Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Look mom, we do Six Sigma too! - Part 2

In Part 1 of Look Mom, we do Six Sigma too!, I reiterated some of my views on the use and misuse of lean thinking and agile development in business process management projects. I suggested that a standard approach to improving business processes often follows this rather lame approach:
Let's draw a pretty picture of your as-is process, then have everyone collaborate around that to remove the waste. Look mom, we do Six Sigma too!

Practitioners of Six Sigma have pointed out to me the benefits of the 'collaborate' part. I agree that there is a huge benefit in taking workers out of their usual environments for a while, to disconnect from email and daily tasks, and actually think about what it is that they do. Only when a worker is not embedded in the daily grind can he or she start to separate the wheat from the chaff - the valuable activities from the tasks we do 'because we always do it that way'. Despit this, my feeling is that the longer workers are kept in the abstract mode (aka the conference room), the more likely it is that they will also forget the reality of work. The temptation to oversimplify kicks in - 80:20 rules are great, until you get to the point where improving the 80% of common use cases actually prevents you from doing the 20% that are more complex, but often more profitable.

My view is that a short period of time away from real work is a benefit. Workers realize that a change to their working practices is necessary and inevitable; they start to look at what they do differently and can see some of the wasteful practices in a new way; and they get a feeling of ownership for the subsequent, painful changes that will happen to their work tasks.

This is where I would like to propose a different model for improving business processes. Rather than continuing to try and redesign the business processes in a conference room away from where the real work is done, send the workers back to their working lives. In a conference room, when thinking about the pain-points of their work, employees tend to fixate on the most recent and most painful issue they had, or are having, not necessarily the issues that are the most common. What you need is some way of seeing and measuring where the real problems are and a way of seeing what can be done to improve them, within the real context of the work being done. But how can you do this?

Here is how you could go about it:
  1. Put in place a workflow or process automation system that manages the main work process, as it is today.
  2. Ensure the system is flexible enough to handle the many use cases you have not thought about or never knew existed, so that users don't have to revert to email.
  3. Use the system to track the activities that workers perform and who they interact with to get their jobs done. This is not Big Brother spying on users; we are trying to get an accurate and non-judgemental view of the flow of work in reality.
  4. Now use the same system to enhance one part of the process that appears painful. Use the employees involved to understand what is going on, and why they do certain activities. Now agree on a change and implement it immediately.
  5. Go back every so often to see how the change has improved the process, making enhancements and responding to the way workers have adapted to (and possibly found new flaws) in the new way of working.
Doing this, you take the best bits of 'lean' and 'agile' methodologies (reduced waste and 'release early and often') and keep the processes you design real by adapting them within the context of the business. For this to work, you need two things: a software solution that can automate a workflow and make it ready for use within hours; the flexibility to support work that the modelled workflow can not handle directly.

I don't believe that I'm proposing anything particularly radical here. My aim is to reduce the amount of time and effort businesses have to spend on analyzing and improving their business processes, and to provide them results that fit their unique working environment better. As I talked about in Part 1, this approach probably does not fit business processes that can never fail. But if you have processes that need some help urgently because they are less than perfect, taking a new approach to making them better can only help your business, especially if that approach requires the investment of hours, not weeks.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit www.consected.com

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