Procedures Par Excellence

Did you ever work for an employer where when you arrived for work on the first day you weren’t given any documentation relating to the job’s role and responsibilities? I did. On my first day on the job, I was told to just “take it easy” the first few days and deal with the work as it arises. Relying on the job description and job title for guidance, I performed my role as best I could and managed to stay with the company for two years. Perhaps no surprise, a few years after I left, the company went out of business.

The benefits of having documented procedures cannot be overstated. Among their many benefits, procedures make training of new employees easier. When new employees do not have procedures for their job, they invent the job’s procedures. And when that employee leaves, the next employee reinvents or layers their invention on top of pre-existing process. This leads to inefficiencies.

In addition to training, procedures provide a baseline for all continuous improvement activities in the organization. If you want to make improvements in a specific process, how do you know what to improve if you can’t specifically identify how the process should have been (or was) done in the first place?

Procedures are useful for documenting standardized work. Organizations that have and use procedures are ahead of those that don’t. If your organization does not have documented procedures, there is a 100 percent probability that your organization is inefficient. No procedures? No surprise then that you won’t be in business for long (or at the very least, you will never be as profitable as you could be otherwise).

As well as a baseline for continuous improvement and standardizing work, procedures enable problem solving. If an error is made in a process, you will be able to pinpoint specifically in the procedures where the error occurred and then correct that procedure so the problem does not reoccur. You won’t need to correct process “on the fly” or “wing it.”

Another benefit of procedures is the freedom they allow management to not micromanage. When management knows that standard operating procedures are in place for work processes, they do not need to stand over their employees’ shoulders watching how work is performed. Instead, they can focus on developing and working the company’s strategic vision all the while knowing that standard operations will get done consistently and effectively.

That’s all great, you say, but your company already has procedures and problems still seem to occur. Remember that procedures are living documents and will need to be updated from time-to-time. Look for tell-tale signs such as an increase in your company’s number of accidents, higher failure rates and costly returns, or if employees start to question “normal operations” and there is a higher incidence of employee sick leave due to stress and overwhelm. Notice also what your customers are complaining about. Any of these situations may be a clue that your procedures are due for a refresh.

And don’t forget: The most effective procedures are those developed by the people doing the work. They don’t necessarily have to write the procedures, but they certainly have to provide the input.

Almighty Surveys

If you’re like most executives (more than 80 percent), you rely on surveys to collect data about and from your customers. And there is a good chance that you use at least three to five data sources (including surveys) to get this information.

Because of their coverage and independence of observations, surveys out rank other methods of data collection. If worded correctly, surveys can deliver precise answers to specific questions and the data can be analyzed and tracked over time. Who doesn’t want to know how their customers behave and how their behavior affects (or will affect) the organization? While the almighty survey is still Number One, it can be very expensive and time consuming, and the responses do not provide the detail needed for action planning and implementation. For this, the organization would need to undergo further information gathering (e.g., focus groups and/ in-depth interviews) and
typically, outsourcing to consultants to build appropriate go-forward plans.

But if you are using surveys, here are some things to consider to maximize value from the responses (source: Joel Pecoraro, Business Management Services):

  1. Provide an incentive. One company included a letter with the survey stating that any person who completed the survey will have a $25 contribution sent to the “Children’s Make a Wish” fund in their name. Their response rate was close to 90 percent and a tremendous amount of goodwill was generated.
  2. Think: What’s in it for them? Don’t waste participants’ time with unnecessary questions. Keep them in mind and ask “what do they care about?” More companies are moving to a market research-driven survey in which customers’
    future expectations and needs are more fully explored rather than past performance. Participants will be more apt to participate if they feel they have some impact on the direction of an organization’s products or services.
  3. Tailor the questions to the specific department or manager receiving the survey. If you want to improve response rates, develop specific surveys. Don’t ask the purchasing department about the quality of your products or the quality department about your delivery performance.
  4. Include a short, personalized introduction letter, hand-signed from someone at the organization. While we all love email, a handwritten note is still the acceptable way to thank someone. This brief introductory letter signed by a senior company representative will improve the response rate.
  5. Remember: Less is more. Asking someone to spend 20-30 minutes on the phone or complete a 10-page survey doesn’t work. It’s better to get a large response to a handful of questions than a small response to a large amount of questions. One company sent out a survey with one question: “What could we do better?” They received a 50 percent response rate.

Surveys can’t (or shouldn’t) be used for everything. Depending on what questions you need answered, other methods of data collection may be better. For instance, if your organization is wondering how well its implemented standards and specifications are addressing key customer expectations, observations may be better than surveys. In fact, using quality function deployment (a Lean Six Sigma tool) would deliver the best results in this instance.

