5 things we learned at PEX Week USA

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There were over 600 people at PEX Week USA, our annual North American cross industry conference. Highlights this year included our first ever archaeologically-themed keynote address, the reproduction of a Fiji beach resort replete with one speaker making his points while acting as a bar tender (no, really!), and some new concepts like the "Process of Everything", "Continuous Innovation" and "Transcendence".  It also sparked the top quote of the event (credit to DuPont’s Don Linsenmann): "what happens in vagueness, stays in vagueness."


 Just one of the great presenters at PEX Week USA (TD Bank's Leslie Benhke on stage)

This was in addition to dozens of other wonderful and inspiring presentations by process practitioners in industries as diverse as healthcare, financial services, manufacturing and even law (with the world’s first Six Sigma law  firm presenting on what they’ve done and why the industry is ripe for change).

But, of course, away from the razzle dazzle, there were serious themes. Here’s a few of our takeaways:

#1: Put people first

We must sound like a broken record here but it’s the lesson that keeps coming through again and again. You can change processes all you like, but you need first to start with engaging your people and changing the culture. As Catalent’s VP Global Operations, Sridhar Krishnan put it in his keynote address: "culture eats strategy for lunch everyday." 

Krishnan emphasized that continuous improvement isn’t about toolsets as he shared his organization’s mantra for success: "Set clear expectations, create the environment to succeed and drive accountability."

As conference attendee @harrisonwithers poignantly observed (via twitter) "if you don't build people you still get results, just not good ones."

#2: Focus on business outcomes, not tools

Don’t get bogged down in arcane debate over which toolset or methodology is better. Are you still deciding whether you should be a Lean, a Six Sigma, or a BPM organization? Don’t. The world has moved on and you can take the best of each of these proven business methodologies and apply them to produce the business outcomes you want.

DuPont’s Don Linsenmann, dressed in full Indiana Jones regalia, called this "Umbrella Wars" as he took the audience on a whirlwind tour of the "cave" of process excellence.  He stressed the importance of "transcendence" – overcoming – in both the focus of process excellence programs (are you worried about the methods or the outcomes?) as well as the conflicts that dog companies.

@lauraboodram tweeted "Inspiring talk on how to focus the business away from conflicts and on to commitment." @harrisonwithers wondered,"1000 years from now what will archaeologists think of our ubiquitous and copious Venn diagrams"?

#3: The customer is the strategy

A business is not a business without customers and today’s customers are more empowered and fickle than ever before.  In the past a company may have been able to differentiate itself on the basis of the widget that it made or a specific service that it provided, now with growing global competition and the transparency (of price and performance) that the internet has brought with it, some of the old rules no longer apply.

Price and customer experience, thus, have become powerful weapons to help companies stand out from the competition. It seems that many business executives are choosing to focus on customer experience rather than price alone. (Afterall, competing on price alone is a bit of risky - who hasn’t experienced customer service so poor that you wouldn’t engage with the company again at any price?). In PEX Network’s executive survey, for instance, over 40% of executives said that "Ensuring Customer Focus" was their top priority in the year ahead. 

That’s driving some key changes in how companies approach process excellence. In his keynote address, David Millen, VP of Smarter Process at IBM says that process excellence is moving from the back office to the front office and that simplifying business operations is a key part of driving this customer focus. He argued that businesses are losing market share because internal complexity is driving customers away.

#4: Expect more "intelligent" processes in the future

The world has data. Lots of data. Yet much of the data underutilized because it’s not in any meaningful form or integrated into the flow of what people to day to day. After all, what good is data if you’re not using to make decisions or inspire action? 

As Jim Sinur, ex Gartner VP and chairman of the conference, put it in his opening speech: "processes are all about action, but we need to increase the intelligence of those processes to recognize patterns".

Pegasystem’s Dr. Setrag Khoshafian and Bruce Williams presented an intriguing vision of the future where data - being generated by both machines and humans – can automatically trigger processes and alert process operators to significant events. It can also give them access to the right information at the right time. 

They call their concept the rather catchy "Process of Everything" (Software AG called a similar concept "Intelligent Business Operations" in their keynote panel discussion on the final day of the event) and while it is definitely one for more mature organizations to embark upon, it’s an enticing perspective on the art of what is possible when you combine new technology, data, process and improvement methodologies (like Lean and Six Sigma) together.

#5: It’s important to know when you need to go beyond mere improvement

As competition heats up and technological disruption means that no company and no industry is left free from the risk of digital upstarts, tweaking of your existing business operations might be akin to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," as consultant and HBR blogger, Brad Power put it.

Power observed that "software is eating the world" and in the face of this rapid digital disruption, companies need to sometimes go beyond continuous improvement and introduce what he calls "continuous innovation."

He looked at how companies such as Google, Amazon, and 3M have moved beyond episodic innovation and have been able to embed it into their management system. His suggestions included creating a separate fund for innovation, starting to define and measures on innovation, building a sense of urgency, among others.

It was a theme that was also picked up by conference chairman Jim Sinur who observed that "companies will be known by the innovation in their processes."

But what about you? Were you at PEX Week USA? What were your key takeaways?