It Is OK To Make It A Process

I have talked about some ways  to improve processes, but what is a process?  Maybe I should not have waited all of the way until my fourth post to define it.

At the brisk of sounding extremely boring, let’s talk about your commute. You leave your dwelling; get in your car, on your bike, catch a bus, or hop on the subway; and at some point, walk into your place of business. That is a process. A process is any multi step series of activities that accomplishes a goal. And just like we walked through the commute, we can walk through a process to find ways to improve it. We can take it apart to see which steps can and should be changed.

There are two key measurements to a process. The first is time.  How long does it take to complete? The second is accuracy.  How often does everything to right?  In the commute example you have probably optimized time as much as possible. After all I don’t know anyone who likes extending their drive to work. You have probably also optimized accuracy as much as possible. For instance your car is in as good of working order as you can keep it.  You do not make wrong turns.  You know where to park.  If you are taking public transportation, you know the route and schedule. You would not appreciate it if suddenly the schedule is off by 20 minutes or if all of the routes changed regularly.

There are 100 examples of processes you do every day. Including your commute, you shower and get dressed, you make the bed, you get your kids ready for school, you take care of any animals you have, the list goes on and on. When you combine multiple processes like that together, you get, that’s right, a process.  A longer, more complicated process, with additional places for things to go wrong, but still a process. The same is true at work, but I am not going to use work examples, because if you didn’t fall asleep during the commute example, I don’t want to take a chance of put you into a coma.

If you break apart the steps in any process that seems to be inefficient to you with the Five Whys from the last post, you will find yourself suddenly having a bit more time or less stress.

Unless it involves your kids.  Then, you just have to wait until they move out.

Why. It’s Not Just For Children Anymore

In almost any kind of process improvement, there is a powerful tool called the Five Whys. Any parent to tell you just how incredibly deep this tool can dig when a child asks “why” over and over and over again. And often ends with the parent wracking their brain or gets to the point where they just don’t know.  At point often comes the answer of “because”.

If there is going to be a true and beneficial improvement to a process, “because” is not good enough. But the Five Whys force us to push past that.  And it is really simple to use.  Just keep asking “why” until you get to the root of the problem.

For example, sometimes a manager’s approval is needed for certain actions. The teams I have worked with have discovered several processes where the managers signature serves no purpose.  We got to the root of the requirements by asking why. Here is a generic and made up example.

  1. Why does the manager have to approve this?  Because this is the risk to the organization.
  2. Why is the rest of the organization? If authorization is given incorrectly than were at risk for losing money.
  3. Why are we lose this for losing money? We are at risk of losing money because a customer could falsify another customer’s identification.
  4. Why do we allow that access to that type of customer? After much head scratching the answer is that because of technology changes since this process was implemented, this is no longer a risk.

The answer was arrived at in four steps.

The simple exercise of asking why, why, why has led us to the root cause of the manager sign off in that process. And now, since everyone has walked through it together, it is easy to remove that step because you already have buy in from all the parties that need to sign off.  And your process just got simpler and faster.  Your customer service just got better.

Don’t limit this tool only to LEAN processes or Kaizen events or work process improvement. This is a very effective tool to use in everyday life. Even at home when sometimes you are mystified as to why you are doing things a certain way, pull out the Five Whys and walk through them. Even better, involve your spouse, friend, parent, or children to help you. You will often find that you suddenly have a better way of doing things that they just made your life easier.

Don’t Waste Those Minds!

In LEAN terminology there are seven or eight types of waste that you can have any process, depending on which dialect you are following. The eighth type, that is not always included in the traditional list, is Underutilization Of People. My feeling is that this is perhaps the most insidious type of waste because it is extremely easy to overlook and often leads to the other types of waste.

I have worked in the healthcare, manufacturing, banking, and software development industries. In each of those, the greatest resource for improving processes has been people. No one, no matter how experienced or knowledgeable, can completely assess a multi-step process and determine all of the nuances.  However, put together a small group of people, who are all currently involved and represent a knowledgeable subset, and the solutions can be amazing.

In my current role, I am charged with implementing policies and processes that help our customers and therefore us as an organization. I can take my best guess about how to accomplish that, but it is much more effective if I consult with the people who have two if I consult with people involved in all stages of a process and ask them to help design it. In fact, I would hazard to say that’s without that step, the change in process or a new process has very little chance to succeed.

The degree to which everyone has input varies from issue to issue, but generally, I try to get as much input as possible from all relevant parties. And I think the real key is that I try to have them share their thoughts with each other as much as possible. Designing an end to end flow with all of the people involved makes for a far superior process than if it is done in bits and pieces.

This may seem overly complicated.  There are too many people involved. After all, too many cooks will ruin the dinner. Given the proper preparations and expectations, however, this can be a very smooth and quick process. Especially after it has been utilized a few times. The buy in, ownership, and problem resolution that occur at the before implementation save a very disproportionate amount of time that otherwise would have been spent on corrective action.  And it prevents a lot of what is usually incorrectly called unforeseen problems.

There’s a book called the Phoenix Project, about a company going through some major issues. But at the idea from the book that applies here is that all owners of different stages of a process are involved from the beginning so that they had shared input from the start. This allows for great interaction between the product development team, software development teams, sales, marketing, and IT and leads to a huge reduction in problems and errors. This information and much more about it is all nicely detailed at IT Revolution Press.

Teamwork And Trust, With A Little Math

No matter what endeavor you are engaged in, you are likely to be part of a team. And if you truly want to make a difference, that team needs t0 act almost as a single entity. And the key for that is trust.

There are many different sources which talk about that trust relationships on teams. The Crucial Conversations series of books and lectures and trainings is one of them. Work Rules!, by Lazlo Bock, about People Operations at Google, also touches on this.  In both sources the authors speak to the fact that is not the individuals that are on the team, but how those individuals relate that makes the difference between a good team and a truly great team.

Trust in this context simply means being open to and listening to every member’s ideas. That includes dissenting opinions. In my experience, I have found that when everyone has been able to state their opinions and open and free discussion has occurred, the very best solutions are determined very quickly.

These authors have done a tremendous job in explaining how to make the team dynamics works and what to look for. And this can be backed up with math.  Intuitor.com, a site dedicated to succeed through creative learning , shows an easy steps why this works. Their article on how to form small decision-making groups, is a must read for anyone who is putting a team together or running a project.

It is fascinating what trust can do for a team because the compounding of the trust effect is exponential, not additive.

And that brings in the importance of that team work. If there is one member of the team that does not share this view and is not willing to cooperate, you lose most of the effectiveness of the team.  All of the nice exponential math goes out the window.  The number of possible solutions considered is severely curtailed.

So, when you are setting up a team, be very clear up front what your expectations are of the team members. Also keep in mind the size of the team and the possible number of interactions. As you work towards the mandate that the team has been charged with it is vitally important to make sure your team adheres to the expectations set up at the beginning. If you see a team member begin to deviate from those expectations, the very first thing to do is reestablish those expectations and that level of trust, otherwise it will become progressively more difficult to do so and your team will suffer as a result.