CIOs Want To Know Why IT Process Improvement Programs Fail

They start out fine, but the ending is never pretty…
They start out fine, but the ending is never pretty…

It seems as though at least once a year CIOs get a bee in their bonnet and decide that the company’s IT department needs to knuckle down and improve its processes. This means that it’s time to implement one of those far-reaching process improvement programs. Oh, oh. No matter if it’s Six Sigma or some other flavor-of-the-week program, they all seem to end up the same way – having no lasting impact. Let’s take a look and see why this happens…

Process Improvement Programs Don’t Work

This type of discussion always seems to get off to a good start if I can share some interesting statistics with you. How about this one: 60% of all corporate Six Sigma programs fail to deliver the expected results. Ouch!

Clearly something has gone horribly wrong here. Those of us who work in IT know exactly what is going on. We’ve seen those big process improvement programs get announced with all sorts of excitement and then they always just seem to end up fading away.

When you’re CIO, this can’t happen. Your career is based on what kind of results you can deliver, and a successful process improvement program can be a big part of this. Let’s take a closer look and maybe we can find out where things are going off track.

Phase 1: The Good

Man, these big IT programs always seem to start on such a positive note. Everybody’s happy to be selected to be on the team and they are all committed to achieving the goal. Those teams are no small thing either – they can easily have 10-18 people on them because of course you want to have a representative from every possible impacted area.

Since the CIO has launched the program; the program has the attention and the support from the senior IT folks. This means that the low-level managers are clearly communicating to their folks who are involved in the project that working on the project is a top priority.

What’s even better than the launch, is what happens when the team reaches a goal – the CIO throws a party! Everyone celebrates the success and the people on the team get some sort of recognition and a reward. Everyone is happy.

Phase 2: The Bad

Time marches on. After the initial success, the process improvement program continues on. The problem is that it’s been going on for so long that now folks start to get distracted. Other tasks start to creep in around the edges and steal their time away.

The outside experts who were brought in to help the time implement the Six Sigma or whatever program now move on to other things. The team keeps moving on, but their way forward is no longer clear.

Managers are no longer so open to having their team members spend so much time on this other project. Instead, they start pushing to have their staff complete their “day job” before they spend time on the “special project”.

Phase 3: The Ugly

This is where it all falls apart. Basically what happens is that the folks who are working on the process improvement teams just stop doing the work. They no longer care about the program because it really has no bearing on their annual performance appraisal. Therefore they make the conscious decision to focus on what matters, their real job, and start to ignore the process improvement project.

What’s interesting is that this project failure is often hidden from the CIO. What happens is that the folks who are doing the reporting start to focus on the one or two teams who are actually able to keep moving forward, even if it’s just a bit, and they don’t report on the teams that aren’t making any progress.

Because they also start to report on what teams say that they are going to do in the future, this obscures what is really going on right now – nothing. This always eventually comes to the surface, but by then the damage is done and the CIO’s process improvement program has failed.

What All Of This Means For You

The very definition of information technology is that it’s a department built on processes. When CIOs decide that those processes need to be improved, they like to kick off a big process improvement program.

However, all too often in the IT sector these programs end up producing no long-term positive results. The reasons are many: over time there is less and less expert assistance, existing job responsibilities start to take over, and lack of senior IT management involvement all work to shift focus away from the project.

The importance of information technology means that IT processes really do need to be improved. CIOs can make sure that the time and effort that is poured into these process improvement programs yield results. Making expert resources available for longer times, making process improvement results a part of everyone’s performance appraisal, limiting team size, and ensuring IT executive involvement will all work to make your next IT process improvement program a success.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: How long do you think an IT process improvement program should go on?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

I love clouds, you love clouds, we all love clouds. It seems like everyone in IT is talking about cloud computing and how it’s the next big thing. Cloud computing has almost become a part of the definition of information technology. Look, I think that there’s a lot of good things about cloud computing, but I’m not convinced that it’s the right solution for everyone. This brings up the question of how a CIO can find out if cloud computing is right for his or her IT department. It turns out that there are three questions that just might provide the answer that you are looking for.

9 thoughts on “CIOs Want To Know Why IT Process Improvement Programs Fail”

  1. Please site your source for this figure: “60% of all corporate Six Sigma programs fail to deliver the expected results.”

    What I see here is something I have dealt with as well. While I’m not a “CIO” by title, being an IS manager for a group of almost 200 people could qualify if I worked in a smaller company. What you failed to mention here is what kills any process improvement program: user adoption.

    I heard a phrase last month that fits this problem to a tee: “Culture eats change for lunch.” What any CIO needs to do is listen to their user base and their own employees all the way down to the front lines of desktop support. After that, sift through the run of the mill complaints and find something that “the people” really want. Learn what the culture is. Even if you bring in more experts, or tie the initiative to the project teams objectives, company culture can kill almost any “transformation” program.

    The CIO has the unique ability to be part of the business objective making process, the IS&T objective making process, and if he or she is listening, having a pulse on the user base. The key is to find one project a year that fits all three. If the project doesn’t fit, then maybe the CIO should be changing their objectives to align the users’ culture with the business objectives.

  2. Jim hi, yup! been there, done that, failed miserably in a previous life as a process consultant.
    We have done surveys worldwide using our ABC of ICT cards (Attitude, behavior and Culture). More than 3000 IT organizations. Our survey results clearly show that ABC is the biggest barrier to success. I enclose a link to the top 10 reasons for resistance to this type of initiative. To summarise. We don’t know the reasons, we don’t know how to apply the frameworks, people resist, managers don’t show commitment, and we don’t embed a culture of CSI. It is more a question of Plan, Do, stop……adopt the next fraework and start again.


  3. Most of the improvement programs fail because they are too big. Staff spend weeks learning statistical tools and acronyms and nothing is improved. I’m always surprised why IT doesn’t look at successful continuous improvement programs in industry to learn how to do it. Our Lean Six Sigma effort failed across IT but Quick and Easy Kaizen took root in the Help Desk and is not starting to spread across IT. We have had some great successes already in 2012 we have seem some amazing process improvements. Small improvement programs sidestep the brains physiological alarms to resisting big change and becomes a neural pathway and then a habit.

    If you CSI fails, make it smaller until it succeeds and then start celebrating successes and sharing the good news. It will catch on.

    • Dan: Great point! I can remember a really smart consultant that I was talking with saying that you don’t win a baseball game with homeruns, but rather with base hits. Having a project that is a success on a smaller level is the key to a long term transformation…

      • I get into trouble with various ITIL apologists about CSI…this work must be decentralized, not be a central dogma. If Toyota can get 20 million ideas implemented and sent in by employees, why can’t IT organizations? Partly because they don’t think a manufacturer can teach them anything.

        We are implementing a pull system Service Desk/desktop team and the desktop techs are jazzed as we are doing one piece flow. They took the lesson and improved their desktop deployment process from 30+ days to 4. Nobody told them too, they just started improving when they learned to see waste and the eliminated it.


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