So when I started to participate in cross-functional teams as part of service improvement projects in my new role at the LERC, for the first time I understood just how little I had known in previous jobs. I thought back to my first job and realized how much everything could have been improved if I had known how those files reached me and what happened after my role in the chain. Project after project, from the new perspective of a ‘facilitator’ of improvement, I would see how this experience was commonplace. Whether we were looking at the process of recruiting new members of staff, or how blood samples were collected by doctors, taken to hospitals for analysis and results returned to patients, I realized that people rarely looked beyond their own area of expertise. Not enough time was spent focusing on ‘following’ the work – really understanding how the work gets done as part of an end-to-end process.
When teaching service improvement, I do my best to remember what a revelation this simple truth was and how our service improvement tools can help. One of the key tools that improvement specialists have are ‘maps’. These offer a variety of visual ways to understand how the work flows across departments, from initial order to customer delivery. As part of every mapping session I’ve ever led, there will always be some kind of interjection along the lines of “I wondered why I had to do that?” or “why do you do that when I do that as well?” Just the act of discussing how the work moves from one employee to another will inevitably identify opportunities for improvement. It really is remarkable.
One of my favourite pictures I use to continue conversations around this theme is the following one, which I’ve adapted from Professor Peter Hines. It helps groups think about work as it flows, rather than their own functional departments, such as sales or operations. It groups the different types of workflow as either 1) creating orders, 2) fulfilling those orders or, critically, 3) innovation processes that create new products and/or services. Organizations that have poorly-defined process flows in these areas (processes that don’t have a power in themselves, but rather just ‘happen’) will be unlikely to glean the maximum efficiencies and effectiveness possible.
What’s also important is that the organization recognizes strategic management as a process that affects every part of the business, and that ‘People’ processes such as HR and ‘Resource’ processes including Finance and IT should be enabling of the three core processes and, as such, be subservient to them.
That statement is not meant to lessen or demean the role that technology can have in the success of an organization. Far from it – technology’s positive influence can benefit every part of the above picture. It is, however, essential that the application of technology is the silver thread, or glue, that follows the work horizontally. Trouble comes when technology creates solutions that are insensitive to the flow of work between customer and delivery of a service or product.
Technology should not just flow horizontally, it also needs to flow ‘right to left’ from the customer. A colleague at Nestlé used to call this ‘Right to Left Thinking’ – in other words, not only thinking about work as a horizontal flow across different departments and people, but also that this flow should be thought about first from a happy customer’s perspective. The lens of improvement then tracks back, right to left, across departments to deliver that value.
I’ve found that introducing such concepts to teams can be very useful, so ask yourself, when was the last time you and your colleagues all worked together to analyse the flow of work, right to left? If it’s been a while, then now’s the time to look at your organization from a different perspective, to see the technological opportunities that exist.
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Author: Sarah Lethbridge
Sarah Lethbridge is the Director of Executive Education at Cardiff Business School. Her role is to work with external organisations to design programmes of learning which employ the academic expertise of the Business School.
Sarah joined the Business School’s Lean Enterprise Research Centre in 2005. Since that time, she has worked on numerous lean projects in hospitals, universities and public and private services.
She has worked with the Ministry of Justice’s Lean Academy, the Value for Money team in the Home Office, Nestle, Legal and General and Principality Building Society to ensure that organisations approach lean in a holistic, sustainable way.