes as employees get used to the new system or operating model. But transformation doesn’t end when the program ends. If your organization just goes back to its day-to-day and lets a couple of years pass, and you notice that things are no longer running as smoothly as they did when the transformation was complete, that is a failure in the transformation. Think about it—business needs have changed, new software releases have been implemented, there may have been some infrastructure changes, and no one has been paying any attention to the impacts on the business processes. We are sure that everyone feels like they are back at square one and are just as frustrated as they were before the transformation that was supposed to fix everything.


RELATED: Failure is always an option; how to avoid it with your transformation


So, what happened? This organization approached transformation as an event rather than an ongoing way of doing business.

It didn’t adopt a continuous improvement mindset, nor did it set up the organization to govern business processes or systems.

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Leading your business with continuous improvement in mind is so important to ongoing success. There will always be reasons that people push back on change, whether it’s culture, timing, unwritten rules, tradition or simply a fear of change itself. Being able to document and explain “why” the organization needs to change is key to adoption. And while the burning platform of a major transformation can galvanize an organization into action, it’s incremental change that can be harder to embrace and yet is vital to ongoing organizational health.

What it looks like

Transformation is a process, and what follows is a high-level description of the process that we both recommend to our clients and use internally. The key element to note is that change is inherent in every step of this process. Not all change is “bad”—in fact, it’s necessary. And not every change is massive. By adopting a continuous improvement mindset, you can help keep changes small and incremental, thereby minimizing disruption and maximizing benefits.

  • Planning out the work: No matter what kind of organization you have, you absolutely need to take the time to plan out what needs to be done. This includes engaging all your stakeholders—business partners, leadership, subject matter experts, impacted employees—and explaining why this continuous improvement mindset is critical to success. We recommend some sort of kickoff explaining the benefits of the approach and an overall structure of how it will look.
  • Current state assessment (including ongoing): This should have been done as part of a larger transformation, and it’s important to have a full understanding of where your organization’s business processes stand today. So, this means that you will continually look at the future-state design processes you developed during the transformation and refine them as markets change, environments change, technologies change, etc. The nice thing is that you can break it up in any way that makes sense to your organization, whether you plan a rotating assessment based on employee lifecycle, department or whatever works for your people. The challenge at this point is your organization’s readiness to continually look under the hood at your processes, policies, technologies and people. Throughout the ongoing current state assessment, you will be documenting all the pain points within the process, lessons learned with the implementation of the processes, trends, etc. You can also interview your stakeholders to determine what their pain points are with the processes and ask what changes they would like to see. The first time you do this assessment during the transformation will take the longest, but once you’ve trained everyone in how it works, ongoing assessments will be much easier.
  • Guiding principles: During the larger transformation, there should have been guiding principles developed to help the organization make decisions on the development of your ideal future-state process designs. These should be reviewed and revised if priorities have changed in the organization. Guiding principles are key to the continuous improvement mindset—they keep everyone on the same page as enhancements are requested.
  • Continual refinement of future-state designs: During the transformation, this phase may have been the most fun and one of the most challenging. It involved building your ideal future state, without constraints of technology, organizational structure or current limitations. It was your chance to dream big—what would you do if you could? How would you manage the process? It’s sometimes hard for people to think beyond their current challenges, so keep pushing everyone to innovate! As you move into continuous improvement, this “dream big” mindset doesn’t have to go away, just use the guiding principles to guide you through what makes sense for your organization. Though you developed your ideal state during the transformation—we can’t stress it enough—your processes can get stale very easily if you ignore them. Please keep reviewing and refining!
  • Roadmap and prioritization: Creating a future state means you’re also identifying the steps needed to bring it to life. The first time you do this, you’ll need to identify a prioritization model that makes sense for your organization and then apply it to the work to be done. We believe in quantitative prioritization—develop your model using criteria, weighting and measurements. Use math to help you with your priorities. Not to repeat ourselves, but once this initial prioritized roadmap is complete, don’t ignore it. It is truly a living document—any future work or changes requested will need to be added to the list and everything reprioritized.
  • Execution: Once the prioritized roadmap is ready to go, there’s nothing left to do but the work! But you cannot do this work in a vacuum. Time and again we have seen departments put together a roadmap and work plan and get underway, only to be stopped by leadership or IT or finance because they failed to consider the upstream and downstream impacts. This is why it’s so important to engage your stakeholders early in the process and share the roadmap with all of them to build buy-in and enlist their help in building an execution plan to bring the work to life.

Next month: Where to start

It seems easy when you put it down on paper, doesn’t it? But you all know how the simplest things can take the longest to achieve if you don’t get the right people involved at the very beginning … and when you’re ready to get to work. In our next article, we’ll dig into ways to identify and engage your key stakeholders at the right time in the right way.

Read more on transformation here.

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