Passion, innovation and the "perfect storm": 3 takeaways from PEX Week Europe

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Process and passion are two words that you don’t often hear together. For many, process conjures up the image of arcane diagrams with lots of boxes and arrows, pointy headed statisticians creating fancy looking but unintelligible graphs and a dry, methodical way of working that makes life predictable but dull.

However, that image doesn’t tally with the process professionals attending PEX Week Europe (PEX Network’s annual European conference ) earlier this week. Besides being some of the most passionate people about their jobs that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, they really understand how their work can make work easier and more enjoyable for other employees while at the same time creating more efficient and profitable businesses.

But how are they doing it and how can they do it better? Here are the three things I came away with from PEX Week Europe:

#1: Getting people passionate and excited about process improvement is a fundamental part of the job

In his humorous romp through what it was like to work with music mogul Simon Cowell and newspaper boss Rupert Murdoch, Ellis Watson, CEO of Scottish Media Group DC Thomson said that process people were probably among the most important and yet least well understood people within our organizations today. "You’re all so very smart," he explained. "Your challenge is to explain what you’re doing to idiots like me!" (For a fuller description of Watson’s talk read a full summary here).

Watson is no stranger to business transformation and the importance of effective processes. He took over ailing transport firm Greyhound bus, which was losing market share to internal airlines. Within just over a year he had made fundamental changes to the firm’s fleet and culture that has led to significant improvements in the firm’s reputation and brand.

Meanwhile, during his time at DC Thompson, a traditional family-run firm, Watson has had to revive a publishing business struggling to deal with the realities of an industry being completely reshaped by digital technology. He has overseen a cut in the number of staff, increased turnover, and championed the move to digital offerings.

He underscored that what has been central to successful business transformation is ensuring that you have the right people in the room who are passionate about what they do. "Negativity spreads like cancer," he observes.

For process professionals, he says, that means it’s your job to get people excited about process excellence. He cautioned against overzealous process standardization that zaps all the life out of people. "You can map all the processes you want," he said. "But do your people want to actually want to do things better and faster?"

#2: Too much process can stifle innovation – need to balance standards and process with space to innovate

The ability to innovate and respond to changing market conditions was seen by many as growing in importance. Companies have widely recognized the need to rapidly evolve products and services as the combined effects of technological advances, tight economy, and rapidly changing consumer preferences creates an environment where products and services quickly become yesterday’s new. Trends are measured in weeks and months rather than years.

The phrase "agile innovation" came up several times throughout the conference. The concept has been around for a number of years now; the blog for Innovation Excellence explains that "the loss of the long development cycle and long product life cycle means that firms must shift their strategies from long, arduous research and development cycles to more rapid understanding of customer needs and delivery of new products and services."

For process professionals this means balancing the need to have stable, standard processes while enabling both the space for employees to innovate and helping the business to rapidly bring to market new products and services.

Well-defined processes are still key to this rapid response and change. A panel discussion with John Macdonald, Global Manager Business Process Excellence, TNT Express, Rajan Nagarajan, Vice President- Business Process Excellence, Kraft Food and Nikolai Bozhilov, Executive Chairman, Unimasters Logistics on understanding your customer’s customer pointed out: if you don't have your processes well defined - how can you be quick, responsive and agile?

But as Ian Worley, Executive Director, ISGT at Morgan Stanley, suggested, it’s important to create the space for people to come up with something new. Worley also discussed how it is important to frame problems in such a way that people have the space to come up with new ideas.

He illustrated this with an exercise: "Draw me a vase," he told half of the room. The other half of the room he told to "draw an object for the purpose of displaying flowers."

His point was that the side of the room he instructed to simply draw a vase probably converged on very similar answers – nothing new or revolutionary to be expected there. Meanwhile, the side of the room that was told to draw an object for displaying flowers had much more freedom to come up with a new idea that could lead to a breakthrough development or an entirely new way of doing things (albeit, in this example, in the rather arcane world of flower displays).

#3: Being customer centric goes far beyond products and services - customers now want experiences

Darren Johnson, Chief Growth Officer at Kodak (one of the coolest job titles I’ve seen - it basically means he’s got his fingers in everything that can enable growth of the company – from innovation through to processes) talks about the "perfect storm" that is impacting the retail businesses but his talk could have referred to any industry. Composed of a multitude of factors - recession, new digital business models disrupting traditional businesses, mobility, social platforms, pricing transparency, peer review – this perfect storm is creating a whole new way that companies need to interact with their customers.

Customers no longer just want exceptional products and services they also want exceptional experiences. Johnson cites the example of retailers who, in order to compete with online shopping, are now making their stores destinations that people want to visit.

Rajan Nagaran, Vice President- Business Process Excellence at Kraft Food, picked up on a similar theme during a panel discussion on Wednesday morning where he talked about the experience of forgetting his wallet on Singapore airlines. He rang the airline and the girl on the end of the line very quickly was able to find out that his wallet had been found and she was able to get it on the next flight out to Los Angeles for him. Something that had the potential to be a very negative experience was transformed into an impressive example of how to treat your customers. If only other airlines would follow suit…

Did you attend PEX Week Europe? What were your takeaways from the conference?