Process improvement methods –such as Lean, Six Sigma and Agile– have been widely studied, and we know what tools work, and where. Yet our longitudinal study of 204 improvement projects shows that one year into a successful implementation about half of all projects backslide. After two years, this reduces to one in three projects. First and foremost, our findings debunk the myth that a ‘continuous improvement culture’ will emerge amongst workers and staff that sustains improvement efforts. The root cause behind backsliding is that sustaining process improvement initiatives involves all levels of the organisation, and that leaders play a pivotal role herein they often neglect. We identify four common failure modes: an initiative fatigue that sets in as leaders fail to provide continued support; a tool overzeal that seeks to reinvigorate efforts by switching approaches; chasing short-term metrics that are misaligned with the purpose of the organization; and dogmatic implementations that deprive team members of engaging in a meaningful way. To sustain process improvement implementations, leaders must conceive it as a habit that they continuously and consistently engage with; they must ensure that it resolves ‘pain points’ that demonstrate a real value to those engaged in the process; and act as coaches to harness the power of small wins to motivate continued participation and engagement.
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