High performing organisations: interweaving process improvement, knowledge management and change management.

Approaches for building strong quality foundations are well documented in the manufacturing industry, but also occur across all business sectors and types of organisation such as flight airlines, the navy, health services, pharmaceutical research & development and education systems.

Steven Spear, in ‘Chasing the Rabbit’1 discusses, with examples from the above, how this quality foundation for high performing (or ‘high-velocity’) and leading organisations rests on 4 main capabilities.  These capabilities are a graphic illustration of the importance of process improvement approaches such as Lean and Six Sigma, of knowledge management, and change management for effective team performance.

The 4 capabilities of high-velocity organisations

  1. Design: A clear definition of customer expectations.  Documentation of the end-to-end process and associated roles for delivering these outputs, using the organisation’s cumulative knowledge of existing best practices. This is even worth doing for 1-off operations to enable learning and adaptation as a result of unexpected occurrences.
  2. Improve: A commitment to seeking out and addressing problems as they occur. Involvement of key players in a ‘scientific’ approach to understand the problems (identify root causes), test solutions, implement counter-measures and resolve the problems (‘swarming’).  The importance of exploring a range of solutions and taking time to learn from them rather than converging on one too soon. Using cross-functional and possibly cross-company collaboration to tap into wider knowledge and expertise.
  3. Share knowledge: Sharing what was learnt about the problems and how this learning was acquired so that the whole organisation can benefit from the new knowledge gained.  Local discoveries become systemic discoveries (‘the multiplier effect’).
  4. Develop capabilities: The role of leaders in continuously developing everyone’s ability to detect and solve problems and share new knowledge (self-diagnosis, self-correcting, self-innovating and self-improving).  The leader as ‘learner-in-chief’, mentor and guide in establishing the right combination of behaviours throughout the organisation.

Problems are the consequence of complex systems and imperfect people

Steven Spear emphasizes that problems are to be welcomed as an opportunity to continue learning.  Each problem should be treated as a “consequence of imperfect people trying to design perfectly something very complex”.  By studying problems, rather than working around them or firefighting, the individual’s and the organisation’s knowledge, and the processes that they operate can continue to improve. The mastery of the complex interactions between people, processes, and what people are working on is never complete.

High-velocity organisations stand out from the pack in:

  • Their focus on process from start to finish, order to supply, end-to-end, rather than departments operating in silos – structure
  • Their attention to each problem as it crops up – dynamics
  • Their determination to make the best use of the talent within the organisation – capabilities
  • Their commitment to keep learning is reflected in the dynamic duo which I’ve described elsewhere2 between short-term stability (or standardization) and longer-term agility and responsiveness (innovation).

Through these they achieve quality, flexibility, efficiency and safety.

Concluding thoughts: extracts from ‘Chasing the Rabbit’.

I’ve selected some quotes from the book, which I think illustrate the points that Steven Spear is making particularly well.

The importance of design:

“No team can design a perfect system in advance, planning for every contingency and nuance.  However… people can discover great systems and keep discovering how to make them better.”

The importance of improving and problems:

“There’s something important you don’t know about me, but if you listen. I’ll tell you” (the process talking)

“Problems are not a never-ending plague to be endured but a never-ending guide to improvement”

The importance of sharing knowledge:

“Organisations depend on their ability to accumulate useful knowledge more quickly than their competitors.”

“One must create the ability in his staff to generate clear, forceful arguments for opposing viewpoints as well as their own.  Open discussion and disagreement must be encouraged so that all sides of an issue will be fully explored.” Hyman Rickover (Founder and long-time leader of the US Navy’s Nuclear Power Propulsion Program).

The importance of capability development:

“The point of process improvement is to improve the participants’ process improvement capabilities by coaching them as they try to improve the process.”

“It is arrogant to believe that anything we have created cannot be improved.  It is pessimistic to believe that we are incapable of ever improving something that is flawed.”

Steven Spear suggests that the winning mindset for high performing organisations is that of humble optimism.  I would add: it is also one of focused determination combining the best of process improvement, knowledge management and change management (or behavioural) approaches.


1. Chasing the Rabbit. How market leaders outdistance the competition and how great companies can catch up and win, by Steven Spear. McGraw Hill 2009.

2. How Lean can bring real benefits to innovation in Pharmaceutical Research Six Sigma & Process Excellence IQ, 8th January 2010, http://www.sixsigmaiq.com/article.cfm?externalID=1720

3. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, using process improvement and knowledge management to enhance team effectiveness.

Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting, and about Elisabeth Goodman.

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