Here is an excerpt from an article written by Brad Power for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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As I said in a previous post, not all companies need to improve the same processes to the same degree. But every company has some processes that are more important than others, and history has shown time and again that improving those can bring big increases in competitive advantage. Yet many companies make major investments to improve the right processes, but fail to realize the benefits.
From my experience with dozens of companies over the last 30 years, I see three factors that contribute much more than others to the failure of process improvement initiatives. The first is that organizations naturally tend to optimize within functions and departments, rather than across them. The second is that, without information on the impact of their work on company goals, frontline workers can’t properly contribute to improving them.
The third process improvement killer is this: If top managers issue edicts for improving an operation, they can achieve some short-term payback, but they can’t realize the more substantial benefits that workers can generate if they identify changes themselves.
These conditions will fester unless senior management takes three deliberate actions:
[Here’s the first.]
1. Listen to how well your organization meets customer expectations.
Because of the way they are organized, most companies are naturally good at optimizing performance within functions — marketing, sales, and operations, for instance. But substantial process improvement can’t occur unless it cuts across these functions. By focusing on the customer experience and looking for ways to improve it, managers can compel the organization to find problems and solutions which transcend the vertical boundaries.
For example, at amazon.com, the $25 billion online retailer, every new senior executive must spend time in the firm’s fulfillment centers in his first year. And every two years they — including CEO Jeff Bezos — must spend two days in customer service dealing with shoppers’ problems and issues.
To focus on end-to-end customer needs, senior leaders should spend time with customers asking about service to uncover problems and solutions. However, since they usually don’t have much time for process improvement, senior leaders need to identify the company’s four to eight core processes (e.g., order fulfillment, service request resolution, product development) as seen from the customer’s perspective and assign process owners to manage them. Companies such as Shell, Sloan Valve, and Air Products have done so. Overlaying the process dimension on the functional organization creates a matrix that mitigates the dominance of the functional view. Request: How have you gotten your organization to listen for customer problems across functions, define customer-centered process performance measures, and encourage behaviors for process improvement?
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Brad Power (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a consultant and researcher in process innovation. His current research is on sustaining attention to process management — making improvement and adaptation a habit (even fun?). He is currently conducting research with the Lean Enterprise Institute.
Although this book was co-authored by Peter Earnest and Maryann Karinch, Earnest serves as narrator as he draws upon a wealth of experience during 36 years with the Central Intelligence Agency, most of it in the Agency’s National Clandestine Service (NCS). He also served on active duty with the United States Marines. Presumably Karinch’s role was to assist with gathering, evaluating, selecting, and then organizing the real-world information on which the book is based. At least to some extent, the co-authors’ collaborative efforts resemble those who work together in NCS and, in fact, they resemble the collaborative efforts in any other organization with strategic objectives such as these:
1. Identifying information needs
2. Determining their relative importance
3. Locating and obtaining the information needed
4. Evaluating, correlating, integrating, and disseminating it
5. Revising and updating the information as well as the system within which it is processed
At the conclusion of Chapters 2-12, Earnest and Karinch provide a summary of key points, framed in different ways: as a question (the “right qualities” of an effective case officer in Chapter 2), as checklists (“Twin Necessities: Continuing Training and Education” in Chapter 4), or as recommendations (“Deliberately Shaping Your Image” in Chapter 9). In fact, throughout the book the reader is provided with dozens of such devices that will facilitate, indeed accelerate periodic review of key points later.
Large organizations already have extensive resources committed to achieve the aforementioned strategic objectives. This book will help them to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their systems and initiatives. The material in Chapter 3,for example, will help to recruit better candidates, interview them more thoroughly, and then get them off to a faster start once in place.
That said, leaders in all organizations (whatever their size and nature may be) will receive valuable information, insights, and advice that can help them to formulate and then implement programs, procedures, and policies to strengthen organizational core competencies in areas such as situation analysis, decision-making, setting (and adjusting) priorities, research on competitive marketplace (i.e. identifying unmet needs, eliminating vulnerabilities, leveraging advantages), contingency planning (e.g. scenarios), crisis management, and leadership development.
One final point: With all due respect to knowing what needs to be done as well as knowing how and when to do it, ultimate success depends on execution. Thomas Edison said it best: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” This is what Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton have in mind when warning executives about what they characterize as “the knowing-doing gap.”
In an article written for the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge online, Ranjay Gulati points out that employees not connected directly to profit and loss can suffer from a collective “I-am-not-strategic” identity crisis. Gulati suggests that business managers allow so-called support function employees to become catalysts for change. Key concepts include:
• Marketers, human resources managers, finance managers, and other so-called support function employees often have trouble defining their worth because their jobs are not directly tied to profit and loss—which is how companies often gauge success.
• As such, they tend to view themselves as overhead, and they paradoxically try to justify their existence by falling into adversarial policing roles in an attempt to cut costs for the company.
• Business managers should encourage these employees to view themselves not just as support functions that police other departments but as catalysts for new ideas and company growth.
Here’s my own take:
1. Members of an organization’s supprt staff frequently feel treated like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed manure.
2. They will not become actively and constructively engaged unless they (a) feel appreciated, (b) see the value of the work they do, (c) are consulted about how to do it, (d) understand how what they do helps their organization to achieve its strategic objectives, and (e) respect and trust their supervisor.
3. It is imerative to Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
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Ranjay Gulati is the Jaime and Josefina Chua Tiampo Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
To check out more Working Knowledge from Ranjay Gulati, please click here.
To visit his HBS research page, please click here.
From Seth Godin’s blog:
The first rule of doing work that matters
Go to work on a regular basis.
In short: show up.
It always, always comes back to work ethic. It takes time — lots of time — over the long haul — to be successful.