Cut 50% of the Steps, Keep 100% of the People
“Simplicity is nature’s first step, and the last of art.” Philip James Bailey
During a recent Continuous Improvement project focused on redesigning business processes for a large, complex, corporate program by over 50%. Did this mean that some people lost their jobs?
No, they kept 100% of the people while making their work lives easier through the artful reimagination of their core business processes.
How did we do this? What should you pay attention to when streamlining your own business processes so that you can eliminate the waste and not the workers? Here are five things I’ve learned over the past 20 years, crystallized for me during this most recent, successful project:
1.To fix the process, involve those who work in the process
You will not be surprised to hear that the people who know the most about any business process are the ones who work in it daily, for years. You may be surprised to know that some organizations expect outsiders, also known as ‘efficiency experts’, to come into their organization to tell them how to fix themselves. We find that the best approach is to bring together a healthy cross section of those who work in the process, from end to end, and engage them in a Design Team to improve their own processes. Even if the result is not ‘perfect’, any improvements will have far more ownership, understanding and effectiveness when it’s put into service.
2.Draw a picture of your preferred future
Before you begin your improvement journey, it’s important to create a picture of your desired destination. Literally. Cover a wall of your office with flipchart paper, give each Design Team member a felt pen, then invite them to draw a picture of the future where all the business process issues are fixed. You will notice some common themes emerge from these diagrams. Talk about these themes and how they connect with a shared future vision, then describe it in writing using no more than one or two sentences. At all costs, avoid wordsmithing this description to death. Have confidence in knowing that your vision is now in the perfect format to effectively guide your redesign work.
3.Find out what’s going right in there
Begin the redesign process by mapping out what currently happens from start to finish. Along the way you will note things that aren’t working well in alignment with your vision. However, you will also note that there are some things that seem to be working well. Identify these ‘good things’. Figure out why they are working well. Then decide how to transfer these successes to other parts of the process. Promoting a cycle of virtuous improvement in this way can help you emerge with a far better process than you started with.
4.Start doing some things that you aren’t
We all like to do a variety of things at work ‘just because’. Ruthlessly hunt down and adjourn these ‘nice to have’ activities. Taken together, these will save you large chunks of time that can be redeployed to activities that allow you to be more proactive to ensure the process is well served by external suppliers and others. Usually, you will find that these proactive things are not being done as well as they should be because your time is absorbed by the fluff. This is an opportunity to redeploy some of the time you have saved inside the process to previously underserved activities outside the process.
5.Take a step back
Usually, because we’re too close to the coal face, it’s hard to take a step back and notice whether we’re actually digging in the right mine or not. Take the time, and screw up the courage, required to ask tough questions like: are we doing the right things, in the right way, for the right people? If the answer is ‘no’, then make sure you shift it to ‘yes’ before you invest even more time and effort in the wrong task.
Finally, and most importantly, is the leadership factor. Senior leaders can help Design Teams get the best results when they lead using these five secrets of success. And in this case, they did an awesome job.
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Richard Eaton is a co-founding partner of Berlineaton and a senior management consultant with over 20 years’ experience facilitating significant and positive culture shifts within large organizations and complex human systems.