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The changing Continuous Improvement landscape

By Debbie Simpson, CEO Institute of Continuous Improvement in Public Services


Resources and budgets have never been more constricted so 2016 has to be the year when reinventing the wheel stops and CI practitioners recognise that lean ways of working apply to them as much as anyone else.

The observations and views expressed in this article reflect how the Continuous Improvement (CI) landscape has changed since 2012 and are based on the observations and interactions of the founder of the Institute for Continuous Improvement in Public Services (The Institute).

In 2012 the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group established a 5 year program with the aim of embedding CI across central government. The program was driven by the need to deliver public services more efficiently and effectively.

The objective of the program was to educate, to embed structures that engrained CI as a way of working and to bring cohesiveness around the approaches and language used in CI. There was also a valuable aspiration to maximise the benefits of existing knowledge through the sharing of resources and skills.

The intended outcomes of the Program had clear value; improving the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery, making the most of valuable resources that were held in silos, and promoting a common approach to CI.

At that time there was a lack of common understanding about what CI was so people within and across organisations interpreted and implemented it in different ways. This resulted in a very fragmented approach and a lack of cohesion. Departments such as HMRC had developed Pace Setter, a well-established and comprehensive CI training program based on lean principles, which provided employees with tools to identify and deliver change. Some organisations had CI teams who were charged with improving targeted areas of activity, others ran suggestions schemes which more often than not resulted in a long ‘to do’ list and disenfranchised employees who never saw their ideas come to fruition. Others had never considered CI.

Hit by austerity measures including budget cuts and a recruitment freeze, organisations knew that change was inevitable and necessary. The Cabinet Office program sought to provide direction, cohesion and economies of scale and as such, should have been warmly embraced however, this wasn’t always the case.

It was through cross- organisational working groups established as part of the program that a number of challenges came to light. Contributors to the groups supporting this Program displayed the best and worst of public service ethos. Some demonstrated thinking and behaviours that did not place public good or consideration of public money at their centre, rather they protected their own positions.

‘Ownership’ of collateral, unique needs and used of different vocabulary were cited as reasons why collaboration couldn’t work. Some organisations believed they had the ‘winning’ formula for CI which they were unwilling to change and felt should be adopted as the standard, and others couldn’t see how CI applied to them. Critical weaknesses in understanding about CI became evident and internal demands often meant that program meetings and work were side-lined.

In stark contrast, other contributors, especially those new to CI, were extremely keen to collaborate, develop a shared understand and learn from others and they worked very hard to make it happen.

Despite the challenges, the program team continued to push forward and the results of their efforts work put CI firmly on the agenda of government departments and thinking about how CI tools could benefit them. It influenced organisations to introduce CI teams who identified ‘quick wins’ and delivered many rapid improvements and the program team undertook some excellent pieces of work to show how CI could be used to drive efficiencies in areas such as policy.

The Cabinet Office mandated Departments to introduce CI strategies, but often these were shallow one dimensional documents; little more than lists of change projects and a training program which failed to align with the organisations strategy and purpose and didn’t address the critical elements that enable CI to be embedded. The resulting range of activity seemed to promote the belief that CI was something that was done to the workforce by a CI team and unwilling participants considered any involvement an unwelcome addition to their day job.

A real danger at this point was that CI was still undefined and there were no common standards of CI practice. As a result many CI teams were formed from willing volunteers rather than those who had experience and training in culture, process and change management. Individuals with little or no experience changing critical delivery processes were a risk that many did not recognise.

In response, and to ensure there was a legacy body to continue the work of the program once it ended, the Institute for Continuous Improvement in Public Services (ICiPS) was established in 2012. A standalone and self-funding Charity, ICiPS set out to provide a central facility for public service providers to share CI resources and knowledge; access to guidance and advice and to undertake research into CI. The business model was to provide most of these services at no cost, funded by private sector schemes, donations and grant funding. Most importantly ICiPS introduced standards of professional practice that defined that CI is a way of working; a set of principles, behaviours and tools embraced by all employees and delivers a mix of incremental, step and transformational change that continuously improves performance.

For the first time ICiPS provided CI professionals with their own professional membership body and made it possible to align the plethora of CI training available in the marketplace.

By 2014 understanding about CI was starting to improve and the approach taken by many organisations to deliver CI was also changing. A growing number now understood the various approaches that could be taken to lever improvements and the cultural and leadership aspects of embedding CI.

The take up of ICiPS’ services continued to exceeded expectation. The number of professional members was increasing and applicants considered the process a valuable way to improve knowledge and understanding about CI. Their enhanced knowledge and understanding enabled them to adopt a more flexible approach to change, letting the problem drive the approach to solving it rather than the approach being rigidly applied to the problem.

Despite the early successes, too much of the historic behaviour of creating CI fiefdoms remained. CI groups appeared and disappeared, all attempting to duplicate work undertaken elsewhere, reinventing the wheel was rife. This unnecessary drain on public resources and finance resulted in fragmentation rather than cohesion.

Sharing of knowledge remained an obstacle and whilst people were quick to demand sight of what others were doing, they would not share their own work on the basis that it contained sensitive data, or they were concerned that if they shared an improvement project it would highlight where they had failed. This behaviour prevented the sharing of lessons learned.
The program and the Institute continued to work to overcome these obstacles.

