Process Change – Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

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Jeff Cole

Have you ever been frustrated when trying to change a relatively mundane organizational behavior or improve a simple process? At some point have you stepped back and said "it should be easier than this" ? You’re right - it should! Many times an organization is its own worst enemy when it comes to process change.

When I do Lean Six Sigma and Organizational Change training, I tell students that we live in a PhD-level world of complexity, but many of our problems often reside at a grade school level. Are you seeing any of that? Billy doesn’t work and play well with Susie. Bobby won’t talk to John. Passive-aggressive acts, overt aggression, and general dysfunctional behavior ranging on a spectrum from "Leave it to Beaver" to "Jersey Shore". The frustration of simple things we can never seem to get right because we’re focused on 100 things at once. If you’ve ever looked around your workplace and said "Somebody should do a reality show about this place" – that’s a bad sign.

How prevalent is this? I’ve actually had conversations with folks who are so caught up in their own lingo, systems, 3-letter acronyms, methods, etc. that after a 45-min. explanation from them I can sometimes restate what they’ve just said in two sentences of plain, simple English. Driving process change is hard enough on its own in simple environments. The more complex we make the environment, the harder our job becomes.

We have to be able to brush aside the "fog" of corporate-speak and complexity and get down to the fundamental blocking and tackling of process improvement.

It’s getting the simple tasks right every time that enables stability and excellence. It’s that level where we often lack a focus. People worry about the 30,000-ft direction being correct, but forget the ground level details that make it happen. Organizations that can’t even play their scales right are attempting to play Beethoven. Tom Peters once said something akin to "the most important quality person in your company is the guy on the loading dock who decides not to drop the box he’s loading into the truck".

What can we do? Here are a couple tips for clearing out the fog and getting down to the fundamentals:

#1: Focus and drill down

Remember famous physicist Richard Feynman testifying in the Challenger Space Shuttle hearing? Classic case of a grade-school level problem clouded by an enormous amount of PhD-level politics and complexity. Problem – it was too cold to launch (here’s a photo of the launch pad– remember this was Florida) – and the little O-ring wasn’t certified to work in that temperature range.

Sometimes you need to ignore the fog, focus and drill down to the "O-ring level" in order to find a root cause or change a process. Simple techniques like 5-Whys help. I’ve seen multi-million dollar global sales processes with over 100 steps on the process map brought to their knees over a simple issue – the salespeople didn’t enter the data like they should. Why not? There was no governance to make them do it. One simple little box on that process map was blinking red and broken. Often it’s some small binary moment of truth gone wrong. Our job – focus like a honey badger to find it.

#2: Eliminate "corporate speak"

This one sneaks up on us. After a bit we may not even realize that our speech is saturated with corporate buzz-words. Some may justify this as a "common language" that "facilitates a short-hand way of communicating". Granted, in some cases it does, but boy can this go overboard. It can lead to a really bad disease in which one uses 500 words to describe something where 50 words would have sufficed. There’s something to be said for getting your point across succinctly, clearly, and directly. To do otherwise is akin to cranking up the corporate fog machine. Return those calls and emails, communicate often and clearly, check for understanding, train everyone in the organization on proper listening and communication skills.

#3: Process maps – key control points

If a customer is not getting what they need from a process it’s not often that the entire process is broken. Rather it’s one or more mundane tasks in the process that did not go right. Work on the fundamental blocking and tackling of a process – does the process have an owner? Have measureable customer requirements been established? Has the process been mapped with key control points identified? Are measurable specifications for those control points established, monitored, personnel trained, and closed-loop corrective actions taken? A well-running process can be very boring. But it’s that dependably delivering consistent, on-spec output from every small step along the way that leads to reliable output. You may have a PhD-level process, but quality and change happen at the grammer-school level individual tasks.

#4: Simplify - If something seems complicated, simplify it. 5S the heck out of the organization. Remove clutter both physically and metaphorically. Look at your process maps do a simple exercise. Green-flag the Customer Value-Add steps and Red-Flag any waste or Non-Value Add steps. Yellow-flag the Operational Value-Add steps. Anything with a yellow or red flag is likely open to either being done simpler, faster, a different way, or flat out eliminated from the process. Authors vary in their opinions, but a typical American business process only has 2-10% Customer Value Add. That makes most processes a target-rich environment for simplification and error-proofing!

Real life often tosses us situations like those "story problems" from school that you remember – "if Train A leaves the station at 11:15 and Train B …". It’s up to us to look at the 100 words in that problem, distill out the vital few words that are relevant to the situation, and solve it. The better we get at focusing on the vital details and ignoring the fluff, the faster we can improve. Even better, let’s track down and turn off the fluff-making machine!