The evolving role of the process professional: Interview with Shell’s Philip Sullivan

The tools and methods are important….but don’t forget the people!

In the early days of Six Sigma it was all about the project. Projects were defined, changes were made and attempts were made to sustain the changes following the method’s DMAIC approach. The problem was that it could be difficult to get the business to engage with method and often the control phase fell by the wayside once the project team had exited the stage.

So is there a better way?

Oil giant Shell has been finding success by looking at ways of getting process improvement out of the heads of a few subject matter experts and into the hands of everyone in the business.

"By moving away from project models only and working with the people to look at their work [...] you embed the capabilities and the operational performance management into the way people work," says Phillip Sullivan Senior Consultant, Process Leadership, at Shell. "That sets people up to continually look for improvement opportunities with the process that they're operating."

In this interview, Sullivan offers his advice on enabling that cultural shift about the impact this shift has had on the skills required from process professionals.

PEX Network: Tell me about your role at Shell.

Philip Sullivan: Shell has been working with Six Sigma and, more recently, Lean for about 12 or 13 years. We have many businesses within Shell who have started deployments at different times. A large percentage of Shell’s activity has had some Lean or Lean Sigma activity.

My role sits at the corporate level where there is a group of about ten of us who help the different parts of the business start their journey and deployment. We share the key points of learning from each of those deployments and work with the leadership teams to think through and, subsequently, resource and manage their deployments.

The role in itself is a corporate support role in that sense. However, you have visibility across all of Shell's activities and are involved in a lot of the deployments themselves within Shell's business units. So it is top to bottom and across the organization at all levels. The particular area of support I give is our upstream international business - which excludes the Americas - and I look after Asia Pacific more generally across all Shell’s businesses.

The other piece that's worth mentioning is we spend a lot of time on building and connecting and supporting the community, and making sure that we are bringing in subject matter expertise that meets our needs in terms of capability and experience.

PEX Network: So it's really about getting Lean Six Sigma thinking out into the organisation?

Philip Sullivan: Very much so. And it’s trying to help direct that thinking through the business and the leadership teams rather than through a community of experts and practitioners. I think the big shift in Shell in the last five or six years has been enabling the business line and building capability within those lines through coaching skill.

PEX Network: One of the things that we've been finding in our research about the evolving role of process professionals is that it seems that process professionals themselves are under ever greater pressure to deliver high impact projects in ever shorter timeframes. Is that something that you have been finding is the case within your role?

Philip Sullivan: It's not the case in my role, but I do recognise the point. Lean and Sigma over the years has proven to be one of the few things that drive operational excellence in businesses. But, I think, the competitive pressure out there means that you're looking for significant returns on the investment.

Within Shell we started out broadly with the [Six Sigma] structures and project-based delivery. In the early days those projects were tied to large ticket value drivers. But, practically those get harder to deliver, so we have moved to focusing on looking at the underlying business metrics and at how the work we do align, so that the real accountability and pressure stays with the business line. We are finding that helping this way delivers more.

Of course, line accountability and not having separate project metrics doesn't excuse process professionals in any shape or form, but it directs how they support the business. So, within Shell, it's not really about project delivery and value justification - although we do have tracking systems in some areas and we do measure the impact that we have. We tend to measure that impact more and more through the actual work that our people are supporting and the process output indicators they effect; whether that is minutes saved per activity or barrels produced.

PEX Network: That is interesting because one of the other trends that we see is that companies are moving away from the structured, rigid deployments of Lean and Six Sigma, and moving much more to trying to embed the way of thinking within the business itself. Rather than almost forcing it on the business, it's working with the business. That sounds very much like what's going on at Shell. What do you think is behind that shift?

Philip Sullivan: Ultimately, it's about accountability for delivery, which is very difficult to remove from the line. I think in Shell we are recognising that. Therefore, you have to look at how you deploy the tools and methods within either Lean or Six Sigma through the line and build capability. Ultimately, the line wants to build that capability and they want to approach operational excellence and process excellence.

In the early days, so to speak, there was more scepticism and it was seen as something being done to people, but as it gets harder and harder to deliver performance in a very competitive marketplace, I think people come together and you recognise you've got problems to help each other with.

PEX Network: If there was one thing that you'd say you've learned as you've gone through this process, what would you say it actually really takes to embed this capability into the business?

Philip Sullivan: I think the best way to describe it is the business will go on and there will be daily activity that drives performance. Historically, when we started we very much used a project approach. Projects typically end up being on top of the day job. They take time and often they're not synchronised with that daily activity. So, as you deliver those projects and you walk away, the project team celebrate and the business is left to cope with the change.

