December 2011


ISPI publishes a weekly digest of news and information for performance improvement consultants.  Last week they published their top stories for 2011.  Over the next few days I will feature my thoughts on those I feel are particularly noteworthy.
Click here for my first entry.
Click here for my second entry.

I come from a process improvement background.  My job is to look for opportunities to improve individual and organizational performance.  Almost a year ago, Harvard Business Review posted an entry on process ownership.  As we move into a new year the question asked in the title is worth pondering.

To begin, I agree with the author’s assessment of process improvement efforts.

When organizations set about improving the way they work, the natural tendency is for them to do it within functions. They don’t necessarily improve processes that cross function.

However, I disagree with his assertion that “companies must appoint process owners to ensure that processes are improved across functions.”  This is controversial because he names several well-known “gurus” of process improvement who advocate this approach.  But this is a blog so I am obligated to be controversial.  Right?

The author cites these experts’ recommendation that companies “establish the process owners, process councils, and other pieces of a formal process governance structure to manage their six to 10 core, cross-functional processes. The process owners are supposed to be highly placed, respected, and connected to make things happen. Their responsibilities include:

  • Acting as the “voice of the customer” by understanding customers’ total experience with a company, from the moment they learn about it to the moment they end the relationship.
  • Monitoring process key performance indicators (KPIs) and keeping top executives apprised of how processes are performing.
  • Making sure the company’s key processes are delivering competitive advantage, or if not, that the right fixes are on the way.”

I agree that a plan for process improvement is better than nothing.  However, I believe this approach will ultimately fail or lose momentum because it is too formal and possibly redundant.  In his own words, the author says the owners have to be “highly placed, respected, and connected.”  He is saying that the people responsible for process ownership should not be the people who actually perform the processes.  How crazy is that?

Its no surprise that he ends his post listing reasons why organizations revert to functional management.  He provides a long list, but most of them trace their origins to the fact that the people responsible for process ownership are too far removed from the actual processes.  Below are the reasons.  In his post the author provides additional explanations for each.

1. Attention shifted

2. Roles were misunderstood

3. Accountability was lacking

4. The role had little influence

5. The organizational structure was too complex

6. Employees were uncomfortable

For organizations that are serious about achieving and sustaining cross-functional process improvement, I recommend establishing process owners.

If a process owners are defined as “pieces of a formal process governance structure to manage their six to 10 core, cross-functional processes” I believe the effort will not succeed.  Here’s why.

  • Attention always shifts – The further you get away from the actual work the harder it is to maintain focus and urgency.
  • Organizations are complex – Additionally, embedding process improvement in a formal process governance ties process ownership to organizational structure which has rules and hierarchies.  This is not a bad thing, its just limiting.
  • Improvement can’t always be formalized – Employees need to have some freedom to try new things on their own.  An employee has to submit an improvement idea before they can experiment with it is less likely to bother.

I believe process improvement is cultural.  I make my living looking for ways to improve personal and organizational performance but I can’t do it alone.  An organization that wants to improve should encourage its employees to look for ways to improve, provide mechanisms for capturing those improvements, and incentives to motivate them.

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ISPI publishes a weekly digest of news and information for performance improvement consultants.  Last week they published their top stories for 2011.  Over the next few days I will feature my thoughts on those I feel are particularly noteworthy.
Click here for my first entry.

One of the ironies of being an expert is that you often lose touch with what it is like to be a novice.

In October Harvard Business Review posted an article titled “The Best Approach to Training.”  With a title like that its bound to get a lot of hits.   While the article has value, its title is a little misleading.  Rather than focus on the latter I will focus on its virtues.
NOTE: I quote liberally from this article.  I am not trying to take credit for the author’s work.  Sometimes it is difficult to maintain a flow and quote the author fully.  This is more obvious in some places that others.

The setup: “Experts often are unable to articulate the many “obvious” (to them) things they do when carrying out a procedure or solving a problem.”  When tasked with training a new employee an expert tends to gloss over important information or steps because it has become second nature to them.  This actually makes the “trainee” more dependent on the expert/trainer, the exact opposite of what they set out to do.   As a result, the organization is not getting maximum productivity of either employee.

The diagnosis: According to the author, the common approach is to adopt an academically developed and tested technique to improve training and instruction that likely involves a resource-intensive task analysis.  This makes sense if you are documenting the minimum qualifications for a job, establishing performance criteria, and creating a training program. However, if you are simply training a new employee I believe you can accomplish more by getting him or her into the flow of the organization first.  After a short period of assimilation you can shift focus to mastering the individual tasks of their job.

