How you make things work better

Process improvement isn’t rocket science: it’s just a question of being methodical and understanding the human condition and that will help get it sorted.  When thinking about improving processes, you need to know the following:

•             Why are you doing this? 

It may seem like a no-brainer, but you need to have a clearly-stated reason, or the change won’t stick.  And the reason needs to be better than “we need to signal a change around here”, even if that is the most obvious driver (and it often is).  People don’t like changing unless they can see what’s in it for them.  If you’re honest, you’re probably the same, so accept that you need to be able to sell it to them on the basis of the benefits it undoubtedly brings.  In any case, it brings you to the next question.

•             How important is it to you? 

Big changes need significant effort, or they won’t stick.  How badly do you need to change?  Some drivers are stronger than others, like you’re losing money hand over fist and need to stop that loss in its tracks.  More commonly, your people are getting in each other’s way, which automatically means waste for both you and your
customers.  You need to understand as well why things are done in that particular way at the moment, so that you identify what habits to change first.

•             How will you know when you’ve done it? 

How you measure things can be as important as the thing itself.  You have to be sure that a) the tail won’t wag the dog (the measurement process is too onerous to have any value) and b) that the measure means something in terms your people understand.   You need to be able to visualise clearly how conditions would improve as a result of this change.  What exactly changes?  If you can see it, you know
where your measures lie.

•             How will you know whether it’s had the effect you needed it to have?

That’s why the measurement is important!  If everyone can see that change you
identified, then they should still be able to see it in short-term, medium-term
and long-term measures.

And that’s all there is to it!  Obviously, this is a very brief overview and
it’s my plan to bring a regular set of tips to this blog.  What did you think of this one?

I have a number of updates in the pipeline, but I’m always interested to hear what concerns you most and will be happy to write something about that (no names, no pack drill, so you can be quite open), so please let me know.

There’s Always a Better Way

When I was about 8 years old, my mum bought me a great poster.  The picture was of a group of turtles.  All but one of these turtles was swimming hard to get along, but one had turned over on his back and was riding in the shell, using oars to go faster.
That one was smiling, the others weren’t and the caption read “There’s Always a Better Way”.  I loved it even then – it just spoke to me!  It’s been my mantra ever since.

You can always improve things in life, whether it’s something you do, or something someone else does for you.  This is because people make mistakes (so, who’s perfect?) all over the place.   In most of my assignments, people either weren’t clear how they should do something, sometimes were deliberately hiding something, or a new system or merger had upset the apple cart and something new was needed.  Sometimes the “something new” is rushed, not thought through well enough or badly implemented.  And, more than sometimes, the activity the “something new” was meant to replace carries on because nobody told it to stop, so all of it adds up to a total waste of time.  Whenever you doubt that all is as it should be, it’s worth finding out how people do
their jobs.  You may think it will be obvious but, much of the time, what you find out will surprise you.

Many have the sort of process maps used by systems developers.  These just talk about the things that are relevant to the system.  They don’t tell you a thing about how many people are involved in the process, what their responsibilities are in it, what authority they have if anything needs improving or something goes wrong, how many of them are in the same silo, how the end result is measured and, above all, why it’s done in the first place.  You need all this to improve a process: show all the relevant information in the first place and stop relying on IT maps that mean next to nothing to the average user.   They won’t show you the gaps that allow overspending, a systems glitch that can be fixed easily once you know what it is or the improvements that will allow your people to give better explanations to management of what their financial results mean and what they can do to improve them.  This is value-based process mapping.

One example I have is that of a company where management had just about given up on ever getting information from their (pretty-demoralised, due to a new system they hadn’t got the hang of) Finance team.  There was a massive overspend on the books
already and things seemed set to get worse.  So together, the team and I spent time with the managers, to define how the money was being spent and who was responsible for which budget pot.  It turned out that much was caused by a desire to satisfy customers without finding out if what they were asking for was in the contract or not, poor information about supplier delivery, and also by improvements created by the maintenance team that were strictly capital expenditure – this was the responsibility of a different part of the organisation – and the maintenance team didn’t understand how to access their money.

Whilst little of this activity was reprehensible, it was being done without consideration for what was affordable, because they couldn’t see it before.  Improvements are a great thing and so is customer satisfaction, but this business was being run almost as if it were a charity!  It also led to a great deal of essential communication between departments that hadn’t been happening.

Does this story chime with you?  Can you think of somewhere to try out a value-based process map?  I’d love to hear of other live examples, so please send them in – I may yet get to writing a book on this subject!