Don't Make Your Business Complicated

We humans are funny creatures.  For some crazy reason we love to try and make things - processes, work, tasks harder than they really need to be.

I am making this comment as I reflect on conversations and observations I have had with many different businesses recently. In many of the situations the process we were looking at was seemingly simple.  But the reality was quite different. Steps required to complete tasks were convoluted, many checks and balances that was ultimately slowing the work down and minimising profit margins. Team members were involved that really didn’t need to be, it was only the fact ‘we have always been involved’ that they were there.  

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good checklist. Considering ‘Quality at the Source’ is a key mantra in the continuous improvement world, this is a simple way to slow the process down to get it right.  It is the business equivalent of the ‘measure twice, cut once’ mentality.  However all of this needs to be balanced and considered. After all, we don’t want to slow the whole process down so that it actually comes to a grinding halt! Through reflection, the process wasn’t horrible, but all the way through there were regular wastes popping up that all added up to a system that was having significant challenges.

More often than not, when I go digging for answers to why these checks and decision points are in place, what I find is a large proportion of these additional steps, double checking etc is because of past errors and human error.  This invariably leads to trust issues which then has added additional pressure which in turn can lead to more under performance. So this results in even more processes added, additional steps created to protect the business from recurring mistakes.  While this might solve an issue in the short term and leadership feeling better because they have a ‘handle on the situation’, all it really does is slow down the engine of the business.  Gradually, bit by bit, these additional elements erode profitable performance and team satisfaction decreases…… you can see where this is going.  Jump forward a few years and there are new people in the roles, the original team members involved in the original issues have long departed, yet the well embedded system is now normalised and accepted.  No-one actually knows why it was created this way. Accepting that there must have been a good reason, so they accept it and make themselves familiar with a convoluted system and don’t know any better.

This could have been avoided right at the beginning with one word…… “Why?”

When a mistake occurs, an error or just simply poor judgement from an individual the natural reaction is to band-aid the situation and ‘fix’ the outcome.  When in reality the best option is to act like a learning organisation, become inquisitive and ask “Why?”. Why did the system allow that problem to happen?

Why and how did that situation occur?  Invest some more time than usual and gather the right people around you and begin to dig more into the situation.  This is where the classic root cause analysis tools like the Ishikawa or Fishbone Diagram really comes into play.  Being able to put together an objective assessment of the situation, covering all the possible causes will provide a greater benefit long-term to the organisation.

Practising Hansei - the critical reflection process will uncover the true causes. This approach enables you and the team to make more effective changes that will make a greater impact than any short term solution.

It is all about bringing the situation into context and understanding why and how the process has become so convoluted.  Investing in time to pull apart and rebuilding a process that enables the team to do its best work all the time.  This might take a bit of time, weeks and even months to gather the information, understand the current situation.  The better you go through this discovery process, the better the final results will be. This is the first stage of Deming’s Plan, Do, Check / Study, Act (PDCA) cycle

It might even be usual to get out those awesome Post It notes and visualise the process, arrange them in swim lanes so the team can visualise handover points, understand the timing, information requirements and who is involved.  Process mapping is a great way to bring the team together around what may be a convoluted process, ironing out any glitches and gaps in the system.  It is also a great way to have those conversations with everyone involved to uncover any deep rooted assumptions.  It also surprises me how often the situation occurs where team members discover how other team members have become used to fixing errors, mistakes, documentation errors etc but have never told them.  So the problem continues and others have become accustomed to fixing the issue.

The goal is to unravel all the issues, think about the process and rebuild it in a way that is simple, makes sense and maximises the skills of everyone involved.  This last point doesn’t mean having as many people or roles involved as possible.  Sometimes leaving team members out when they are not required, this is respecting their time and resources.

Finally when the process has been tweaked or even redesigned, think about how you can measure the outcomes, results or quality of the process.  How can you monitor the effectiveness of the new process?  Is it working, is it creating the right results, is it improving the value delivered to the customer?

So when a process feels like it feels way harder than it should, it probably is.  Take the time to slow down, reflect on what the ideal situation could look like and take the opportunity to rebuild towards a better solution.  It may feel impossible to find the time or resources, but it is an investment in the future of your business and team.


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