I had a lot to learn (and still do) when I first started my professional career. One of my difficulties was learning how to actively listen to the organization’s problems. As a process improvement practitioner, it is my job to recognize these problems, turn them into process improvement opportunities, and drive increased business value and lower operational costs within the organization. Learning to recognize process improvement opportunities is a soft skill that everyone can (and should) develop regardless of your profession.

“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”

– Theodore Isaac Rubin

The quote by Theodore Isaac Rubin reminds me that you can expect problems within your organization, but what you decide to do with those problems will define the maturity of your process capabilities. In the context of process improvement, you need to learn to listen for and act on these problems so that you can be the hero and fix them! The reality is that fixing problems is easier said than done. Lean Six Sigma, PMI, and other methodologies provide us with numerous tools that we can leverage to do this. Using the right set of tools is very important but these tools are only useful when you have some sense of what you are building (a.k.a. fixing). That’s why Lean Six Sigma is so keen on defining the problem up front. So, what difficulties will you encounter when trying to fix problems and improve processes? Here’s a list of excuses, real or otherwise, that I have encountered.

  • “I can’t do anything about it. It’s out of my control.”
  • “It’s above my pay grade.”
  • “The problem is too complicated.”
  • “It’s the way we’ve always done it.”
  • “There’s no leadership support.”
  • “The business is making money… we don’t need to worry about this problem.”
  • “I’m too busy.”

I hate to admit it, but sometimes I hear my wife or kids tell me something but I’m not actually listening to what they are saying. Part of active-listening means that you hear, acknowledge, and perhaps do something with the information being conveyed. The skill in learning to recognize process improvement opportunities comes down to active listening more so than the tools you choose to leverage. I believe that learning to recognize process improvement opportunities is a multi-faceted endeavor and is best suited when driven by the organization from the bottom-up and supported from the top-down. I’d love to hear your suggestions, but I’ve compiled a list of five things that will help you listen for business problems and five ways to implement the right process improvement opportunities (10 tips in all).

  1. Ask questions… lots of them! Ever heard of ‘5 Why’?
  2. Listen for key things. This may include when people tell you that they need to do rework, wait for more information, that there is no formal process, the system is too cumbersome, etc. These should be red flags and signs to there being a deeper root problem.
  3. If you’re familiar with Lean, look for the 7/8 process wastes. Employees will likely use different language but they will express these process wastes as problems that they encounter.
  4. Become a change agent. Advocate that there is a better way of doing things. Don’t get stuck in the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality.
  5. Learn what people do. Create process maps. Go and see the work that others do. Step out of your siloed work occasionally.
  6. Enable employees to contribute (a.k.a. express the problems they encounter). Use a formal tool or means to allow employees to share their ideas for improvements. I call this the Kaizen Repository.
  7. Allow employees to be part of the solution. This builds on the above idea and establishes the expectation that employees are not only responsible for expressing the problems they encounter, but that they are also part of the solution.
  8. Leadership, process experts, and/or project managers should show support and help employees drive towards viable process improvements and better business solutions. This is a team effort and all are accountable!
  9. Align these solutions and process improvements to business strategies.
  10. Build on success stories. Celebrate big and small wins. Recognize the successful implementations of these opportunities.

Bonus tip: Never discount or look down on an employee for identifying a problem! Employees should be recognized and rewarded for calling out these problems (*does not need to be a financial reward*). You want to expose problems so that you can improve them to make your processes and services better. In Lean terms, this is like “Andon”. Fixing problems is half the battle. The other half is first learning what those problems are and the impact that these problems are having on the business. By eradicating the problems at their core (root cause) you are enabling the organization to be more agile, save money that is otherwise wasted in inefficient processes, and mature their capacity to do more.


Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Chad Higgins

Chad Higgins

Contributing Author

With 12 years of diverse project management experience, Chad brings a unique perspective to PMforToday.com. Whether it was at the start of his career as an ice cream store manager or more recently as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and ITIL leader in the telecommunications arena, Chad has always zeroed in on the kinds of changes that make a business function more effectively. Chad's formal background in process improvement complements his seasoned project repertoire. He's never found a team or process that couldn't improve in some area, and Chad is a firm believer that a healthy company culture is fundamental to any process improvement initiative.


PM for Today has helped me build my personal brand by enabling me to reach a larger audience that otherwise would not have known about my articles and by providing a centralized place for me to share my experiences and interests. My LinkedIn profile views have double since becoming a contributing author on PMforToday.com and I love being part of something larger than myself.

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