Snipers aren’t enough to win the war

Mon, 06/02/2014 - 9:09am
Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions

A sniper is a powerful weapon. One sniper team on a battlefield can eliminate one opponent challenge after another with great effect. However, a sniper team can’t do it all. To win the war one must engage every asset at every level. The same is true for process improvement specialists and your business’ war on poor performance.

I’ve written about this idea several times, or at least it has been an observation or a point in several posts. Skilled specialists in business analysis and process improvement are powerful assets. With the correct cooperation, these specialists can systematically attack and resolve one process or performance problem after another.

The issue is that problems can often manifest just as easily as specialists can eliminate them. Also, some problems might be too small to warrant a specialist team’s attention, but can still cause significant trouble. Likewise, some problems are not going to be solved by a specialist team, they must be solved by a cooperative of functional leaders that agree upon doing things collectively differently.

I witness organizations that relegate the entire continuous improvement initiative to a specialized team of experts and expect that team to solve it all alone. Similarly, I observe many organizations that don’t execute any real effective process improvement until an expert shows up and facilitates the effort.

It’s good to have experts and specialists to address certain problems, to teach and mentor the skills and methods, and to facilitate difficult solutions. But if you expect those experts to win the war on poor performance by themselves you have set them and the rest of your organization up for failure.

Consider the following challenge: In one minute or less, point to a single process that performs optimally every time. Stop reading and try it.

Now, in one minute or less list as many processes as you can that could conceivably be improved in some way. Do that now.

I’ll wager that you struggled to find even one process that couldn’t be improved, or if you did, it wasn’t a very influential process. I’ll also wager that you couldn’t write fast enough to list out all of the processes that you could think of that might be improved.

I believe that is all the perspective that is required to make a case against relying solely on specialist teams to improve your business. Consider the damage to business performance that can accumulate as less than optimal processes are causing trouble while waiting for the specialists to address them. Now consider the power of having all of your employees actively improving every process as those employees touch them, every day.

It should seem relatively obvious which strategy stands the best chance to win the war. If it’s so obvious, why don’t we do it that way? There are many reasons.

Employees don’t know how to improve their processes and are not incentivized to improve things.

Employees are incentivized to do their work, and receive disincentives for taking time to make changes.

The approved methods to make improvements seem to be too difficult or require too much red tape.

A lack of accountability makes it possible, or easy, or cultural, to blame others rather than take responsibility or initiative to fix something that is broken.

Employees perceive that efforts to improve things must be planned events, which never get planned, or the solutions designed in those events never get implemented.

The bullet list could go on for pages if we put our heads together. Incentives are the key. As long as we discourage employees from taking initiative and only incentivize them to ignore problems, keep their heads down and work, our employees will not take action to make a difference.

Coincidentally, reliance on specialists to fix problems not only encourages the disincentives listed above, it can cause them. If there are specialists in place to solve problems it’s easy to decide that it’s not our own responsibility. Likewise, we can rationalize that we aren’t qualified, that our solutions or our problems don’t warrant the effort or attention, and we quickly assume that process improvements must come from big meetings and lots of sophisticated tools.

As a member of the “sniper” club of process improvement specialists, I’m not sure that I like the following idea. Some organizations have encouraged every employee to take an active part in process improvement by putting a stigma on processes attacked by the specialists and expert teams. “If your process had to be fixed by the “snipers” then you weren’t doing your own part to get it fixed,” is the message that floats in these organizations. I hate being the bad guy, but it seems to have some impact toward reversing the disincentives and misconceptions mentioned above.

However you go about it, take time this year to identify and begin systematically removing the disincentives that compel personnel not to take an active role in fixing problems. Teach and mentor simple problem-solving methods. Encourage experiments and accept failed attempts. Use those as learning opportunities to become better skilled. Reward success. Support up-standers that stick by processes and force them to be followed or reject defective inputs. Take an attitude of trying to eliminate the need for the “sniper” team to do more than mentor new skills.

Don’t rely on specialists to solve your problems. Use specialists to mentor everyone else in how to solve their own problems. Adopt an attitude and a strategy of using every asset to fight the war, not just the snipers.

Stay wise, friends.

If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at


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