A powerful way of doing basic process improvement is to map out a process visually and then improve it. In other words, staple yourself (metaphorically, not physically!) to a work item and watch it flow (or not).
Sounds simple but it can be hard to achieve in practice.
I use the term “staple yourself” as it’s easier to imagine and talk about with people who might otherwise be turned off by Value Stream Mapping or Service Design (This process is NOT strictly either of these two, but is closely related in some aspects). I first read about Stapling Yourself to work items in Dave Gray and Sunni Brown’s book Gamestorming (very good book).
The words you use to describe this process will help you succeed or to fail because this activity requires input from everyone who is involved in the process. And if they don’t resonate with how you’re talking about it, it will be harder to get their attention and buy-in.
Trust me, when I stopped referring to everything as process improvement and started talking about how we were going to visualise and staple and work out what the flow looked like, people started resonating.
No matter what you call it though it’s not easy to map out a process and then get improvements made to it. No matter how hard it is though it is an essential activity for management. In fact, it should be one of the primary activities of management ; improving the system.
The work, processes and systems belong to management/execs hence process improvement is a core aspect of being a successful manager. Sure, you may have a team who can do this stuff, but it’s rare. Your job is to show people how to do process improvement, teach them, help them and support them when they embark on their own process improvement.
If you’re not improving the world of work for those under your care, what are you spending your time doing?
The key to a successful improvement activity is understanding where you currently are with the process – and to work this out with everyone else who is involved.
Here’s a few thoughts on how to do it:
Get the right people in the room
The mapping of processes requires knowledge which comes from studying, and the best people to provide that knowledge are the very people who are working within the process itself.
They usually know what the problems are and what needs to be done to improve it. So they must be in the sessions with you. Give them a heads up before the meeting and ask them to bring data and insights with them about their own work.
You should also encourage them to study any gaps they have. Studying brings knowledge. There are many ways to study but knowledge can only be gained by studying.
You’ll need a large room with a big wall and plenty of post it notes and index cards (plus sticky tack). Food is also welcome and makes the session go better.
Book at least 1.5 hours depending on how complicated the process is. Typically you’ll need a few of these sessions but for the first one keep it simple and short. In my experience you’ll likely be missing someone who has deep insights from this first meeting so don’t make it too long. If you don’t have all of the right people in the room then you’ll likely find you have incomplete information and may have to run another session.
In my experience everyone who interacts with the process will have a different opinion of the whole process. They will likely know their stuff but their view of the bigger picture is often not accurate.
Involve management too as they are they have responsibility for this (although they may not believe it or agree with you) and they also need to sponsor the subsequent improvements which may take people away from their current plans.
Start stapling yourself to the process
This is where you take the work items/project deliverable/people or whatever it is that flows through your process and you staple yourself to that item.
Literally think of yourself as being stapled to the item. Follow it through the process as it flows (or doesn’t) and record on a post-it or index card every single interaction. It doesn’t matter how small that interaction is you want to record it.
Ideally you’ll track “does take” time – i.e. the exact amount of time it takes to flow through the system or how long work gets stuck in various stages. You may need to capture the “does take” time across a number of examples as that time is likely to vary heavily. In fact, variety of work is something we’re trying to capture so we can work out what is unusual with the flow of work, and what is just normal variation.
You’d be surprised at how often managers embark on process improvement initiatives around every-day variation. They are too quick to react rather than studying the trends (reacting to customer complaints and bugs with re-planning, team changes and giant process leaps).
So map as many interactions as you can as they may all flow in different ways and take different amount of times to complete.
As an example, imagine yourself stapled to a new customer joining your company. Make a note of every single interaction you or your customers go through as they join your business.
- What does the process look like?
- Who do they interact with?
- How long does it take?
- Are there any bottlenecks?
- Does the process fall over at any point?
- What alternative paths through the process are there?
- After on-boarding does the customer have any further steps, escalations or interactions?
Note down everything and map it across the wall or board (or digital tool) as it flows. I like to work left to right, do what makes sense for you.
The goal is to have an end to end mapped process of everything that happens. Don’t map what you believe the process should look like, or what you want the process to look like. Map what it does look like, no matter how gnarly.
Including the “does take” time is a game changer as this will show you where the customer is spending the most amount of time, and it might be eye-opening.
Another example would be your software release process. In fact, I’ve included a handy little example of a release process at the end of this post.
