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What Building IKEA Furniture Can Teach You About Process Improvement

The first time you try to put together IKEA furniture, it seems simple enough. You have all the parts; the instructions appear well documented and sequential. But more often than not, 20 minutes in you realize you’ve got trouble: boards are upside down, the unfinished edge is showing on one side, and the Allen wrench is causing calluses.

So far in this blog series, we’ve walked through APQC’s process improvement methodology in a step-by-step, logical order. While having a design is crucial, I’d be remiss if I left you with the impression that process improvements always go as scheduled. Often, they go the way of IKEA assembly.

Process improvement plans, especially when implemented cross-functionally and enterprise-wide, is rarely sequential. Leadership changes, internal priority shifts, and unexpected budget constraints can all force you to adjust your plans.

Trust me. You too can assemble the PAX wardrobe with sliding doors and improve Procure-to-Pay—though the jury is still out as to which is the more daunting task.

What IKEA can teach us about process improvementYou Have to Trust the Process

The key to building IKEA furniture is tunnel vision. Only worry about one step at a time. I know, it’s tempting to skip ahead and look at what the finished dresser is supposed to look like and assume you know what and when to attach the side pieces. But don’t. The illustrated directions were created for a reason.

Process improvement efforts can lure you with the same siren song of jumping ahead of yourself. You spent time planning out the future state. Intuitively you know what’s broken today. But trust the order of operation.

Before we at APQC ever had the audacity to tell organizations how they should best manage and improve their processes, we studied how well-managed process-oriented organizations work. Our on-going search to continually identify and share best practices is the basis for everything in this blog, our research repository, and our advisory work.

Experience Equals Knowledge

I watched in awe recently as two IKEA employees raced through the assembly of display furniture. They were efficient. They used the right parts, at the right time, the first time; every time. I asked them their secret.

They said that the first few times they put together a BILLY bookcase they relied heavily on the instructions. But eventually, the explicit information became knowledge. They still reviewed the printed instructions each time, but they were looking for changes to the process (“look, they added two cam locks to step 13”). Moreover, they were building and leveraging tacit knowledge – they knew when two people could work more efficiently assembling things separately and when and how they could best work together.

Your process teams, in conjunction with the business-facing teams, will eventually find the same synergy. That dance won’t come easy. You’ll bump into each other at first. But eventually you’ll be able to anticipate each other’s pace and needs. It’s a beautiful thing.

Until it’s not.

As you unearth more foundational problems and external factors force unexpected changes, the basic instruction set won’t be enough. You’ll need to change course. And that’s when a lot of organizations get stuck. Who will set the new prioritization? And how will you execute against it?

Know When to Ask For Help

There is a reason why there’s a cottage industry of small businesses that assemble IKEA furniture at your home.  Sometimes, the risk of damaging particle board is greater than the labor savings of trying to build the furniture on your own.

In much the same way, knowing when you’ve exhausted your own process improvement skill sets is important. Often we see organizations stall out at certain stages, stuck in analysis paralysis. The risk of failure is too high to stop, but they are unsure of what to do next.

Does this sound familiar?

  • “We’ve customized a process framework for our business, but there’s resistance by those we built it for.”
  • “We’ve benchmarked our processes, but there’s disagreement over what to do with the data.”
  • “We can’t get buy-in regarding what we should do next.”

There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to an external third party for guidance, independent credibility to executives and line-level curmudgeons, and help envisioning a new perspective for next steps.

This blog series has been an IKEA instruction booklet. It should be read as a high-level, illustrative series of steps. Don’t knock yourself if things don’t go perfectly; they never do.

If you have any questions or comments about your processes you’d rather not post publicly, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our Process Advisory team directly.

Jess Scheer can be reached on LinkedIn  or by Email at jscheer@apqc.org

Stay up to date with our upcoming process & performance management research, webinars, and more by visiting our expertise page.