The last few years have witnessed big changes in the business climate, and business process improvement and continuous improvement (CI) efforts have certainly seen their share of change. I talk with companies every day and, without a doubt, there has been a fundamental shift in thought on how to best make meaningful process improvement tools happen.

Prior to 2008, there was significant interest and buy-in for large-scale, top-down initiatives. There was a willingness to set aside large budgets and free up significant resources for the CI initiative. Training increasingly large segments of the workforce was front and center. Detailed, multi-year plans were put in place. The CI initiative was heavily promoted, internally and externally, and employees were strongly urged to participate.

But, did those big initiatives deliver results? Undoubtedly some did. But, many more, when you really check the numbers, did not. There are many distinct causes why they didn’t work, and I won’t try to dive into that here. But, with the meltdown in the business climate, many leaders took a look in the rear view mirror and didn’t like what they saw… big dollars and resources consumed with little evidence of concrete results.

Now, does this mean that CI and process improvement is useless and should be abandoned? Of course not. Businesses live and die today based on the strength and adaptiveness of their processes, as compared to their competitors. Does it mean that the tools and methodologies used (Lean, Six Sigma, BPM, etc) are not good and should be replaced with something new? I think not. The tools and methodologies can certainly be improved and expanded (and are), but they are proven to work.

So what’s happened? I believe that, for a lot of companies, there was simply too much focus on the initiative and not nearly enough focus on results. And based on conversations I have with business leaders every day, I think many have drawn the same conclusion.

So, when smart people see the error in their ways, it typically leads to change. The change that I’ve seen happen for CI is a move back to the basics, and a focus on bottomline, business results… and away from squishy change initiatives. It may return, but for now I see very little interest in big change initiatives whose results are measured over the very long term, if ever truly measured. I see a much more tactical view of CI, focusing on solving specific business problems quickly, as opposed to general quality improvement. CI programs are more likely to be looked at from a bottom-up or grass-roots perspective.

Smart business leaders are now letting the specific needs of their business drive what the CI program looks like, what methodologies and tools are applied, how results get measured, what technology platforms are deployed, etc. To borrow from Lean, the business is pulling CI capability, as opposed to it being pushed into the business. In the real world, what does this mean?

Well, I can only give you my perspective from talking with leaders at companies of all sizes and in many different domains, but what I see is a clear move back to the basics of business and process improvement. Basic quality and process tools as employed in Business Process Management (BPM), Lean, and basic quality tools (Yellow Belt) are getting a second, hard look.

Why? Because, for many businesses, the basics will help solve 95% of the real business problems, get results fast, and they can be introduced into the organization for a very low cost and very low risk. The basics also build a solid foundation on which advanced capabilities like Six Sigma and DFSS can be effectively built and deployed to deliver even more dramatic business results, with much less risk.

So, what do you think? Is this just a reaction to circumstances and will large-scale, top down change initiatives return? OR, is this the new normal for companies when it comes to business and process improvement?