Take Care: Don’t Backslide During Improvement

Have you ever invested a great deal of time and effort to improve something only to see it slowly return to the way it once was? I refer to this phenomenon as backsliding, and it can happen anywhere, anytime.


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Sometimes backsliding is subtle and produces only a slight drop-off in anticipated results. Other times, it can completely negate the expected benefits. It is important to recognize backsliding in your improvement efforts and quickly take the appropriate action to rectify the situation. Consider taking the following four actions:
1. Find out what caused the backslide. Discuss the situation with those involved in the improvement program. Solicit their feedback about when and why things started to unravel. By learning the causes of the backslide, you might discover things that can help future improvement efforts achieve success. Some of the most common causes of backsliding are:
• Changes in staffing. New employees can be disruptive to the process. They must learn different tasks and gain an understanding of why things are done in certain ways. Unfortunately, training often is lacking, expectations are not made clear and the assumption is that the new people will just “catch on” as they go. If the employee is new to the job but not new to the company, expectations might be even greater. Any of these conditions can lead a new employee to do what he or she thinks is right rather than what is actually required. 
• Misunderstanding or not buying into the improved process benefits. Lacking understanding of “better ways” causes workers to retreat to the old ways in which they are more comfortable. 
• Changes in area management. Sometimes managers who champion improvement initiatives move on to other assignments. Their replacements might not share their vision and might have different ideas about what is important.  
• Improvement is not self-sustaining. Sometimes “hidden” hand-holding occurs during improvement efforts. In some cases, this hand-holding is the only thing that makes the improvement work. Unfortunately, the hidden hand-holding disappears as other tasks start to consume resources. Workers who cannot operate independently might abandon the improved process to get the work out on time. 
• Changes in business conditions. What happens when you’ve established improvements and demand for the product drops? Suddenly, the expected benefits are no longer realized. On the other hand, if product demand increases significantly, the improvement might not support its growth, and a different approach is needed.
• Changes in organization priorities. Company leaders of all types often announce: “We’re going in a new direction.” Most workers initially interpret that phrase in a negative light; however, there may be real benefits in changing direction. Perhaps a company realizes its core competencies or markets have changed, and it needs to go in a new direction to remain competitive. 
After finding out what caused the backslide, you should take these remaining three actions to continue improvement:
2. Review your key performance metrics. How did the improvement affect your organization’s metrics? Did it produce the desired results? If the answer is yes, then it makes sense to try to reinstate the improvement as soon as possible. However, if the answer is no, this may be a good time to reevaluate the entire effort to see if it should be resurrected. Of course, the third possibility is that there are no metrics in place to evaluate this or any other improvement effort. In that case, consider creating and using meaningful metrics to better understand the impact of future improvement efforts.
3. Determine what is needed to reinstate the improvement and what the impact would be today. Impact, cost and effort are at the heart of many business decisions. The more you understand how they relate to the improvement effort, the easier it will be to decide the next steps.
4. Develop a plan to reinstate the improvement. Taking the correct steps to ensure sustained improvement is a critical part of this plan. You don’t want to be faced with this same situation again in the future. To develop an improvement plan, you must know what to do, who is needed, how to make it work and when to take action.

The easiest way to move forward with improvement efforts is to not let them backslide. However, if you see that they are starting to do so, recognize that there are things you can do to remedy the situation.