A powerful way of doing basic process improvement is to map out a process visually, look for friction and problems, and then remove the friction. Sounds simple right?
In other words, staple yourself (metaphorically, not physically!) to a work item and watch it flow (or not) – then address the issues.
I use the term “staple yourself” as it’s easy to imagine the process of work flowing – and you being stapled to it. It’s also easier to talk about “stapling” with people who are turned off by the very words “process improvement”.
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 in getting people energised around this – because this activity requires input from everyone who is involved in the process. 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 flow work through it, people started resonating.
No matter what you call it though, it’s not easy to map out a process and 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.
If you’re not improving the world of work for those under your care, what are you spending your time doing?
The key to improving the flow of work is understanding where you currently are with the process that the work flows through – and to work this out with everyone who is involved.
Here’s a few thoughts on how to do it:
Get the right people in the room
Stapling 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. No point inviting them along and then springing this on them.
You should also encourage them to study any gaps they have before the meeting. Ask them how work flows through their part of the process and ask them to bring any stories, evidence, data that backs up their conclusions.
It may be possible to literally observe the work as it flows through a process from team to team, but in my experience that becomes tricky due to long wait times, lack of visibility and unstable metrics. In many organisations work travels digitally not physically too – which is tricky to observe, but should be measured.
So it’s best to get those involved together with their own data and staple as a team!
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 you’ll have incomplete information.
In my experience everyone who interacts or works within the process will have a different opinion of the process. They will likely know the part they play in it, have assumptions about what others do, and often very little insight in to the higher level flow. So this session teases that out, but also increases awareness – double points.
Involve managers too as 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 will take people away from their current work plans.
This is where you take the item you are tracking (piece of work, customer case, new customer on the platform, new employee, sale etc) and you map its journey. You staple yourself to it and move it through the process.
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 (spreadsheets can be helpful for the associated metrics) every single interaction. It doesn’t matter how small that interaction is you want to record it.
Let the work item pull you through the process as you log and record every step, interaction, wait, pause and assigned task – all with the data, insights and knowledge of the very people who work within this process.
It’s a ridiculously tough task to do.
Ideally you’ll track “does take” time – i.e. the exact amount of time it takes to flow through the system and the “wait times” – how long work gets stuck at various stages.
You may need to capture these measures across a number of different examples, as that time is likely to vary heavily.
You’d be surprised at how often managers embark on process improvement initiatives around every-day/week/month variation. They are too quick to react to changes in numbers rather than studying the trends (reacting to a (normal) increase in customer cases and bugs with re-planning, team changes and giant process leaps as an example).
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?
- 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?
- What communication is sent between your company and the customer?
- Who is involved in this?
- Where are the wait times?
- How long does the work take to do?
- What are the hand-overs like?
- How much back and forth is going on between teams?
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 visual model/diagram/chart of everything that happens with input from those who do the work.
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 and stress inducing. Your goal is to get knowledge so you can make informed improvements and decisions.
Another example would be your software release process or customer cases. In fact, I’ve included a handy little example of a release process over on my blog (details at the end of this post).
Everyone invited to the meeting needs to be involved – otherwise, why are they there?
You need them to contribute their measures, observations, opinions and facts otherwise you aren’t mapping what actually happens. They will also need to buy into the process, be involved in coming up with ways to make it better and contribute to making the changes happen.
The very people stuck in the middle of the process will know what is rubbish, annoying, frustrating, out of their hands, pointless, worthwhile, valuable or problematic. They will have plenty of ideas on how to improve the process. Many of these ideas, when mashed together with other people’s, will be the very initiatives you need to improve the process. Not all ideas will be useful or accurate though, but they should all be welcome.
Work typically flows between departments and across functions, so you’ll likely hear conflicting ideas of what actually happens. This is why each person who “touches” the item must be present and feeding in what they actually do.
What is documented in the Intranet, identified in a rule book or codified on a plan might not be reality. That’s why it’s so important to map how it actually flows – not how you think it flows.
It’s super important to visualise it. Being able to see the process visually represented is powerful.
You realise quite how big and complicated a process is when it is visualised. It’s also a powerful way of engaging other people from across the business.
A load of words, numbers and diagrams in the Intranet may work in communicating and driving engagement – but it’s unlikely to. A visualisation of the process will be more powerful whether physically in the office (ideal) or via an online tool with chat facilities.
People can gather around it, move things, discuss details, see bottlenecks, drag others over to see it – it’s tactile and in your face. Show the process – warts and all. Only by accepting reality can you realistically change it.
Hence I like to use index cards for the main interactions (running left to right) and post-it notes for tasks, communication and errands within that main interaction (running up and down). But do what works for you – it’s your diagram. Just be sure it’s reasonably self-explanatory for any casual passerby.
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 will likely have no idea about what it takes to deliver for your customers.
Study and gain knowledge
Spend some time studying what you have mapped. Don’t jump to conclusions immediately. Ask questions. Look for patterns, gaps, duplicate steps, bottlenecks, activities that rely on just a single person (single point of failure) and long wait times.
Discuss measures and metrics and feedback from those who receive the end result (customer, product owners, finance, sales etc). 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 dialogue about where things are not as good as they could be. Use facts. If there is no observable evidence then investigate further. Try not to take opinions as fact.
Don’t forget to focus on what is going well too. You may find there are no obvious improvements at all – I’ve never seen this happen! Focus on the good stuff – focus on what works and see if you can replicate what works in one part to somewhere else.
Now spend some time drawing or designing what you want your future state to look like. What does Utopia for this process look like? What would awesome look like? What would make your end customer say “WOW”?
An appreciative inquiry is a good follow up session to tease this out.
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 want to 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 with 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. Store your notes somewhere like a 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 everyone on the same wave length.
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 to attain and may be full of rhetoric and ego driven ideas. Not always helpful.
Create a plan for change. How you plan and execute is all your style; but as I believe in an iterative approach to work. I would 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 from end customers, communication to the business, learning note and ideas, and short sprints of achievable work.
For example – you may have studied the process of on-boarding a new customer to your platform. You stapled yourself to them as they experienced your company’s customer on-boarding process and it made weak and you wonder why anyone would feel good after that.
After mapping the process you and the team decide to set a goal to on-board all new customers within 5 days and ensure they all join with a WOW experience (A worthy goal if ever there was one).
A measure for success may be the elapsed time it takes to onboard them – this might be measured in days and can essentially be a real-time measure. Another measure might be how satisfied the customer is after or during on-boarding (a survey maybe), or whether the customer pays their first invoice, or whether they remain a customer after 3+ months for example.
Lots of measures, some lagging, some real time, some leading.
Slow is smooth, smooth is fast
Go smoothly though – it can be quite tempting to go flat out and try to change the world, but you may be going more quickly than your business, team or processes can realistically go. Smooth, 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 usually fine 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
- Visualise it
- Gather people around it for discussions, including management and executives
- Design Utopia
- Put a plan together
- Adapt and iterate to make the improvements
- Be careful of change – do it methodically and with clarity
And there you have it – a potential way to map and improve a process using the stapling technique and language – I hope it was helpful.
As promised, here is a simple example of a release process mapped out.
Note – This article was previously published on my blog.
Need help improving your agile process, team or path to live? I might be able to help.