In stark contrast to the public sector approach to knowledge sharing, the private sector was quick to make CI case studies an integral part of promotional activity and this presented the Institute with a challenge: the case studies included valuable insight, but making them available to members could be construed as endorsing the companies who had produced them. The Institute therefore introduced a number of schemes to bring together public and private sector in a controlled and equitable manner.

In 2014 the Institute undertook its first piece of research, a snapshot of the CI landscape. 99% of participants cited leadership as the biggest barrier to practicing CI. Follow up research showed that some believed leaders to be risk averse which resulted in stagnation of services. Others were believed to be driven by the desire to deliver quick and visible wins which resulted in change that did not always have a long term vision at its heart.

To some extent the system set them up for failure; recruitment processes, the way their success are measured, the political system that aligns approaches and priorities for change with a political term rather than a forever requirement to meet public need.

By the end of 2014 the Cabinet Office program had succeeded in shifting momentum and an increased level of change activity was evident. Unfortunately the program didn’t result in the level of collaboration originally aspired to and CI was still considered a tool-based approach to change. The emphasis of the program started to shift to leadership which was now starting to be recognised by the team as the critical enabler of CI.

By the end of 2014 the Institute had finally observed a step change in thinking and behaviours with CI talk far more about more leadership skills, empowerment, customers and developing CI cultures; than of tools and training.

Cultures in some organisations started to display a more holistic approach to CI that considered the links between strategy, infrastructure and employees. For some, this recognition resulted in moving CI out of its own function, to sit alongside L&D and HR. Benefits of this cultural driven approach started to be reported. The British Library was keen to share their success in achieving a flow of employee-driven efficiencies.

The Institute observed that these successful organisations; the ‘enlightened adopters’, had supportive leadership who championed a CI culture, a united commitment to purpose and exemplary communications.

During 2015 the CI agenda moved slowly onwards, the institute reinforcing what CI is and how to embed it, and the Cabinet Office program concentrating on the leadership aspects of CI and establishment of new regional networking groups.

CI communities within and across organisations strengthened, collaborating, sharing and learning and finally, rather than reinventing the wheel, they were making time to learn from those who had gone before.

Professional membership of the Institute rose dramatically with Organisations committing to put CI leads through the process as a way of affirming the behaviours required to underpin CI and others aligned their training to the ICIPS standards. Fellows of ICiPS, those with the highest level of expertise, were starting to play a more strategic role, acting as internal consultants, working with senior management teams to change cultures, seeking breakthrough opportunities for service delivery and brokering collaborations.

Despite the advances in understanding and practice that have emerged since 2012, not all was sunny and valleys of despair and clouds of confusion remained.

Some organisations still hadn’t made the link between CI and culture and as a result their CI programs walked the tightrope between success and failure. Many implemented “sheep dip training” in tools, hoping to regenerate their programs, but often this approach failed to derive the benefit expected.

There remained CI teams who operated in self-imposed silos; a situation so bad in some organisations that one change team has no idea about what change teams in other parts of the same organisation are doing. They established their own data bases of case studies, networking groups and standards, with scant regard to the resources already available.

There were still too many transformation and step change projects being led by people with insufficient experience; running the risk of process failure and lost opportunity. This was due to a failure to understand that changing business processes is just as vital, complex and hazardous as changing financial or organisation structures; changes entrusted to top professionals.

The good news is that as we move into 2016 the appetite to embed CI continues to grow, fuelled by recognition of the wider benefits to be derived from CI including employee motivation and engagement not withstanding improved efficiency and effectiveness.

To maintain the momentum every organisation should define the principles that drive CI behaviours and reinforce them at every employee touchpoint; a job for a senior team.

Leaders who look for highly visible quick wins need to balance their compass by considering the long term need, and others need to unite employees to prevent change happening that makes little or no contribution to meeting the organisation’s purpose either now or in the future.

Resources and budgets have never been more constricted so 2016 has to be the year when reinventing the wheel stops and CI practitioners recognise that lean ways of working apply to them as much as anyone else. A small % of the time and money invested in these spurious activities could be far more wisely used to help existing organisations such ICiPS adjust to meet emerging need and freeing much needed resource to practice CI.

Looking to the future The Institute hopes to see a far more enlightened civil service which has grasped that CI is not only good practice, but also a life jacket for the future of public services.

Power houses and boundaries would be a thing of the past, enabling the open sharing of collateral and resources and a cross party working group will ensure that the improvement of public services has a bigger focus than that bought by any one political party.

This new focus will result in ‘one civil service working for the public good’; an approach that will result in innovative ways of delivering services that will improve both customer and employee satisfaction, and save money.

This will however require a shift in culture, how accountabilities are shaped and success is measured. This will be a hard fought battle, but one the Institute believes can and will happen.

These high aspirations are unlikely to come to maturity in our lifetime, but the Institute will continue to instil the foundations for CI success so that the benefits can be reaped by future generations. Each and every CI ‘believer’ has a role to play in making this happen - being positive exemplars for CI ways of working, being open with knowledge and looking out for and helping others on their journey

So although the landscape has changed for the better in the past 3 years, there is still a lot of work to do.