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). Improve your work by stapling yourself to it

Sounds simple but it can be hard to achieve in practice.

Why not watch the video, or read on below



Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🇬🇧 on Unsplash

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).

Some samples

An example Trello board is here for you.

A PDF example is here

A .docx example for you to mash around is here

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, is started resonating with people.

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 improve processes.

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 simply staple yourself to work items.

Step1 – Choose your work items to staple yourself to

Metaphorically observe a new piece of work coming in to your “system” and staple yourself to it.

Join it on its journey through your system and process.

Map out on a wall all of the different stages that the work moves through.

Every distinct stage is a new index card for example.

Right now we want to map out the high level stages.

If you can’t do this in person (lockdown), then do this remotely and use a tool such as Trello to map it.

Screenshot showing a process mapped out in Trello

An example Trello board is here for you.

How long does it take?

At this point you also want to be capturing the “Does Take’ time. This is the time it actually does take to complete the work.

Not how long we think it takes, or how long we want it to take, but how long it actually takes.

Across the whole process we also want to know the overall length of time.

Human work days seems like a good measure to use – because we can easily convert this to costs / profit.

Step 2 – Gather the people

Once you’ve mapped out each stage the work goes through, you should gather together the people from each stage.

Don’t gather everyone together from across all of the stages, that will be too many people for the level of deep dive you’re doing here.

Instead, if the work passes through 10 stages, and they are all distinct from each other, then gather 10 groups of people together separately.

Show them the whole process, invite questions and comments.

Grab a big room or wall in the office for this. Provide food. Welcome challenging questions.

You’ll need to facilitate well.

In this same meeting, after showing the high level stages, you need to dig deep in to the stages that this audience are working on.

Step 3 – Dig deep into the detail

For each stage we want to gather the finer details, the actual work, the unwritten work, the shortcuts, the waits, the delays, the meetings.

And for each stage you want to map these finer details vertically underneath.

Running left to right is the process complete with all stages. And running top to bottom under each stage is the actual work involved.

Again – capture the time it actually takes to do these tasks and compare it to the overall stage Does Take time.

Step 4 – Show it to all

After you have been through each stage and exploded each part of the process it’s now time to bring EVERYONE involved in the entire process together. Also bring along managers and leaders.

You may need a big room, it could be a pain to organise – and it will push your facilitation skills to the extreme, but it’s a valuable exercise.

  1. It allows everyone involved to see the whole complete model of how work flows – this will be eye opening to many.
    1. “Wow – do we really do all of this for something so simple” is a usual response.
  2. It invites observations, questions and ideas from people who may not be part of that particular stage
    1. “Why do you do that part of the process, rather than using this tool we’ve built over here?”
  3. It gives you a big picture of how each team, person and stage compliments or pulls on each other.
    1. “I didn’t realise that by adding this extra step here, we created so much work there”

But of course, it will also invite criticism, disdain, blame and finger pointing if you’re not careful.

This is not a witch hunt, it is a way to make the business better for the customer.

Step 5 – Capture improvements

Now you have everyone together ask them obvious questions to get the improvement flowing:

  1. What do we do here that is unnecessary?
  2. What part of this process could be wasteful?
  3. Do we have any bottlenecks?
  4. Do we have any single points of failure?
  5. How could we shorten this and still deliver?
  6. Is there anything missing?
  7. Is the “Does Take” time acceptable?

Capture everything. Nothing is off limits at this point.

Capture them on index cards or post-it notes – you want to be able to move things around later.

Don’t let people naysay or shoot down ideas at this point. The goal is to think big about how to make it better.

Be sure to use those outstanding communication skills and knowledge of DISC to keep those overbearing people from dominating, and to open the floor to the quieter ones.

Ensure you have enough time left over to process, rank and prioritise these ideas… but don’t be afraid to start fine tuning and questioning some of the ideas…

Step 6 – Force rank

Once you have a list, and you’ve discussed them at a high level, you now need to whittle them down to the ones with the potential biggest impact.

  1. Which levers could you pull that would give you massive gains?
  2. Which ideas will give you 80% of the improvements?
  3. Which one do we want to tackle first?

Force rank the improvements. This means there is only one No.1, one No. 2 etc.

Bear in mind – you won’t know the outcome of the improvement until you run it, so don’t get too hung up here – these are essentially a list of experiments to run.

This is why we only want to run one at a time, so we know which ones work, what the impact has been and whether we have made a difference in the right direction.

Consider this – some of the experiments will not work as expected, and could actually send our numbers in the wrong direction.

Step 7 – Treat it like a project

Now you have the first few experiments to run, you need to treat the whole thing like a project, because it is one.

This means you need a plan, actions, owners and deliverables.

When everyone leaves that room – they need to know what the next steps are.

Step 8 – Keep up the momentum

As with all projects and work, when the going gets tough its easy for people to lose sight of the value of the work, to trail off the plan and to lose momentum.

So keep pulling people together for updates, keep track of measures, keep supporting, keep helping and keep communicating.

Step 9 – Measure everything

Given that we’re not 100% sure of the outcome from these experiments, it means we have to measure everything.

We must keep running measures of three things:

  1. The entire process end goal such as customer service, marketing campaigns – whatever it is – what is the process trying to achieve and have we affected this in any way?
  2. The entire process end to end time (Does Take Time) – is it getting better?
    1. It could be that it needs to get longer because we identified several missing pieces – but usually, it will get shorter.
  3. Each stages Does Take time
    1. Are the individual stages getting quicker and smoother?

Step 10 – Keep well-intentioned, ill-informed managers away from this process

Once you’ve done the improvements and work is flowing and the numbers are looking good, then keep the well-intentioned, ill-informed managers away from this process. How you do that is up to you, but typically managers and leaders (who are looking to dabble around in work they don’t understand) respond well to the story of how you’ve improved the process – and how it’s now best to leave it alone.

Alternatively, shine a light on something else that needs improvement and convince them to go and dabble over there instead 🙂


An example Trello board is here for you.

A PDF example is here

A .docx example for you to mash around is here

If you need help with change in your organisation then don’t hesitate to get in touch.