Five reasons business process improvement projects fail

Even with the best of intentions, even the most sought after business process improvement project can fail. Here are five reasons this happens and some advice for CIOs that want to avoid such failure.

Many CIOs have found or are looking for opportunities to elevate their departments to "business enabler" or "business multiplier" status, with all the rights and privileges therein.  These rights and privileges often include increased respect from business partners and, even if the IT budget doesn't fully escape the axe, a better understanding for the potential impact of such cuts.

Many of these efforts take the form of business process improvement initiatives designed to improve the efficiency of existing work, which could mean having that work take either less time, less money or both.  In many organizations, CIOs and the IT department are well positioned to take the lead on such efforts.

Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, even the most sought after business process improvement project can fail.  Here, I will outline five reasons that these efforts often fail and provide some advice for CIOs that want to avoid such failure and see their projects succeed.

Lack of support from the top

Regardless of organizational size, attempting to initiate a significant process improvement effort without clear, direct and publicized support from the top will more than likely result in either total failure of the initiative or the eventual outcomes not being everything that they could be.

Lack of support from the top can be perceived by staff as the initiative not being important and not being deserving of the full time and effort that is required to ensure success.  Business process improvement projects can be difficult, so reinforcement from the top that the efforts are necessary and appreciated is critical to the team's success.

Mitigation: Get clear, public support for the overall initiative before starting any work.  Get real support, too, not just words.  Ensure that the leadership team is truly ready and that they won't simply back down when the going gets tough.

Organizational culture

I've been in organizations in which the culture itself made process improvement efforts extremely difficult.  In short, for pretty much any task, individual employees were empowered to simply opt out or refuse to take part.  Given the process improvement efforts have the potential to sometimes uncover individual weakness or group challenges, it's not a surprise that there may be some angst when improvement efforts are undertaken.

In one organization, I was stunned to discover the kinds of items that people could simply refuse to do, seemingly without repercussion.  In that environment, the process improvement efforts were extraordinarily challenging and required much more dedication and time from the project leadership team than I've seen in other efforts.

In another example, for a substantial process improvement effort, a VP had promised access to certain members of her team for a period of months with a verbal promise that no other significant objectives would be put before those people until our efforts were complete.  As you may have guessed, that promise did not hold and the team was pulled in too many different directions, resulting in failure since no one would budge on the due dates for any initiative.

Mitigation: In these environments, take a slow, measured approach to the initiative and make certain that leadership is squarely on board before proceeding.  Ensure that the importance of the project trickles throughout the organization.  Consider tying awards or some kind of compensation to outcomes to ensure reasonable participation.  Further, get all commitments in writing along with fallback dates that are automatic in certain conditions, such as when a team member falls ill or when a promise is not kept.

Non-cooperative team members

In some cases, organizational culture is to blame for the failure of some efforts and for the shortcomings of some members of the team.  However, when the organization itself is sound, you may have a team member that is either hostile or less than engaged in the overall effort.  Because the team is theoretically comprised of those with a stake in the process being discussed, everyone needs to be fully involved in order to get the best results.

Mitigation: Find out what's behind the hostility.  If your organization starts the process improvement efforts with the hope that some people can be downsized as a result, don't expect a lot of cooperation from the individuals whose jobs may be at stake.  Further, if you've decided to undertake a BPI project to correct a personnel situation rather than dealing with the personnel situation directly, expect failure.

Project team is not representative

If you want to see what failure truly looks like, attempt to reengineer a process without ensuring that all of those with a stake in the process are represented during the effort.  Perhaps the most important task is selecting the team that will work on the project.  All stakeholders, from start to finish, need to be represented.  Even if a person has just a small part in a large process, the insights and experience from each individual part of the process must be understood in order to improve it.

Mitigation: Easy!  Be inclusive, even if you're inclusive to a fault.

Initiative is too IT-focused

Although CIOs may be well suited to lead process improvement efforts, the outcomes may not be about technology at all.  Bear in mind that IT plays a supporting role in a company's process efforts; it's not all about IT.  What is important is leveraging technology assets in ways that optimize a company's efforts.  If the process discussion is slanted to a point where it looks like IT is taking over the process, you will end up with one of two scenarios: 1) Failure or 2) IT being saddled with "responsibility" for everything that happens in the organization.  Neither is desirable.

Mitigation: CIOs need to wear their business hats when leading process improvement efforts.


Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

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