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When Leadership Fails to Deliver Process Improvement

Business Enterprise Mapping has worked with over 300 enterprises in our 27 years of existence.  Along the way, we have seen the good the bad and the ugly of senior leadership performance.  Summarized below are a few key considerations when leaders fail to achieve their goals.


Lack of leadership commitment

Commitment is really a surrogate for purpose and need.  Leadership will generally demonstrate a commitment to improvement if they feel a compelling need for that improvement.  The pain of the current situation must be so great that not improving is even worse.  Because lasting change is implemented through a multi-year effort, real commitment is necessary to attain sustained competitive advantage.


Poor process architecture

Most process-based efforts fail early due to a lack of defined systematic process structure that guides the effort correctly from the beginning.   Leadership too easily gets caught in the weeds without understanding context.  By narrowly defining business problems to something within their immediate control, most leaders sub-optimize their improvement potential.  We find that less than ten percent of senior leaders can identify the business processes within their area of responsibility.  This limits their vision for addressing the cause and effect relationships that impact customer value and business system improvement potential.


Lacking accountability

To be held accountable, an individual or team must first know the goal, understand the process producing the performance, have the capability to implement improvement, know that the measure accurately reflects performance, and be given full responsibility and authority to implement and monitor the improvement.  In most organizations, responsibilities are managed vertically with more narrow job responsibilities. Departments that should be working together may not even be aware they depend on one another for mutual success.


A concentrated few experts

Many organizations have adopted Lean Six Sigma which generally involves employees working in defined projects, typically driven by Lean Six Sigma specialists who fail to create long-term process ownership. Their tools can be sophisticated, and employee involvement is often limited to data collection and brainstorming efforts.  Rather than commissioning a small team of improvement experts, leaders should think instead of broad engagement that includes the distribution of authority and accountability.  People who do the work must own the solution.


Project focused

Most organizations approach improvement goals through projects. The problem with this approach is that there are hundreds of small opportunities that never get addressed by these projects.  And since project teams are responsible for the improvement, front line employees don’t address them either.   Alternatively, sustainable process improvement expands the scope of workflow definition through business systems across the enterprise. This approach looks at the bigger picture in a way that forces organizations to rethink workflow, address communication silos, and proactively measure the most important cross-boundary indicators.   Continuous improvement requires a never-ending flow of new opportunities driven by workflow improvement that builds upon improvement actions previously implemented.


 Short term focus

Strategic Process Management is a methodology that wins over time.  While short term improvements are always attainable, implementing SPM over 1-3-5 or more years will build a culture-based, systematic system of improvement to create a sustainable competitive advantage in the long run.


Limited Scope

With the increasing popularity of internal process improvement groups, many companies work diligently to implement improvements that optimize pieces of the business, such as departments, single business processes, and specific units or functions.  They are often reluctant to attack the white space “sacred cows”.  Therein lies the opportunity.  Reaching for the larger business system workflows creates a greater return on investment that only becomes attainable by implementing breakthrough improvement across those white spaces.


Tools centric

Many organizations purchase software tools with the expectation that the tool will solve their business challenges.  Of course, they are frequently disappointed.  A good tool implemented on top of a bad process will simply make that bad process work much faster.  Understanding the business process is key to getting the best use of an automated tool.    In addition, we often see Lean Six Sigma efforts get caught up in the use of tools.  We find sophisticated tools are rarely necessary.  Using the 80/20 principle, leaders should deploy basic problem-solving tools in the hands of many people doing the work.  Finding problems isn’t that hard, fixing them through those who do the work is what matters.


Missing broad education and training

An enterprise must adopt a common cultural language for managing and improving work.  Because many organizations adopt the program of the month, finding a message that creates a constancy of purpose is often missing.  In this case, most employees lay low and just wait out the program until the next one comes along.



It’s not just C-suite executives and senior-level managers who can lead organizational change. Anyone who has the desire to become a catalyst at work can assume the role of a leader to initiate and drive improvement in an organization. Real leadership provides the drive, vision, and skill to facilitate the adoption of initiatives that leave behind the old ways of doing business.



Learn more in our ebook “Challenge the Way You Think About Work

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