“So what pisses you off ?”
That was my opening line to a new group I was working with a few years back. They were a team who could not see past the controls and policies of the large organisation they worked for. Their team leader gave me an insight before I met them, stating they found it difficult to identify areas of improvement, and felt hamstrung with all the ‘rules’ that impacted on their tasks.
So I asked the simple question “So what pisses you off ?”. Then elaborated what I meant as I was looking at a room full of wide open eyes and whispers ‘did he just say what I think he did?’. I mean it isn’t the worst language in the world, but it was a very professional, hierarchical environment, so it was definitely unusual.
The further description was focused around allowing the team to openly explore, discuss and identify areas in their jobs that were consistently frustrating. Those tasks where they always experienced errors, rework, delays. As I gave examples such as always receiving the wrong information from another department, conflicting messages or instructions aka poor communication, waiting for decisions, data or information, imbalance workloads - the list went on. They started to see what I was trying to highlight.
Amongst all the ‘rules’ and conventions of the organisation, there were plenty of opportunities to positively impact their work. There were aspects of many of their tasks they just didn’t know how consistent they were. As we dug further into their daily and weekly schedule we also discovered that apart from a process chart, they had never discussed as a team what their standards were, they had never thought about the opportunity to measure their performance. As the cliche states “if you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it”.
So after 30 minutes of some direct conversations, we stepped back and went back to the original question. This time with a bit more tact.
“So if you had the opportunity to eliminate one frustration in your daily or weekly tasks, what would it be?”. Write it down on a post-it and stick it up on the wall. Immediately we had 20 opportunities to make their job that little bit better. If all the ideas were acted upon, it would create an amazing impact. But we didn’t stop there. Write one more frustration, then another, then one more for luck. 80 ideas were now staring us in the face.
Stepping back, we identified similarities, multiple steps of the same process, consistent issues. After 10 minutes we had some group projects, ideas on how to create some team metrics for performance (are we good or bad? We don’t actually know) and a handful of individual improvements.
We wrote them up on a whiteboard - actions identified, names of who were accountable to get them done and due dates.
After 45 minutes we had transformed a team who could see the ‘wood for the trees’ into a focused group of improvement champions. Now of course it wasn’t all perfect. Over the next few weeks and months it took a lot of effort to break down the tasks further, keeping the energy and focus up, encouraging, celebrating the small gains. Some weeks saw very little or no action. Overall however, the momentum continued to the point where each team member could reflect on their efforts, communicate the changes and impact to their jobs. They had minimised their ‘white noise’ - the daily chaos to the point where they were ready to tackle the next step. Moving the improvements externally to other teams who were part of the wider value chain. Asking teams upstream what they could do to improve, asking teams downstream in the workflow, how was the quality of the work they delivered - the internal customer.
By starting with a simple question and reflecting on what they could influence, this single team had begun to gradually create a mindset of improvement. It wasn’t consciously created but it was becoming part of their DNA, defining what their team was about. As other teams in the organisation continued to spiral in chaos and confusion, they had created calm and focus.
So if you want to start your business improvement journey, it doesn’t have to be complex or big. Just start by asking your team - What pisses you off.