The solution: “The best way to identify what experts do is to have them solve the problems or carry out the tasks in question and to require the expert to justify the steps he is taking as he takes them.”  This approach takes a macro-level view and enables the expert to consider the work holistically.  As a result, the resulting training bears a greater resemblance to the reality of day-to-day responsibilities.

An example:  The author asked experienced college physics instructors to create a set of problems — representing a part of the course — that a student in introductory physics should be able to solve if he or she “understood” that part of the course.

He then asked them to solve the problems and narrate their steps.  While they were talking he was “furiously” capturing their thoughts. In his words, “the instructors [often] had to stop and scratch their heads as they tried to provide a justification for their steps. The justifications in this case were rooted in laws of physics, but the relevant features or implications of the laws were things that the instructors had internalized or automated and they struggled to make them explicit to me.

The resulting solutions were of course quite lengthy and verbose, but they ultimately provide the raw material for guiding the construction of better worked examples and lecture materials for learners. I use the notes to then solve new problems with the expert available to help me when I don’t know what to do. Each time I reach an “impasse” I revise the notes. Ultimately, I reach a point where I can solve all problems the expert gives me.”

My thoughts: I have used this method and found it to be useful.  In fact, my most successful projects occur when I can think like the expert.  No one will confuse me for being an expert, but going through this process enables me to apply my skills to the subject matter and create relevant learning opportunities.  The challenge is coming up with the problems in a work setting.  In the end I don’t think this is approach is less cumbersome or resource intensive but the outcome is better.

ISPI publishes a weekly digest of news and information for performance improvement consultants.  Last week they published their top stories for 2011.  Over the next few days I will feature my thoughts on those I feel are particularly noteworthy.

First up is a look at change management vs. change leadership.

Before I comment on the substance of the story I want to note that the linked article is unique because contains a video presentation and transcript of the commentary.  Utilizing two or more modalities is a good practice for people who want their words to be remembered.  In this case, I really appreciated the transcript because the video does not improve the message in my opinion.  Its just 5 minutes of the author talking on camera.  Instead of watching the video, I scrolled through the transcript as the video played which helped me retain more.  Enough learning theory.

The point of the article is that “change management” is self-limiting and does not offer the growth potential of “change leadership.”  In the article the author acknowledges the role of change management but clearly favors change leadership.

Change leadership is much more associated with putting an engine on the whole change process, and making it go faster, smarter, more efficiently. It’s more associated, therefore, with large scale changes. Change management tends to be more associated—at least, when it works well—with smaller changes.

What does change management look like? (Emphasis and comments mine)

  • Participants “are trying to push things along, but it’s trying to minimize disruptions, i.e., keep things under control.” (minimizing disruptions limits responsiveness which translates to missed opportunities)
  • The organization is “trying to make sure change is done efficiently in the sense of [the team doesn’t] go over budget—another control piece.  (fear)
  • It’s done with little change management groups inside corporations, sometimes external consultants that are good at that, training in change management. (great-we’re all trained, now what?)
  • It’s done with task forces that are basically given the whole goal of push this thing along, but keep it under control. (pushing is reactive, pulling is proactive)
  • It’s done with various kinds of relationships that are given names like “executive sponsors,” where the executive sponsor watches over this thing to make sure that it proceeds in an orderly way.  (change involves an element of disorder)

When I read the bullet points above I envision the car above.
Safe. Reliable. Orderly.

The author describes change leadership as an engine. What does it look like?

  • It’s more about urgency. “It’s more about masses of people who want to make something happen.”
  • It’s more about big visions. It’s more about empowering lots and lots of people.
  • Change leadership has the potential to get things a little bit out of control.
  • Change leadership requires “a highly skilled driver and a heck of a car, which will make sure your risks are minimum.” (risk kept to a minimum but not eliminated)

This is what I think of when I read these bullet points.
Safe, sure.  Reliable, if you take care of it.  Orderly, if you drive it right.

At the end, the author makes his case for change leadership.

The world, as we all know, doesn’t do much change leadership, since change leadership is associated with the bigger leaps that we have to make, associated with windows of opportunity that are coming at us faster, staying open less time, bigger hazards and bullets coming at us faster, so you really have to make a larger leap at a faster speed. Change leadership is going to be the big challenge in the future, and the fact that almost nobody is very good at it is—well, it’s obviously a big deal.

Is change leadership for you?  Have you missed a window of opportunity lately?  Are those windows open for less and less time?  While the author does not completely reject change management, he clearly believes change leadership is a necessary element of a successful business.

What does it take to implement change leadership?

  • A strong team with freedom to find opportunities and respond to them.
  • Upper management that is comfortable with some uncertainty and risk.
  • A culture that is confident in its abilities and mandate.

What would you add to this list?