Whatever method you choose, remember that surveys, if done right, can give you the right information needed to drive improvement and your bottom line.

Organizing for Maximum Productivity

Mary shares some tips on how organizing your priorities each day can save you time.

  1. The day before, start by planning and writing down your top priorities for the next day.
  2. Schedule time for each priority. Tip: Decide how long the task will take and then multiple it by three for a more accurate estimation.
  3. At the start of each day, review your priorities.
  4. Check and respond to email every day, End your day with zero items in your inbox –  all items handled, deleted, or flagged for follow up.
  5. During the day, work on your priorities as you scheduled them.
  6. At the end of your work day, start back with step 1.

This podcast is also available as an article: Organizing for Maximum Productivity


The Fast Track to Change

Here’s a hypothetical situation. Company A has been experiencing dropped calls in its customer service department. This has led to an increased number of customer complaints. To handle this, the customer service department’s overtime hours are going through the roof. As you can imagine, this is costing Company A a lot of money not only in overtime, but in lost customers. What should Company A do? There are two options. They can choose a traditional approach to problem solving or apply the Kaizen method.

Here is how this problem will be solved using a traditional approach:

  • A committee is formed to analyze the situation.
  • The committee will take several days or weeks to determine the root cause of the problem (meetings are required, committee members all need to be involved, and their schedules need to be coordinated).
  • Once the problem is identified, the committee will reconvene to determine how to correct the problem. Recommendations will be proposed and agreed.
  • Recommendations will then be presented to management for a decision.
  • An implementation plan may be written.
  • An implementation committee will implement changes.
  • Employees will be advised about changes and they will be expected to adapt.

Using the Kaizen method, this is how the problem is solved:

  • A multidisciplinary team (from across the organization) is formed to analyze the situation.
  • The team meets over a five-day period to conduct its analysis, make decisions, and implement changes.
  • Since the team is multidisciplinary, adapting to change is seamless: Employees have been involved since the start.

There are two key differences between these two methods. The first is that in the traditional method, it can take several weeks to months to implement change; whereas, the Kaizen method sees change implemented within days. The second key difference is in change sustainability. In the traditional method, the process is typically “closed door operations” until a solution is determined and only during (or after) implementation are employees informed or involved. In the Kaizen event, employees are involved from the start, so change is much easier to sustain.

If you were Company A, which method of problem solving would you choose?


Best Ways to Impact Customer Satisfaction

Mary answers the question of how customer satisfaction impacts your business. She stresses the benefits of having satisfied customers that will spread the word about your great service as opposed to looking for new customers. Here are five tips you can use to help create totally satisfied customers:

  1. Treat your customers the same way you would like to be treated
  2. Train your staff to understand their role within the business
  3. Be accessible
  4. Listen to customers complaints and handle them promptly
  5. Run an efficient and trustworthy operation

This podcast is also available as an article: Best Ways to Impact Customer Satisfaction

Establishing the Need for Improvement: Benchmarking

One of the key requirements of implementing a continuous improvement program is to first establish a need for improvement. You may think this is quite easy, since you already “know” what needs improving. But establishing a need for improving services or products may be harder than you think. If you can’t show the need for improvement in a clear and meaningful way, it will be extremely difficult to get support for making change.

One of the best ways to establish a need for improvement is to benchmark; that is, compare one entity to another for the purpose of improving internal processes. There are four types of benchmarking:

  1. Process benchmarking is about reviewing and comparing process best practices of other companies. For example, the process of issuing building permits – how are other organizations managing this process in comparison to your organization? Are they faster? What is their cost of operations? Are their customers satisfied with the process?
  2. Performance benchmarking relates to reviewing companies that you know are doing a better job than you are overall. When performance benchmarking is undertaken, it is generally undertaken on competitor companies.
  3. Project benchmarking is about evaluating best practices on projects that are similar in scope to your project(s). This can be done with projects both internal and external to your organization. Do your projects generally run over schedule? Over budget? If so, why? What do others do to enable them to stay within schedule and budget? If the Empire State Building was able to be built in 1930 under budget and ahead of schedule, what’s preventing your projects from being equally successful?
  4. Strategic benchmarking relates to observing how other organizations compete. This type of benchmarking is not industry specific and therefore, non-competing organizations are more willing to share their best practices for similar business processes, products or services. In addition, organizations can learn from all operating units within their own organization.

