UTFacultiesBMSEventsPhD Defence José Franken | Group Capabilities and Process Quality in Complex Problem Solving

PhD Defence José Franken | Group Capabilities and Process Quality in Complex Problem Solving

Group Capabilities and Process Quality in Complex Problem Solving

The PhD defence of José Franken will take place in the Waaier building of the University of Twente and can be followed by a live stream.
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José Franken is a PhD student in the department Change Management & Organization Behaviour. (Co)promotors are prof.dr. C.P.M. Wilderom and dr. D.H. van Dun from the faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences.

With all the challenges we are experiencing in today's time, it is essential for organisations to be able to respond adequately. Organisations must therefore be able to successfully resolve perceived issues. Group improvement initiatives are often started for this purpose. The aim of such improvement initiatives is to maintain or further improve the performance of the organisation. Moreover, successful improvement initiatives within or among organizations will typically help develop employees’ knowledge and skills.  

But such improvement is not self-evident. Many employees in organisations experience how difficult it can be to effectively improve the operational process together. That is why they often look for something to hold on to, such as introducing a continuous improvement strategy, e.g., 'Lean'. This strategy encompasses a wide range of instruments, including the 'Kaizen' approach or the 'Kaizen Event' (KE) as a tool for solving complex problems. But even with such a standardized approach, it turns out to be difficult to achieve consistently and structurally better results. Organisational improvement can be seen as a phase-based process that must be followed step by step to realize results. In many organisations, people are often not aware that the quality of this improvement process is a key to effective or successful organisational improvement.

Improving processes and solving problems requires human work. An improvement group is often set up to solve organisational problems. The effectiveness of this improvement process often depends on the quality with which this group carries out this process. But the execution of improvement processes within groups frequently fall short, and the resultant quality often leaves room for much more improvements that often are not taken up further.

In this Ph.D. research, I examine the importance of the quality and characteristics of the group improvement process in solving complex organisational problems. The premise behind this is that the better the quality of the group process, the greater the chance of a successful improvement initiative. Within this research, a better understanding was therefore sought into what characterizes a high-quality improvement process: i.e., how improvement process quality emerges from groups collaborating; how individuals contribute to process quality; and how process quality relates to actual operational results. Combined, the results of this thesis research provide insight into the characteristics of improvement process quality, and how an improvement group can have a better grip on their own process quality in practice, based on the research question: “How can high process quality including group capabilities, in complex problem-solving events within organisations be achieved?”.

 This Ph.D. research was conducted from an abductive approach. This means that a problem experienced in practice has been studied with the help of academic research methods. This allows new insights to be added to existing theory, and concrete solutions to be brought back into practice.

In order to be able to study the group process of problem-solving, we use the approach of structured problem-solving according to the standardized Lean Kaizen Event (KE) method. A KE is ‘a focused and structured continuous improvement project, using a dedicated cross-functional group to address a targeted work area, to achieve specific goals in an accelerated timeframe’. So, a KE is an example type of a structured approach to solving complex problems in organisations. KEs have also been the subject of frequent academic research. The standardized KE process consists of a number of consecutive phases. In a specified order, each stage must be carried out properly. In this study, the frequently used six-phase model of a KE was chosen, consisting of the following phases: 1) Problem definition, 2) Rootcause analysis, 3) Generate ideas, 4) Plan implementation, 5) Implement, and 6) Check and sustain.  

Study 1, the first empirical study in this Ph.D. thesis, investigated what high quality of a KE group process means. As a result, a method to visualise and measure process quality was developed and process characteristics for high process quality in KE processes were made explicit. In Study 2, I investigated which factors are also important for a group to achieve measurable operational improvement. Four phase-related behavioural process factors seemed to relate to achieving operational performance improvement: 1) In the first phase, the participants must have the commitment to solve the problem, 2) also in the first phase of the KE, a specific problem indicator should be established, 3) in the third phase, the expected impact of a countermeasure in relation to the problem indicator must be identified, and 4) during the implementation (phase 5), the responsible line manager must champion the proposed change. Study 3 focused on the individual in the improvement group. In this study, we studied how the problem-solving preferences of group members affect the quality of the improvement process. Results of this study show that when group members are aware of their own and group-member problem-solving preferences, the quality of the KE process improves. The results also showed that participants experience a higher self-efficacy when they are aware of their own and peer’s problem-solving preferences.

In this Ph.D. research, I searched for new insights into the group process of solving complex problems. This research started out from the observation that organisations’ problem-solving groups are often not successful in achieving solid operational performance improvement. I focused on the group process of improving, based on the six-phase KE model (Figure 1). Because of the fine-grained perspective taken new insights have emerged in the various thesis’ studies; they all circle around the idea that the group-process quality must be high in order to be successful in improving.

The theoretical relevance of this Ph.D. research emerges in a number of aspects. As a first result of this research, the factor of process quality is added to existing models of KE success factors. This research makes it explicit that the quality of a group's process is central to effective KEs. This specifies the importance of group work as indicated by social-cognitive theory and contributes to the importance of phase-based problem-solving as put forward by problem-solving behavioural theory. In addition, the fine-grained six-phase process of a KE was examined in this research. It is precisely because of this intricacy that many existing theories from the organisational behavioural sciences could be used to explain the mechanisms behind the need for the analysis of specific group behaviour in KEs. Finally, we experienced how a KE is pre-eminently a context in which a lot can be learned about group dynamics in problem solving. The practical relevance emerges from the three important recommendations that can be given back to practice based on the results of this Ph.D. study: 1) monitor the process quality of the improvement process, 2) discuss the preferred problem-solving styles when composing a KE group, and 3) reflect and learn while conducting an KE as well. By applying these practical insights, more group improvement initiatives in organisations will be successful. 

The insights gained from this Ph.D. research contribute to strengthening the improvement skills of organisations and their employees. I aim to help address the challenge of group effectiveness in problem solving, especially in today’s complex social landscape.