Lean Six Sigma is a proven method for systematically eliminating process steps that do not add value. While the methodology originated in manufacturing, the core concepts are successfully applied in accounting firms as well. Firms that we have worked with to complete Lean Six Sigma process improvement projects have benefited from gains in efficiency, quality, profitability and the capacity to offer higher value services. As I think about what makes these firms successful, I realize that they have one thing in common: they move forward in spite of their fear of change.
While some firms handle it better than others, fear of change is common. Some firms are missing out on the benefits of process improvement because fear causes them to settle for the status quo. In an industry that is being impacted by technology accelerating the speed of change, it is critical to not allow these feelings to prevent forward progress. In his book, Failing Forward, John Maxwell identifies the three main attitudes that become obstacles to progress: feared failure, misunderstood failure and being unprepared for failure. By understanding the causes of these obstacles and how to overcome them, firms can take necessary steps toward continuous improvement.
Obstacle #1: Feared Failure
The fear of failure causes change paralysis. The firm culture is stagnated by SALY (same as last year) thinking, holding on to outdated traditions, and not wanting to disrupt those who may be unwilling to change. In this situation, the common response to improvement suggestions is: “We’ve always done it this way, why should we change?” These views cause change to be perceived as a large risk when in reality, NOT changing is the more imminent risk.
In order to overcome feared failure, the firm culture must be elevated to embrace change. This starts at the top as leadership sets the example by making a commitment to change and communicating it to the firm along with plan and timeline for improvements. For some firms it is best to start with small changes. We have seen significant success from firms that start with a smaller project like a Lean Assessment to identify a few key changes that will make a big impact. The positive results help overcome the fear of failure and take advantage of the benefits of a full-scale Lean Process Improvement project.
Obstacle # 2: Misunderstood Failure
Not understanding failure is another attitude that prevents firms from moving forward. Firms suffer from the ambiguity created by the absence of a clear definition of success. Unclear or unrealistic expectations create an expansive gray area that can be viewed as failure. Objectives and goals may vary between levels and offices and cause confusion. Staff development and firm growth is hindered by a lack of alignment and direction.
By establishing clear criteria for success, firms draw boundary lines between success and failure. A process improvement project is a proven way to create a roadmap for reaching a common goal that aligns with the firm vision. Significant opportunities for change are identified and the right people are included in the efforts to improve. This increases trust and morale as expectations are clarified and opportunities for misunderstandings are minimized.
Obstacle #3: Unprepared for failure
The third obstacle is the most perilous. Being unprepared for failure can result in substantial setbacks as a firm scrambles to recover from unforeseen circumstances.
A lack of preparation can be caused by several different factors: denial of the need to change creates a false sense of security; perfectionism and personal preferences take priority over progress; egos overshadow indications of impending challenges; incorrect information or assumptions shift plans off course. Sometimes failure happens in spite of the best efforts to avoid it but how you prepare for, and recover from, ultimately determines how you move forward.
The best offense for unexpected failure is to stay several steps ahead. This can be done by implementing process improvement initiatives and leveraging technology. High quality, efficient, automated processes free up resources to prepare for the unexpected. In addition, capacity is created to “play above the line” and focus on offering higher value services. A firm-wide culture of continuous improvement is built as the firm grows from applying insights from lessons learned.
In order to be successful and future ready, firms must move past the fear of change and failure. Process improvement projects are a catalyst to making well-planned, high return changes that benefit the entire firm.