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Why do so many process improvement projects fail?

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According to this blog, it's estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of process improvement projects fail?  Why is that, and what can be done to improve those odds?

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  • There will be many answers to this, but I have found that the lack of a 'champion' is a big reason these projects fail.

  • Approximatively the same number of IT projects fail, according to various sources I've seen in the past.
    Perhaps because many processes are performed by IT applications.
    Perhaps culture (and politics) inhibits process optimisation.
    Perhaps both humans and IT are resistent to change.
    But what is or should be a normal failure rate?

    • I've seen the same figures (always hovering around that percentage, is there a stat that states the failure rate of polls ?!)

      In the same way there's no way to define process excellence (previous topic), I say there's also a factor in that trying to aspire for process excellence results in failure because we and the Exec deem excellence as just doing the same process but better, hence the improvement fallacy.

      I read a great blog which stated that:

      "You cannot learn very much about excellence from studying failure. Of all the infinite number of ways to perform a certain task, most of them are wrong. There are only a few right ways. Unfortunately you don’t come any closer to identifying those right ways by eliminating the wrong ways. Excellence is not the opposite of failure. It is just different."

      And BPM/ CI should start to do things differently now.

  • The obsession with continuous improvement and incrementally forcing change on the business ad-nauseum till it becomes almost like a corporate Groundhog Day is incredible and disheartening.

    We have Deming, Rummler Brache, Six Sigma’s DMAIC, LEAN, they all offer a method and practice of improving the efficiency and quality of processes then loop back in on themselves with the typically generic ‘more of the same’ cycle. The trouble I have with this is that the feedback mechanism is broken and what really happens is that another round of incremental improvements is sought as part of the next project, and the next, and the next. You suddenly lose the audience's attention and willpower, and hence faith wavers and you fail.

    As soon as we implement a rigid cycle as a methodology we lose the ability to continually adapt and change. Sure, the measurement and management information stream of data allows us to monitor and react to the change, but we interpret that information according to the restrictions imposed as part of the archaic methodology.

    We as a discipline need to adopt the same approach as a Greenfield start up, blank sheet, that it’s ok to start over and create methods and tools that are context rich for today’s adaptive and socially dynamic enterprise, not keep hold of traditional ways of CI because they remind us of fuzzy and warm times of old.

    It's not so much about the usual stories of buy-in from the top and Executive leadership, they still cling to the same truths we tell them, it's about BPM as a discipline finally growing up and shedding some skin.

    The process of process improvement is defunct. Roll a 6 and start again.

  • Ok, I have to post this, from my blog back in 2009.....you ask why process improvement fails ?
    Try speaking a language that the organisation can actually understand....process improvement and BPM is not, SHOULD NOT be reserved for the elite....


  • The top reasons that implementation fails are:
    1. underestimating the impact it will have on the organization
    2. improperly trained users
    3. internal politics derail the project
    4. lack of proper governance

    • Forgot to sign in earlier for my response. Anyway, just saw this as well and thought it was relevant to the discussion.

      Gartner announced last week that one of the biggest causes of process improvement failure was the failure of process professionals to engage the entire organisation in their efforts.

      I don't think that the 60-70% estimate is far off. Approx 30-35% of the implementations we do are to replace a failed system, it is prevalent.

  • There are a whole litany of reasons for process improvement failures. This fact may make some decision makers wary of forging ahead and choose to remain in the dysfunctional comfort of the "devil we know".

    In my experience, there are definitely a number of causes that rise to the top of the list:

    *Going out too aggressive. Attempting to tackle too much to soon. Don't attempt to boil the ocean! Small but frequent victories rein over the big shebang that never makes it to production.

    *Failure to define success metrics at the beginning of the initiative and to take a baseline of your starting point. If you haven't defined success you'll not recognize it when you get there!

    *Failure to reach consensus of collaboration. No department will ever get everything they want from every solution. Choose your battles and strive for the Win-Win in every system design.

    *Failure to see the big picture. The more people engaged in an initiative the more viewpoints that need to be reconciled into a common consensus. Utilizing a properly trained facilitator is key to aiding the collaborative process.

    Don't let your next initiative fall prey to these very preventable causes! Performing a postmortem on previous failures along with reviewing case studies will reveal that one or more of the above four causes will likely be found in nearly every case you review.

  • user-pic

    Firstly I believe it is important that an organisation has a robust project management process, preferably with an office to manage the projects. This ensures good management of risks and issues and other aspects of the project.

    Secondly it is imperative that the end users are included in the project. A project should never purely be a 'management' decision as user adoption will never happen if that is the case.

    Thirdly it is necessary to ensure the project is implemented into the business. Many projects 'hand over' the project deliverables to the business without a plan of implementation and training.

    Survey results of change management failures (14 industries) gave lack of user adoption as the main reason why improvement projects fail (64%) followed by lack of change management skills (44%) and no senior management champion (44%).