Once you know what type of benchmarking you need to undertake, there are five steps to follow. They are:

  1. Determine your organization’s current practices in your selected problem area and identify your organization’s key performance indicators. This will give you your staring point.
  2. Identify the organization(s) from whom you will be obtaining benchmark data.
  3. Analyze the data that you’ve gathered, comparing your organization’s current practices to the best practices you have observed in other organizations. What are their best practices in this area? In what ways are they better than your organization? Are they faster? What is the cost of the operation? Do they produce a higher quality product/service? How is their customer satisfaction rating in this area?
  4. Model the best practices to fit your organization and present a business case to management for why modeling these best practices is necessary in your own organization. And when approved, implement the change.
  5. Repeat the process. This step is very important, since continuous improvement is not a one-off implementation project. It is a plan-do-check-act cycle that never ceases.

As a management tool, benchmarking cannot be underestimated. It helps you know “how well” your competition or internal units are doing and enables prioritization of change. If your organization does not include benchmarking as part of its continuous improvement mandate, it is likely that your organization is frequently fighting fires and focusing on the present. Instead, use benchmarking to help your organization become and remain profitable by having more time to think about improvements and focus on the future. Leave the firefighting to the fire department..

Mapping the Inefficient Sub Process

Mary discusses how to map processes. Whether the processes are large or small tasks, the steps are the same. They include:

  1. Naming the process
  2. Identifying the start and stop points
  3. Identifying the output of the process
  4. Identifying the customers of the process
  5. Identifying the suppliers of the process
  6. Identifying the inputs of the process
  7. Identifying the top –five to seven high level steps in the process as it currently exists.

This podcast is also available as an article: Mapping the Inefficient Sub Process

That’s The Way We Do It Here

Culture is defined as “specific behaviours acquired (in part) from social influences.” These social influences can come from family, friends, co-workers, and others. When we wish to focus on efficiency improvement, culture can be an aid or a hindrance, depending on whether the culture is affected by forces encouraging change or forces resisting change. Let me give you a couple of examples.

A director of a prominent public sector company told me that all processes in his  company were generally working well because staff regularly engaged in process improvement activities. I asked how his company knew what processes need improvement. It turns out they don’t know. Instead, they tweak here and there without looking at the big picture and the value of the process to the customer is never considered. When I suggested that culture may be a factor, he said he didn’t think they had an issue with change resistance and that they’ve always done things this way.

In a meeting with another executive leader, I learned that his department didn’t believe that processes could be improved in the services industry. “We’re not in manufacturing; we’re already doing the most work possible with the limited resources that we have.” I gave him examples of process inefficiencies in service industries such as multiple approvals on documents, loss of time due to waiting for work, inadequate computer systems that contribute to errors and waiting time, inadequate forms, or duplicated information across multiple forms, etc. He agreed that this could possibly be occurring in his organization, but he didn’t believe that the impact on work was huge. “We can’t improve anymore – we’re already stretched.”

In both of these instances, organizational culture is a hindrance to change and the organization’s leaders are its main adversary. Successful change initiatives have to be supported at the top. These companies are stuck in a status quo paradigm. However, the news is not all bad. Change can be stirred by staff. Unhappy workers, high turnover, multiple re-do’s of work product, systems that crash, extensive downtime, and other inopportunities can help an organization’s leaders to start thinking differently about how they do things. Conflict can be perpetuated by asking questions about why things are done the way they are done until a definitive answer can be found (or what generally happens, a definitive answer is not found and this forces leaders into action).

Another way that change can be produced is through technology. However, the danger of applying technology to pre-existing processes is that inefficient processes spur more inefficiency in the organization. The upside (if one can call this an upside) is that increasing inefficiencies will, at some point, grind processes to a halt. Leaders will then have to take notice.

One simple, yet effective way to invoke change is through an employee suggestion program. A quality culture focused on continuous improvement will implement at least 90% of its employees’ suggestions. Consider this: at one point, Toyota received 75,000 suggestions from 7,000 employees and implemented 99% of those suggestions. This is one of the things that make Toyota a leader in productivity.

If you’re a leader that is content to hide behind “that’s the way we do it here,” it may be time to re-examine your beliefs. Change your beliefs to change your organization’s  culture to become a culture of continuous improvement. By doing so, you will see major benefits in improved productivity, improved quality, better safety, faster delivery, lower costs, and greater customer satisfaction.

Perfecting Products Before or After Launch

Mary discusses the importance of analyzing business processes to meet customer requirements and needs. By putting yourself in your customer’s shoes, you will be able to understand what is expected and acceptable.