The Oft-Missing Component in Process Improvement

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Dan Morris

Most of us involved in business process transformation and business operation improvement start with the creation of an understanding of what is done today. Some look at why each activity (or at a lower level, each step) is needed – what value does it add? That tells us what is done and why.

Some of us take the next step and look at way the work is performed, looking for unneeded steps or the root causes of problems. In my mind, good process analysts do both these analyses.

But many business designers stop there. I suggest that another type of analysis should be added to these two. How many of us look at the way people actually work – not just what they do or how they do it? What I am suggesting even goes beyond the traditional boundaries of Change Management.

People are the key to making any process work. Technology can help reduce the workload and take care of things with little variability, but sooner or later we need people to make things work. That is a fact. But I find that many business designers don’t factor people’s needs and workload reality into their designs. They simply look at the numbers and then try to reduce them. Good for robots, bad for people.

The fact is that people have physical and psychological limits. Push too far and you hit a breaking point. Threaten too much (yes, some managers still try to bully their way to success) and staff quietly rebel. In both cases people’s productivity starts on a downward spiral. That is human nature.

But as a business operations designer, we need to learn from this fact. We do need to reduce workload and we do need to expect a lot from people. If properly treated and motivated, they will rise to the challenge.

However, the opposite is also true. When management sets unrealistic goals or cuts staff too deeply, it loses trust and staff support. When this happens, the new design will NOT succeed for long and people will find ways to recodify what they see as unreasonable expectations. And, remember, you cannot fire everyone. If for no other reason, it looks bad for the manager.

That is why a lot of new designs are unrecognizable after a year and the operation more closely resembles what it was before the company spent time and money to "IMPROVE" it. That is also why people’s ways of dealing with the ongoing changes that hit the process every day is to move things back to something they are comfortable with.

This does not mean that new designs need to be a rehash of the old ways. It does mean that you need to be reasonable in what you expect from people, how you treat them, how you train them, and how you get their buy-in. It also means that you need to consider reality when you look at performance. The simple fact is that there are two ways things work in life – the way you want them to and the way they really do.

For example, if a task takes an average of 10 minutes, some simply multiply that by the number of 10 minute increments in the work day and declare that to be the target. This is in the way you want it to work category. The reality is that this is not possible today – if it ever was.

Efficiency fallacy

Many business designers want people to work "heads down" for 8 hours a day. That is "what they are being paid for". OK in theory, but ask these designers if they work that way. The fact is that no one can. This is not because anyone is trying to cheat the company.

Ask yourself a simple question. How many things pull you away from the activities that are central to getting your job done each day? If you are like most people the answer is – a lot of things. The problem is that we all now wear a lot of different hats and once we become ingrained into a corporate work group, we get "how to" and other questions constantly. These demands for attention break our concentration and lines of reasoning causing constant start and stop thinking time.

Then comes reality. People cannot work heads down all day long. No one can concentrate like that and no one can drive themselves like that day after day without quality suffering. Looking at a PC screen all day is actually bad for us. Once again I’ll speak heresy – we all need some time away from staring at computer screens. The one eyed monster gets to us all – it causes eye fatigue, headaches, and concentration lapses as we move from screen to screen and system to system to get the information we need to complete our jobs. Add to this the fact that most companies have mix of new and aging IT systems almost work – but always seem to fail just when you are out of time and need them to work. Consider the target in IT of 99% system availability. The 1% outage is usually not all at one time – it happens for a few minutes or hours here and there across the work days in the month. That is the real problem – on again off again, or start and stop, work causes a lot more of a problem than if the outage happened all at once.

These impediments are simply reality and they need to be considered in all of our process improvement work. Efficiency is a great goal, but it must also be tempered by reality and human frailty. Where it is not, quality will suffer and ultimately efficiency will be lost.

So today we spend time to unofficially decompress around a cup of coffee or just call one another to say hi. This can be overdone, and it needs to be managed, but people are social animals and we need to consider physiology and psychology when we look at productivity and decide what is in the long term best interest of the company and the staff.

Human frailty

I have seen a great many new business operating designs that fail to take the realities of staff fatigue and other human factors into account when looking at performance and how the work will be performed. I personally expect for people to work hard, but I also expect for the activity designs and targets to be realistic – and thus promote success. When this happens people engage in the work and both performance and quality increase.

The fact is that in a lot of ways our management concepts have not kept pace with the realities of the way we work today. The worst case example is the call center. Many of our poorer managers expect people to stay focused and to work like machines. It is the way they are taught. Ever try to keep pace with the punishing schedule that people in call centers must reach – day after day. Heaven help these people. I’d last an hour and then go postal.

There are also operations where management expects people to burn out and leave on a continuing basis. You can find these places easy enough by looking at companies that are constantly hiring for the same position. There is a reason people leave.

My point is that I believe that good staff should be kept. You invest in them and they know their jobs. They also help improve your organization’s quality and your production rates. You need them. You need the creativity and the experience of these workers to deal with the constant changes that hit your business operation.


Too much, too far

I also know that it is very possible to cut too much cost - to go too far. This is the bottom line syndrome. For some managers, for a variety of poor reasons, the only thing that is important is "how much they could cut cost". I can assure you that this is really counterproductive. Why – people again. We can hit reduction targets and in doing so hurt our ability to produce given the realities of interruption, variance in what we are working on, and a need to deal with IT support reality. Yes, a group may be able to produce ten whatever’s an hour in the old design and then based on the need to absorb other people’s work be pulled in so many directions that they can really do 7 an hour after the improvement.