  • Wait, the blog said 70% fail. But without listening to the podcast, I don't see the sources cited for those #'s. Without sources, I go back to what I can see with my own eyes.


    I don't see this ratio of failures with our own organization, nor the partners we work with. Not to say that BPM projects are easy - but what projects involving IT and Business are easy? :)

    This question comes up every so often. But most of us are busy making process improvement / BPM projects successful.

  • First of all I have to agree with Scott in questioning the rate of 70%. I agree there is a higher failure rate than there should be but 70% seems significantly higher than what I see in the business world today.
    1. Lack of the process project providing a direct link to the organizations goals and needs. Each project must be able to be easily tied to a business goal and or solve a problem that the business has.
    2. Lack of key management buy in
    3. Lack of the process skills necessary to make the project a success
    4. Not involving the right people. Too often people work these projects in a vacuum and do not involve the right people thus when it comes time to put the rubber to the road it does not work like they expected because they did not have all the information they needed to make it a success.

  • What I've seen in the following:

    - Lack of qualified resources leads to bungling and loss of momentum and executive committment
    - Mismanaged project leads to gaps in requirements and resources that leads to poor quality/cost overruns resulting in loss of executive committment
    - Company gets distracted with other projects/opportunities, pulls resources and executives attention leading to stalled/failed project
    - Methodology not followed correctly resulting in poor specs and/or improper resources
    - After trying team learns that tool is inadequate and not willing (or not having budget) to buy additional tools/resources

  • I feel it all boils down to accountability. Are the people involved in the project truly invested in the project? As we become much more visual due to trends online (and in real life), visual management is a great way to encourage accountability: http://www.goleansixsigma.com/visual-management-helps-reduce-penalties-delayed-health-insurance-claims/

  • I agree with one of the above comments that companies want to improve too much processes at once. But when trying to improve everything you probably improve nothing.

    But when selecting just one process for improvement, sometimes companies expect more out of the project then the results that may come out (is getting less than expected a failure? )

    So what I always try is to make companies aware that is not about improving A process, but that they must aim for a company that is improving BY process.

    In the end it must be about executing and managing your organization by process.
    What customer would pay you for improving your processes?

    Process management is not a goal, it is an aid.

    You can’t start managing by process without processes, so first I would like to create a process oriented view of the organization (you might call this a process landscape).

    This means they have to think about the result a process has to deliver (if you cannot make that up, it is probably not a useful process).

    Next think about what goals are attached to all of those results and determine if the performance is satisfying or not.

    This should make them prioritize what processes need more grip (this sounds more positive than that a process is performing bad and needs improvement ;-)

    My goal is to start getting more grip on processes which are worth the attention.

    But my ultimate goal is to coach employees (and not only management or some BPM-specialists) on what makes a good performing process, make them aware of their contribution to process results and what can be changed to improve performance.

    It might sound soft, but I experienced real process awareness is worth more than a thousand of tools.

    I tried many things, but bringing ‘process to the people’ in their language gave me the best experience on the long run. You need a long breath for this, but doing some improvement projects probably will deliver some results, but I doubt if the results are sustainable.

    So that is why I always state that is not about improving A process, but improving your organization BY process.

    But, as always, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and you have to change your plan. That makes being a BPM coach a great job ;-)

  • Maybe we just operate in a World of chaos that has the illusion of order because to talk about process, among the myriad of other management techniques, gives us a sense of order. Perhaps the success or failure of an improvement project is completely random and solely down to the right people in the right place at the right time. Something that no one can really predict.

    Often a process expert won't take a job on because they don't feel there is sufficient buy-in from the exec, or the champion isn't strong enough, or the scope isn't realistic etc. This is probably an intuition that, unbeknownst to the expert, is derived from their observance of the whole environment. It's then easy to say that project failed because there was no exec buy-in but it's nearly always much more complex than than.

    Then the figures quoted, real or not, will make sense because those with a deeper understanding of the complexities of a project are likely to get involved in projects they instinctively feel will be a success. Therefore they are more likely to experience success. The rest of us just have to hope that the stars will align this time around. We can do everything we can, everything we've been taught and everything we've read in books or experienced previously but sometimes that's just not enough.

    I'm sure there are some projects that have been sold as successful but really we know deep down they weren't. They took too long or ended up looking nothing like what was originally required. We can recast the expectations of the customer so they too think it was a success but like us they don't want to admit failure to their masters either.

    Why do so many process improvement projects fail? I'm guessing that no more fail than any other type of project.

  • Because everyone is afraid it affects their role in the job and if their job scope changes for the good. Counter intuitive but if it is good, there is fear either more work is allocated or you're out of a job.

  • Main reasons come down to poor organizational structure,lack of governance, accountability, improperly trained staff and not having the entire team bought in on the concept. Professor Barry Shore, from the Peter T. Paul School of Business at the University of New Hampshire explains what exactly Lean Six Sigma is and how it can can have a positive impact on a business if done right: http://www.6sigmacertificationonline.com/what-is-lean-six-sigma/

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