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Structured Process Improvement for Unstructured Processes

Have you ever waded into a process improvement project that had trouble finding a place to start?

Consider, for example, a strategic sales team (for RevCo, famous maker of Widgets), working their established product families to generate breakout new customers and revenues. They’ve implemented a CRM system, but are having problems getting adoption and seeing benefits. The difficulty, of course, is that they have not changed their marketing strategies, and can’t see beyond “automating our current process” as a measure of success. They don’t see the future in the new system, because they can’t see the present yet.

A bit of a catch-22 – but RevCo can imagine something better once they see themselves reflected onscreen. Process mapping is a classic improvement mechanism, drawing a picture that graphically shows a structured workflow, steps along the way to a predictable outcome. But what if you are trying to introduce change to a strategic planning, portfolio management, or prioritization meeting; how do you change a Conversation?

RevCo is an international organization, so they are naturally fighting time and distance to keep one another up to date – the Monthly Review, a structured Conversation on an unpredictable Topic. A classic use case for CRM, but to date the team has only agreed on standards for data definition and collection, establishing a central database and common terminology for opportunities, objectives, and status. The team did not ask to change the Conversation – but now that they have centralized data, a common screen, and a flexible platform, the iterations can begin.

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CRM platforms have plenty of features and functions that can move the Conversation, but the RevCo team has spent their energy agreeing on common data fields and rules for data collection. How to get them to see the possibilities – and give up their laborious cut-and-paste into MS Office? A good approach would be to automate exactly what they have.

To date, the “structure” for RevCo’s Monthly Review has been a PowerPoint deck (the faux polish we are all strangely compelled to provide), with some Excel printouts (everyman’s 2D database) containing the details. 10 copies have been printed and collated for the five people that are in town, and the travellers (and everyone else) have the latest copy (with all prior versions) consuming another 5MB of their Inbox quota. Ample opportunity to grab a quick win, eliminating all of this with on-screen views that precisely replicate the columns in the spreadsheet. Ok, reasonably close; we can introduce some minor improvements, but we aim to show how the data collection tool can also be a data review and report tool with a few simple clicks.

Introducing Improvements

Once we have them breathing easier, and feeling comfortable without the paper, we can listen to the Conversation, and look for platform features that cast a broader net, and then focus to deliver results. Keys to the process improvements include:

Participation: Become a fly on the wall at the Sales group meetings. Watch and listen to the littlest things that get in the way of the conversation – varying screen widths on multiple devices, clumsy navigation between data views, too may abbreviations requiring time-wasting explanations. How many paper-based ideas (ex. abbreviations used to squish more columns on the page) have forced their way onto the screen? (Caveat – don’t try to launch into any ad hoc improvement conversations while the meeting is going on – just take plenty of notes, capture ideas and sketches for yourself.)

Personalities: Identify the Opinion Leaders in the group. This typically includes the discussion Leader, along with strong-willed and/or well-respected members of the team. It should be a relatively small number, preferably one or two (regardless of group size) – these are the folks we need to target with our improvement ideas.

Iteration: Take small steps – remove needless work, automate the look/feel, pull in functionality from the software – all in small pieces. The RevCo team didn’t necessarily ask for this, and until they start to see some of the capabilities, they could reach a patience limit and just call a halt.

Timing: Stay away from the team’s critical path; in the RevCo case, introduce changes and iterate/test in the two weeks after each Monthly Review meeting. If you start impinging on their deadlines, you will lose their attention. Work out any bugs in the new process when the meeting facilitator is not under time pressure, and can make mistakes in private. Remember, the best way to fall out of favor is to make the Leader look foolish.

In due time, the Conversation will shed non-value added stuff, and start to leverage the fancy new software they paid so much for. If you do it right, the RevCo team will brag about how they are Innovating with the new platform. You might think to ask what they thought of the journey; or you could keep it to yourself (a magician never reveals his secrets)..

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Good stuff. Increasingly my focus has been on the people — make it easier for them to communicate and share information without tying everything into the existing process. As you suggest, process change follows.

    In theory, some will suggest SharePoint as a platform given the existing focus on PowerPoint and Excel. In practice, however …

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