Meet the process

IvoryTowerAll rational leaders appreciate that, rather than sitting in metaphorical ‘ivory towers’, they need to understand what actually happens in their business.

But how do many leaders go about this? I suggest that the following two techniques are the norm:

  • hold a regular ‘road show’ in which the leaders present to ‘their people’ and hold a Q&A session, usually at the end.

What usually follows are questions from the floor that are:

    • generalist in nature and which can be answered safely, politically with ‘happy talk’…and everyone appears content; or
    • highly specific and which need to be answered ‘off line’ because how could you expect your leader to be able to answer that on his/her feet…and no one is the wiser

Whilst such leaders are usually great orators and the people like what they hear….it becomes somewhat of a show divorced from reality.

  • perform ‘tours’ of their facilities, usually starting with a (very carefully prepared) workshop presentation by that function’s management team, and then being introduced around the floor by the duty manager…along the lines of “Leader, this is your worker…worker, this is your leader…now have a polite chat as if he/she were the Queen”.

What usually follows is a discussion with a random set of workers who are conveniently at their posts that:

    • is full of pleasantries: “so how are things”…”very good thanks”….”that’s great to hear, keep up the good work”…and everyone is happy; or
    • is used by a ‘plucky worker’ as a golden opportunity to air a particular soap-box issue (which may have little relevance in terms of size and occurrence)…and management MUST now act immediately on that issue because the leader now ‘knows about it’ and has to be seen to be ‘listening to the workers’

How much of reality do the leaders actually get exposed to? How much ‘polishing’ is likely to be performed before a management presentation? How distorted (subdued, careful or biased) is the process performer’s voice likely to be?

…how is this really helping the customer receive a forever improving service?

I suggest that ‘leaders’ (whatever level in an organisation) switch their mentality from ‘meeting the people’ to ‘meeting the process’. This means:

  • listening to, and observing actual customer demand at the point it comes in; and
  • following actual units of demand through the value stream (not just a silo within!) until its successful conclusion.

Now, it should be obvious that to do this the leader has to meet the process performers along the way…but the purpose is totally different. Instead of focusing on a person, there is a joint focus (leader and process performers) on the unit of customer demand and how it is processed through the value stream – with its warts and all. This is likely to garner a level of trust with the process performers as and when they believe the leader is really interested in the process, not in judging them.

Meeting the process is often referred to as ‘Gemba walking’, where Gemba is the Japanese word for ‘the real place’ or place of action/ where the work gets done. A Gemba walk involves walking with a unit of customer demand, from its trigger all the way through to its resolution (to the customer’s satisfaction). In performing this, the leader will see the environment that their management system requires the people to work within and probably a great deal of waste along the way.

To be clear: A Gemba walk isn’t a one off thing…it is a management practise that is regularly performed. This regularity is hugely important:

  • one walk won’t uncover the variety that exists within customer demand, or the subsequent process;
  • establishing the trust of the process performers will come over time (as and when they believe in you); and
  • we want to see the process actually changing for the better as leader, management and process performers continue to make changes to improve their capability of meeting the customer’s true purpose.

The act of actually ‘meeting the process’ will ensure that the leader really gets what’s going on and what’s possible…and can ensure that the appropriate management system is put in place that ensures continual process improvement.

Bad digger driver or bad process?

5tonne_diggerOn Thursday 29th October 2014, a digger cut through a major gas pipe in the centre of Christchurch and a major evacuation ensued.

There was plenty of talk about this in the tea room at my work place the next day, about the major traffic jams and hassle it caused. The usual “I bet the digger driver gets it!” comment was made….and, possibly, he will. But, on reflection, do any of us think that the digger driver did it deliberately? I doubt it.

The Press article reporting the gas leak notes that the Fire Service representative said “a digger driver working in the area caused the widespread disruption”. Whilst maybe taken out of context, as the media delight in doing, it’s pretty emotive to single out the digger driver.

Much better, I would suggest, is that SCIRT (the infrastructure rebuild organisation) claimed responsibility, stated that they will be doing a full investigation and said “it is essential that we work out how this happened so it does not recur in future.” That’s a lot better, looking much wider than the person AND wanting to improve the process.

It is interesting to note that the reader’s comments section below the article is a mixture of blaming the digger driver, blaming SCIRT and conversely, trying to ‘cut them some slack’ by noting that the post-quake Christchurch environment is a somewhat tricky one to be operating within and it would be a miracle if no such defects occurred given the magnitude of the work being undertaken. I am often frustrated at how people jump to blame without being in possession of the facts.

Whilst this example of a defect causing pain for others is pretty major, we could (if we looked with our ‘blaming bad people’ radars turned on) find lots of examples at work in which you and I think badly of a person because of what we perceive they did, or did not do.

But, standing back, how many people turn up at work to deliberately do a poor job…conversely, how many people are doing their best given the environment they work within…and, perhaps most concerning, how many people have effectively turned their brains to their ‘low setting’ because of the system they have to work within?

So, whenever you find yourself blaming a person, try to stand back and think about the environment that they are working within. If you think about it, you are very likely to find many reasons as to why they acted as they did…and the harder you look, the more likely you are to consider the process could be improved.

Finally, if you think the process should be improved but believe it won’t be…I would ask you to reflect on why this is the case…perhaps the constraint is within the design of the ‘management system’ in which the workers have to operate.

As the Toyota saying goes “Be hard on the process, but soft on the operators.”