The consequence is that they tend to revert to their old ways and you very quickly lose benefits any sense of sustainability. By moving away from project models only and working with the people to look at their work, to help them to understand how their work contributes to the output of that process and then helping to establish visual management and standard work to run their processes you build their capabilities around managing that process, which is something we call Leader Standard Work.

In short, you coach people and help them embed the capabilities and the operational performance management into their work. That sets people up to continually look for improvement opportunities with the process that they're operating, and that I think is a fundamental shift.

I think there will always be a role for projects and they do, at times, need additional support and do need to be done as projects. But I think fundamentally our balance is shifting much more to building a capability for people to operate with a continuous improvement model, to make small improvements on a very high frequency basis.

Small improvements are great. You can undo them if they don't work, you can capture them and embed them in your standard work if they do. And you tend to make more progress. Large projects tend to go much more slowly than people would like, they tend to be resource intensive and they tend to have low yield rates after three to six months.

So I think you need them, but I think we're looking and working much more closely on helping people to run their day job more effectively. One caveat is that once you have a stable process it is usually easier to do projects because the improvement fits into this way or working you have established. Doing projects on top of chaotic activity really leads to stable improved outcomes.

PEX Network: You're effectively becoming a coach rather than a teacher, in a sense.

Philip Sullivan: Very much, and it's something that people don't discriminate between knowledge transfer and enabling people. People seem to have practices and ways of working, and just by giving them new information doesn't mean to say they will shift away from how they're operating today to this new way. What coaching does is it allows you to be present in that situation as it changes for the team and for the individuals. That presence allows you to make interventions when it's appropriate. And that's the piece that allows people to stop doing what they did before and start doing the new stuff in a consistent way.

PEX Network: How has all this impacted on the role and the work that process professionals do?

Philip Sullivan: I think, for a start, it's creating a shift towards more empathy from the process professionals. It's not only about tools and technology and systems and approach, it's very much about change management and being able to form effective relationships, particularly through coaching with people. And I don't mean by that coaching from a DMAIC tollgate point of view, but very much through coaching people to learn and embed the skills within in their work. That harks back very much to Lean, as you'll find in the Toyota Production System type thinking.

So I think that's one of the big shifts we're seeing. And not everybody within the improvement process professional space has that orientation. You still find people who have a strong preference for tools and method and structure - and there's still a place for that. However, more and more emphasis is on people that can create empathy, can create trust and can be valued for the coaching capability they bring. This is as important at a leadership level as it is with those doing the work the customer pays for.

Process professionals are also keeping their own ‘presence’ less present in the delivery so that you're really seen as supporting and enabling the line to deliver.

PEX Network: What do you think on a day to day basis that means that process professionals really need to do differently in order to deliver that greater value to the organisation?

Philip Sullivan: I think a lot of that is about pushing to the back of their minds their skills and capabilities and their skill as a professional, and focusing on how you see the work through the audience you're trying to help. And what that means is, as you remove ‘yourself’ (which is the way that we historically articulate our value as professionals) from the picture, you then become more empathetic.

The other big shift is learning to question in a Socratic way (as in Socrates the Greek philosopher) as a primary means of enquiry and supporting people. By using questioning you do two things: first, you don't spend so much time talking yourself and, second, you can use that questioning style to actually drive self-discovery in the individual or group.

This is really a shift from a training, educational subject matter expertise role into a role where you are really enabling people to learn and then you become a vehicle or a repository of information that can be drawn upon. I think that's what we're seeing as the big shift in people's daily lives, and that skill takes time. It takes practice, and it takes a shift in the way that you're oriented towards process improvement work.

PEX Network: My final question is what are your top tips on actually achieving that mind-set and developing that skill set? What are your top tips for other process professionals?

Philip Sullivan: There's a lovely piece of work called The Trust Equation,captured in a book called The Trusted Advisor by David Maister and colleagues. In that it talks about your ability to form a relationship that involves trust and your ability to leverage that to create change. The top line talks about your credibility, your reliability and the intimacy of that relationship. On the bottom line, it’s about your own self-orientation, i.e. "what's in it for me".

As you think about these from a numerator and denominator point of view, as you increase your reliability, credibility and intimacy. You increase trust. And as you decrease your self-orientation, or what's in it for me, or how important I am - it depends whether you want to reflect that - and make your focus much more enabling the business outcome and the business performance improvement, you increase trust because you're seen as somebody who is helping the business.

I think this way of thinking about relationships helps you to become present in a coaching environment or in a performance improvement environment, in a way that people are ready to receive your help in a different way and that removes barriers. Once you start to ask questions and learn to listen in a very active way, where you really deeply seek to understand what people are trying to say and then build from there, then you've opened doors. And that opening of doors allows you to really help people in ways that perhaps a lot of our colleagues haven't done before.