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November 12, 2014

Creating a Safe Environment for Process Improvement

The discussion in my recent blogs on persuading organisations to support process improvement has focussed on creating a “safe environment” for the change to be tested to help reduce the fear and uncertainty that managers feel about such radical mindset change. (Thanks to Jay Bitsack for his thoughts on this).

This might work – though it creates its own set of problems. By definition, the “safe environment” (we might call it a “test environment” to make it more palatable) would have a different culture than the rest of the organisation. The Test-bed would be an environment where improvement ideas were actively encouraged from all involved, and where suggestions could be implemented on a trial-and-error basis. This means a culture of openness, development and equality which might not exist in the wider “command and control” organisation. This, in itself, could bring political friction within the organisation.

In addition, certain pre-conditions would have to be put in place in order to make the Test Environment a safe place for employees to work and contribute without fear of repercussions. Among other guarantees, the following pre-requisites would need to be agreed:

1) There must be no danger of redundancy or risk of damage to one’s career as a result of involvement in the Test Environment or of improvements put in place. I am not sure how one can credibly guarantee that there will be no career damage when the person returns to the wider organisation.

2) There must be no repercussions or blame arising from one’s previous life in the organisation – for example having played the political system and stifled improvements in the past.

3) An individual’s job role, grading, performance appraisal etc must not be affected by their involvement in improvement activities. Thus any issues of demarcation or custom and practice that might affect cooperative working must be removed in the Test Environment.

Unions, management and other representatives must sign up to these prerequisites (and others I may not have thought of) for the Test Environment to stand any chance of success.

Thus, one enters the “Test Environment” with a clean sheet and leaves it with a clean sheet – with fear of any impact on career or status. “What happens in the Test Environment stays in the Test Environment”!

Of course we hope that the Test Environment would be a tremendous learning opportunity and would open up the mindsets of those involved – a change which will beneficially impact the wider organisation when the Test Environment comes to an end.

Having put in place the pre-requisites for the Test Environment, the next question is “what will that environment cover?” If the organisation is nervous enough of change to want to create a safe environment which won’t “pollute” the existing organisation with any radical ideas, then they are likely to want to deploy the Test Environment in an area which won’t impact the core business – some non-core subsidiary or minor process. The danger of that, of course, is that any changes made will be so irrelevant to the main organisation as to be practically invisible.

A better option is to persuade management that choosing a process that is currently performing poorly is a good way to test the new approach, and that inflicting the new fangled “Test Environment” approach on a poor process couldn’t possibly make it any worse. The challenge is to frame this in a way that it actually sounds like an opportunity for everyone involved!

I wonder if readers think this “Test Environment” approach might be a way forward for organisations resistant to change?