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October 28, 2014

Politics and Process Improvement

In their book “Understanding Practical Process Improvement” (2011), Ed Zunich and Mike Bell make a very bold statement:


“There was a time when we believed that the path to higher service and product quality involved greater operational expense. We know better now. Service and product quality (as perceived by the customer) results from streamlined and efficient processes, which in turn in lower operational costs as well as increased revenue”.

Sadly, I don’t believe we do know any better today than we did 40 years ago. Managers and Union officials in the public sector are constantly pushing the “cuts are resulting in poorer services” line; public utilities use “doing more” as a means of justifying price rises that we have little choice but to accept; and even private sector managers fight for bigger budgets and price rises arguing that it is the only way to improve products and services.

I have some sympathy with this argument in the healthcare and social care sectors, where an ageing population and an increasing range of treatments leading to ever increasing demands. However, in most areas I agree with Ed and Mike – these arguments are fallacy.

But the politics of large organisations (particularly, but not exclusively, public sector ones) seems to be strongly wedded to the idea the improvements in quality and service can only be achieved through bigger budgets.

For managers, arguing for a larger slice of pie means more status (and probably a grading rise), but it also removes the effort of actually having to manage their area of responsibility efficiently.

For Unions, it is about protecting and creating jobs and working conditions.

For politicians and other stakeholders, it is about gaining advantage over one’s opponents.

In terms of the PR message organisation’s have little to lose from punting the line that more money is needed for quality and service improvements. It’s the poor old consumer who has to suffer the price and tax rises, and consumers come a long way down the political food-chain.

In turn, this political message has a deadening effect on the organisation as a whole. What motivation (point) is there in setting up a structure for process improvement while the organisation’s leaders, union reps and other stakeholders are arguing over budgets? Indeed, it is quite possible that, in such an environment, even suggesting that improving processes would free resources and enable more efficient working would not be a welcome message!

I agree that service and product quality improvements result from improving processes, but it is a message that many key people in large organisations don’t seem to want to hear.