But, the target of staff reduction was hit and the performance numbers suggest that the remaining staff should be able to do the work. Did we succeed? Did the staff start to suddenly be less productive? Or is it possible that we simply forgot to consider the fact that with the addition of different work, the staff will naturally need time to adjust their thinking as they move from one of their jobs to the next – different "hats". They also now have increased mental fatigue and concentration issues. The more staff must switch these internal "job" hats each day, the greater the disruption and the more time it will take to do each job.

The fact is that improvement is often a tradeoff between different factors. What do you need staff to focus on? What do you need for them to get done? Understanding this definition is important in looking at any business operation, setting staff work expectations, defining performance, and in streamlining the activity.

The fact is that here again, there are limits beyond which performance, quality, and ultimately cost suffers. In any new design, these limits and the trade-offs that drive them should be carefully considered.

Process is important – but people make it work

I am from a different time than many of my readers. I can recall when we all believed that the computer was the invention that would free us all up to a more leisurely work pace. It was a revolution in business that would benefit us all and give us all more free time to be with friends and family. But, as we all know that is not what happened. As things became automated the workload didn’t decrease – we were all expected to do more. Then came the era of efficiency where we were all told to meet some industry standard that was sold as the way everyone should do a given job – industry best practices. Forget that every company and workforce is inherently unique.

We now also realize that we were really not looking at the work in the right way. This is the result of the organization vs. process debate. While both are needed, they represent different operational needs – managing people vs. managing the work that is needed to deliver outcomes or products. So we moved from an organization view to a process view for efficiency and quality improvement. We then learned to redesign problems and inefficiency out of processes to improve performance and quality. Through Lean Six Sigma we then learned to improve on an ongoing basis to adjust to constant change. But to a large degree, as we moved through this evolution, many missed the underlying foundation of all work – people. Enter Change Management and concern for acceptance of change. However, this acceptance is still different than recognizing the reality of how people can work and what we need to do as managers to keep them working at maximum efficiency.

Most of our more enlightened business designers now accept that one size performance targets do not fit all and that what happens in any given operation is due to a vast combination of factors that we summarize as culture. Many now also know that culture can be changed, but the changes will not be accepted if they do not consider the realities of human physiology and psychology.

We need to learn to thrive in this new world

But we live in this new world and we need to find a way to thrive in it. That is where staff task focus comes in. We can seldom stay on task for very long. When business designers ignore that fact and go strictly by financials and "industry best practices", they experience issues with productivity and with quality that can cause serious harm.

A wise man once said in prioritizing your work "do that which is most important first". Simple but profound! How many times each day do you stray away from this simple principle? We all get pulled in multiple directions at once and it is easy to be trying to work on five or more things at once. That is where process design and realistic performance expectation come in. I believe that if we expect a lot, but define "a lot" in realistic terms; we can improve morale, quality, throughput and customer service. People will try to succeed, but if they find they can’t, they give up and efficiency, effectiveness, and performance suffer.

We need to recognize that each department in any company is different – in terms of workforce, technology, support, and the list goes on. Efficiency level is thus not a universal standard that can just be applied to all industries or all companies in a given industry. It cannot even really be applied to people at different locations in the same company. Each is different in many ways. Companies have different environments, different application systems, different levels of automation quality, different values, different levels of morale, and more. The distractions that must be considered are both cultural and related to the need to get away from the "one eyed monsters" – the PCs.

For this reason I believe that the true measure of improvement success must be based on trends in a group, not single point in time comparisons against old benchmarks or industry best practices. Your environment is unique and determines your performance foundation. That is your baseline. Improvement against the baseline is the real target of business redesign and then continuous improvement.

Being effective – not just efficient

The important issue here is that people are not machines. Any look at efficiency must recognize this and set up an environment that helps people stay on task and helps them stay productive. This requirement should be a core consideration in any process redesign. You must consider people and not simply workflow or work streamlining.

When viewed through the lens of effectiveness and not simply efficiency we can focus on defining the core activities in a given job – the ones that must take place or there is no product, service, or real output. These are the things we need to focus on. These are the things we need to find ways to "stay on task" and get done. These are also the things we need to track and check for quality.

This gets back to human nature, physical endurance, and focus. It also gets to morale and loyalty and a lot of issues related to people. For example, have you ever thought about why "5 Hour Energy" is a big seller and that you can often find it in company cafeterias and snack shops? How can we focus and how can we do our work well when we have to be drugged to stay awake. Maybe we look at PC screens too much. Maybe the work is repetitive and we need to factor enough down time for people to remain productive and efficient. For those of us involved in business transformation and general improvement, these issues must become a part of any new design and any IT solution.


Staying on task and focusing on the critical core work of any job is the real goal of performance and quality improvement. These things either allow quality and efficiency to happen or they impede it.

The reason I am writing this column is that I seldom see people considering people, human nature, or a need to help people focus and stay on task. Few business designs try to avoid the constant bombardment of things that want their share of "attention time". Anything that can be done to simplify work, make it interesting, and make it rewarding, will help people stay on task.

Anything that can be done to streamline work and divide core work from work that adds little value – will also help. When you can combine the two – staying on task with a focus on core work – you cannot help but to improve both effectiveness and efficiency. When you add in the things that make a job people friendly and when management’s attitude recognizes that while heads down drudgery work may look good to some, it hampers real productivity, throughput, and quality, you can really start to make any change both accepted and lasting.

As always I welcome your comments. Please email me at or call me at 630-290-4858.