Everyone in the meeting needs to be involved. You need them to buy into the process, be involved in coming up with ways to make it better and then contribute to making the changes happen.
The very people in the process will know what is rubbish, annoying or problematic with it. They will also have plenty of ideas on how to improve it. Many of these ideas, when mashed together with other people’s, will be the very initiatives to improve the process. Not all ideas will be useful or accurate, but they should all be welcome.
It’s super important to visualise it. Being able to see the process visually represented is powerful.
You often realise quite how big and complicated a process is when it is visualised. It’s also a powerful way of engaging others in the business. A load of words, numbers and diagrams may work, but a picture of the process will be more powerful. Hence using index/post-its and mapping it left to right.
There is something really compelling about seeing what should be a simple process mapped with lots of hand-offs and interactions.
This visual representation is also a powerful lever to pull with managers and senior execs who may have never seen what is involved in delivering to your customers.
I like to work through the process and visualise it as a series of major steps in the process running left to right using index cards, and then running down from each major step are the smaller tasks that make up that process, like the image above.
Study it and gain knowledge
Spend some time studying what you have mapped.
Look for patterns, gaps, duplicate steps, bottlenecks, activities that rely on just a single person (single point of failure) and long wait times. These will all lead you to spotting ways to improve the process, or at least interesting points to discuss as a team.
Spend time discussing steps that stand out. Get the opinions of everyone in the room about where they think the problems are and why. Encourage open discussions about where things are not as good as they could be.
Don’t forget to focus on what is going well. You may find there are no obvious improvements at all – I’ve never seen this happen! But focus on the good stuff too – focus on what works and see if you can copy what works in one part to the other parts of the process.
Now spend some time drawing or designing what you want your future state to look like. What does Utopia for this process look like?
Align it next to your current state and see how they differ. What needs to change?
The gap between what you currently do and what you should do can be a helpful catalyst and visual guide for how to improve. It may make you cry.
Document, communicate and manage the change
This step is the hardest. Most people do the hard work of stapling themselves and mapping, but then don’t follow through to make the improvements. It is hard though and often requires cross team cooperation – which is sometimes not forthcoming for a variety of reasons.
The first step is to document your work. Take a photo of the mapping and store it in your wiki or intranet. Add the context from the discussions, who was involved, where, when etc etc. This gives you more information to support the changes you need to make and to jog your memory should the improvements get sidelined by other busy work.
Communicate your summary and visuals to everyone who was in the session. Ask them to add to it, delete it and correct anything. This way you get alignment and a chance for everyone to ensure they’re on the same wave length as you.
Communicate it to the wider business. Ask for input, comments and questions. The chances are someone else in the business will have an opinion or even be involved directly in the process. It’s not easy getting all of the right people in the room 🙂
Be careful with opinions with no data or knowledge to back it up though – everyone has opinions – very few are backed by knowledge. And be careful about big group consensus – it can be painful and not very helpful.
Create a plan for change. How you plan and execute is up to you, but as I believe in an agile approach to work, I would suggest you chalk up a high level plan, a reason for the change and some suitable measures against this purpose. Then iterate through the plans and tasks with regular measures, feedback, learning and short sprints of achievable work.
Go smoothly though – it can be quite tempting to go flat out and try and change the world but you may be going more sporadically than your business, team or processes can realistically go. Smooth and methodical and well measured changes are important. You’ll know what makes a positive difference if you do it carefully. Changing too many aspects of the process can lead to confusion over what worked and what didn’t.
Often when you change a process you are changing the way people work. This can require calm, clear communication, a concrete vision and suitable coaching/training – going smoothly through the process improvements can be very helpful in these circumstances.
Remember that change is fine and welcome for most people if they themselves don’t have to change. If people have to change you may face resistance, a lack of cooperation and slow progress.
A word of caution. Always try to work on making the process effective first before making it efficient. It can be easy to try and make everything efficient – but being efficient at doing something wrong doesn’t make sense.
- Get the right people in the room
- Use the right language to resonate and generate engagement
- Staple yourself to a work item and map it
- Visually map it out
- Gather people around it for discussions, including management and executives
- Design Utopia
- Put a plan together
- Adapt and iterate furiously to make the improvements
- Be careful of change – do it methodically and with clarity
As promised, here is a simple example of a release process being mapped out.
If you need help with change in your organisation then don’t hesitate to get in touch.