I sent out a process by e-mail…why isn’t anybody following it? (transcript)

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Amy Jones

Alstom's Supply Chain Director on avoiding communication breakdowns in processes

Making sure that everyone involved in a process has the right information at the right time is critical to making sure that a process runs efficiently and effectively. But in our quest to make processes efficient, can we sometimes make them less effective by stripping out critical communication points?

In this Process Perspectives podcast, Amy Jones, Supply Chain Director for the Thermal Service Generators Product Line at Alstom Power, says that communication needs to be built right into our processes – even if it might seem like it's adding an extra step or slightly longer processing time as it will make the process overall more effective. Here's why and how you can do it.

Editor’s note: this is a transcript of a recent podcast and has been edited for readability. To listen to the original podcast, click here.

PEX Network: We often think about processes as incredibly complex things iwth lots of moving parts, papers, logistics as well as lots of things that can go wrong. Yet when it comes down to it, many people say processes would really be easy without the people. You can design the perfect process, but if you haven’t thought about the people who really need to carry it out, you’re not likely going to see the gains you were expecting. Is this something that you’ve encountered in your work?

Amy Jones: People are the most important aspect of the process, so a process which doesn’t consider people is unlikely to work. You can think of it a little bit like an orchestra: if the sheet music or the tune that the orchestra are playing represents the process, you need all the people with their skills and experience in order to make it sound really good. Also, if the music demands violin players, for example, but you don’t have any violinists then it’s not going to work out how you planned. So I think, you know, you have to design your processes around the people.

PEX Network: So have you found that either a communication breakdown or perhaps a lack of communication is often the root of problems when it comes to getting the rest of the business both excited and bought into process excellence?

Amy Jones: Yes. Funnily enough, I have heard process owners say that they’ve sent out a process by email a couple of years ago, and they couldn’t quite understand why the process wasn’t being followed!

When you’re designing the process, it’s important to bring the people along who are going to have to work with the process because then they have a full understanding of what it means and what the important aspects are. But also, beyond that, in terms of communicating the process, I think regular training is required.

Finally, I’ve found it very effective to build in communication within the process itself. These could be thinking through things like decision meetings or people who need to be informed at certain points in the process. We’re always looking to find the fastest way of doing things - which is good because sometimes you find the fastest way of doing things - but often this means that communication can be taken out of the process.

So somebody who maybe doesn’t fully understand the process might think that they can skip a decision meeting because it will save an hour and they can just send it by email. But they find down the road that the process is not as effective because they didn’t have the buy-in of the right people or their knowledge or their experience at the right time.

This habit of trying to find the fastest way is actually quite well described in the book Thinking Fast And Slow. It’s written by Daniel Kahneman, who’s a Nobel Prize winner in economics, and I would recommend it because it’s got some exercises in it that proves to you that nobody’s immune to this type of thinking. It it makes you really aware of what you need to bring to your own processes to ensure that people understand why it’s important to communicate in the process.

PEX Network: I think that’s a really interesting point, particularly the point around e-mail. People do have a tendency send an e-mail and believe the message has been received. But actually it doesn’t always work that way so building communication into the process must be very important.

Amy Jones: Yes, I talking to one of our directors last week, and she was saying that she does not consider email an adequate form of communication because if it’s more than five lines long, it requires a discussion.

PEX Network: And people probably aren’t reading it?

Amy Jones: Yes, or reading it, but not getting the full understanding of what’s required of them or of things that are hidden and aren’t even written in the email.

PEX Network: So what kind of problems would you typically see in an organisation that isn’t communicating well about process excellence?

Amy Jones: When process excellence is on the agenda, it’s higher up in people’s minds as an important subject. But if it’s not on the agenda, then you have the risk that people are really not engaged with the processes that they are responsible to run or contribute to. This can lead to processes being ignored or not carried out as they should be. Obviously that can have financial and economic loss to a company.

So I think that when we talk about process excellence, it needs to involve a mindset of continuous improvement. It’s important that we bring the tools such as Six Sigma and Green Belt Projects to the people in the organization so that they have the best possibility of implementing the processes, involving the people and keeping the improvements going.

PEX Network: You’ve worked at a number of different companies – Alstom, Rolls Royce, Zurich Financial and several others – what kind of things do you think that process professionals need to do to really focus on engaging staff in process excellence?

Amy Jones: I’ve been very fortunate to work in some really good companies where processes are very important due to the size and complexity of the business. When I was first starting out in Rolls Royce, the clear processes which you would require from an aerospace company gave me really clear signposts and inputs about how to do the job correctly, which was a useful start as I didn’t have experience to rely on to know intrinsically myself.

Then as I progressed, I had increasingly become the process owner and was responsible for the design and implementation of processes in our business. In these roles the processes helped me develop and communicate a standardized approach in my teams which everybody can relate to and work in the same direction and understand what we’re trying to achieve. I think what’s very important is keeping the stakeholders involved. That’s also an opportunity to involve people, engage people, because you can collect their feedback and implement it into the next revision of the process.

PEX Network: Can you give me a specific example of something that you’ve done?

Amy Jones: I’ve worked most of my career in supply chains. A process I’ve been working quite extensively on is the process that we use for supply selection and product qualification. Often with our complex components we have a process of product qualification, but upstream of that we need to select the right supplier.

I originally had the target to reduce the time taken from starting a new sorting action to developing and qualifying the supplier that was used for new components. The original aim was to reduce the time taken from start to finish, and I used a Green Belt Six Sigma Project to do this. But by using this structured approach I actually identified a lot more areas which could benefit from modification of the process.

So for example, when I changed the process of selecting the suppliers from using email to having the decision meeting with all the stakeholders, not only did it speed up the process but it also meant that we were able to ensure that we were considering the total cost of the supply chain. That meant the qualification cost, import/export duties, shipment costs, other risks or benefits related to the component or supplier, as well as taking into account the experience from the technical and commercial team members.

In improving this process, we also introduced guideline agendas and listed participants in the key stages of the process, which acts as a check and for people when they’re doing the process, but also support for the new or less experienced team members

Just recently, using the same process, I’ve been able to save quite some budget on a product qualification, because we’ve involved other related product lines in the selection of new suppliers for certain components. This means we’ve been able to share the cost of product qualification. Im very happy about that and later, of course, this approach means that it will have the volume effect with the supplier that we’re using together, and we should both have a better price level eventually. All of these benefits do rely heavily on communicating at the right time with the right people and with the required information. All this can be designed into a process.

PEX Network: Finally, what would be your top piece of advice for others?

Amy Jones: I’ll keep this one short: I would say it’s very important to include the stakeholders throughout the process. That means the people giving the input, the people doing the process, and of course the customer - those who receive the output. Then, I would say, build in communication to the process with decision meetings, reviews, defined agendas and participants. And finally, be prepared to continually improve and challenge your process based on the input of those who are working with it.