When undergoing process improvement, understanding your process from start to finish is the best way to prevent certain inevitable problems from occurring.
Joseph Drasin is the director of University Process Innovation, Division of Information Technology, at the University of Maryland. In a recent article for Educause, Drasin described his dealings with the university department known for being inefficient and difficult to work with. “Their processes were perceived as cumbersome, costly, frustrating, and antithetical to their stated objectives,” said Drasin. “Several IT systems had been purchased and implemented to address these issues, which actually exacerbated the problems.”
Drasin and his team worked with the department in question to develop an overarching process that improved service and reduced administrative costs. After ensuring that all practices were consistent, aligned, and adding value, the group was able to implement a complementary technology solution.
Reflecting on the redesign process, Drasin shared words of wisdom that likely apply to most readers here. “When an organization buys a shiny new piece of technology and then tries to implement it without first having looked hard at its own processes and people, the vast majority of the time, the project doesn't live up to expectations,” he said. “Even when successful, too many times the new technology looks a lot like the prior technology in terms of how it works.”
Drasin went on to share process excellence lessons from his journey, some of which were inspired by Alec Sharp, the author of Workflow Modeling: Tools for Process Improvement and Application Development. I’ve cited several of them here and also included some additional gems from Velaction blog author Jeff Hajek.
“It is easy to let the conversation go straight to the details before describing the environmental context and determining what the individual processes are and how they relate to one another,” said Drasin. “Everyone needs to be on the same page contextually, and you'll need to emphasize the importance of discussion — or the project can derail quickly.”
“You should never vote on a process or other business decision,” said Hajek. “Those should be grounded in facts, not popular opinion. If there are two competing choices, decide on the criteria you will measure them by, but let the options go head-to-head against each other on their own merit.”
“It is very uncommon for averages to help you improve processes,” explained Hajek. “For instance, the average ship time compared to your target time tells you very little about on-time delivery. The average size of the component may make it look like a part is in tolerance when in reality it has a high defect rate. Make sure you have some way of looking at the spread of your results rather than just the average.”
Drasin described physical deliverables like diagrams and flowcharts as artifacts. Problems occur when teams focus on artifacts to the exclusion of the processes and conversations that build them. “If the tools themselves held the value, you could simply borrow flowcharts from a similar organization and implement them. But developing artifacts alone, without the necessary context and commitment, rarely results in effective recommendations,” Drasin said.
Nothing feels worse than when people start questioning your process after you’re off and running. “Stakeholders may be confused as to the objectives, begin questioning previous decisions, or ask if the effort is even a good idea,” said Drasin. “The answers to these questions may be vague, and there may be a lack of agreement about the real objective.”
“Business processes tend to be far more complicated than initially perceived, and many times process improvement efforts receive input from stakeholder groups that are too small. Those who administer the processes are also the ones who design them, so the outcome often aligns with their metrics and motivations,” said Drasin. He recommended expanding the audiences from which you gather data so that you can ensure no perspective is overlooked.
Hajek emphasized that when a team is trying to analyze a process to improve it, they rarely get a high degree of accuracy from memory, or by sketching out the new process from the safety of an office or conference room. “Even with a map created by a team of people who do a process every day, I invariably find inaccuracies or missing steps when we actually go and watch/do the process. You need accuracy to make improvements, and guesses don’t cut it,” he said.
Don’t assume that the various players in a process improvement effort come in speaking the same language. “Each group — even individuals within a group — has a different way of describing the process,” said Drasin. “Even general concepts such as ‘purchase order’ may be used quite differently by different groups, and this can lead to confusion.”
Sometimes, in our enthusiasm to solve problems we may jump the gun. “Trying to solve the problem instead of listening can close you off to new information and data that could be critical to understanding both the existing process and what is needed to improve it,” cautioned Drasin. “It also creates blinders to possibilities raised in subsequent interviews, which might not lead to the best results.”
New technology doesn’t solve process issues on its own. “The Law of Amplification suggests that technology only amplifies the process, so if the process is poor, technology has little to improve and can actually make it worse,” said Drasin. “We have found that IT recommendations are usually only about 30 percent of the total.”
“One of the biggest problems I see with management teams is that they want to develop a continuous improvement culture, but then they staff so teams are continuously doing production work. It sends a mixed message,” said Hajek. “I recommend that about 10 percent of a person’s time be spent on making improvements, as it’s simply not logical to claim that something is important to the business and then not allocate resources to it.”
Unfortunately, it’s common for process improvement teams either to keep working indefinitely or hand a project off to another group that neglects the results. “Process improvement efforts are designed to end with a set of suggested actions, and often another group is responsible for implementing those changes,” said Drasin. “Challenges arise when there is an insufficient transition between solution development and implementation. Other times, the stakeholders might not feel comfortable with some of the suggestions or feel they don't have the necessary political standing to proceed.”
Hajek said that many managers succeed in helping teams develop smart processes, doing everything right from training to setting up the right support systems. However, the moment there’s a crisis, those same managers discard their carefully-constructed process. “You might fix the immediate problem, but it comes at a cost,” Hajek said. “Instead, improve the process to either eliminate the reasons for the exceptions or set up your process with some decision points to accommodate special situations.”
“Not only do managers tolerate variation in process, they often actively encourage it,” Hajek said. “The most common infractions occur in administrative processes when there is a big backlog or a person is going on vacation. The boss looks at the workload and asks the person to clear her desk before the time off starts, or says things like: ‘Do what you can.’ When these situations come up, the manager should provide help. She should never ask people to disregard a process.”
Download your free Process Improvement Playbook: Overcoming the Hurdles of Manual Processes in the Workplace that addresses many of these issues and more.