Do costs of ‘improvement’ really indicate the relevance of an initiative?

Improvement: shoot this nag and replace it with a new horse, or ox or a steam tractor. Instead why not just give it decent food, water & exercise? What is the impact? What is the cost?

A lot of money is spent on ‘change’ and ‘improvement’. Often a major restructure or implementation of IT are at the fore in improvement investments with new facilities or equipment upgrades (both of which are costly) are not far behind on the list.

It is also common for money or time (usually both) to be spent on customer surveys or staff surveys to glean ‘data’ which it is hoped will inform what type of improvement is needed. Is this always necessary? Is the money which is spent on improvement a good indicator of whether that improvement will be worthwhile – is it a decent ‘return on investment’. This is not always clear, since a change may set off a spiral of outcomes (which will generate positive cost savings and new negative cost burdens) but which may or may not be included in the overall analysis of ‘total cost’ (when they should really be included).

Pat Nevin identified how a small (low cost) change to the surface around top flight professional football pitches could improve the quality of football during competitive matches; an analysis achieved just by looking at the ‘system’ of football in modern stadiums. The cost-benefit might be hard to gauge, but at very least, reduced likelihood of player injury (e.g. slipping on the surface and twisting a knee) is likely to be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Are IT system introductions always based on knowing how the system should operate to deliver its correct purpose? Are restructures based on knowing how the system will deliver the team’s correct purpose? Will a new piece of new equipment enable a worker to deliver their correct job purpose? Or will these changes just enable a piece of work (which may in itself not be relevant any more) to be done faster, more cleanly, in a ‘modern’ way, in a more ‘user friendly’ manner, yet have no impact on delivery the things that matter (the purpose of the work)?

Understanding the impact of incremental improvements is important. We need to assess what is happening in work, whether the patterns are consistent and predictable, then make a reasoned change and monitor if the impact is positive, then continue the cycle. This is continuous improvement and is based upon building knowledge. It is less ‘sexy’, has lower profile and takes time, but the outcomes are far superior – a better way.

Further Reading:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality,The Free Press, NY

Scholtes, P. (1998), The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New York: McGraw-Hill

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

3 thoughts on “Do costs of ‘improvement’ really indicate the relevance of an initiative?”

  1. Sometimes change is implemented by people who are not directly affected by the changes they wish to implement; processes are decreed rather than understood. This is not to say that change is bad, change is necessary but it needs to have valid reasoning to support its implementation otherwise it causes or increases alienation

    1. Yes Veronica, this is why any manager who comes up with ‘a good idea’ should check it with the people who do the work. That way an idea can be designed and implemented in a way that makes sense and takes account of the realities of work. As you appear to suggest this type of consultation should not be done ‘because it is a nice thing to do with people‘, but simply because it is a practical necessity – so that the work is understood first, the purpose of the change is defined (and is meaningful), the point of intervention (what is done, where and when) is chosen correctly, and finally (and as a consequence) the people that have to put it in place are able to be on board with everything. ‘Getting people on board’ should be an outcome of making changes using sensible methods – never ‘do the people stuff’ on people – it will wind them up. Instead, just as you suggest, get people involved at the front-end talking about the actual work issues and practicalities – their commitment to the change will naturally follow…

  2. I agree. Implementing change by including those who will be directly involved with the work, will not only generate support and ensure meaningful changes, it will also encourage motivation within the workforce. There will be recognition that valid ideas and feedback are taken on board and implemented. It will also encourage ownership and enthusiasm. Often when there is a lean budget, ideas flow more readily as to how money can be best spent…

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