5 principles for teaching PROCESS FOCUS

Leadership: Building Process Focus

I am struggling with helping a client and her organization become “Process Focused.” This is an organization that has adopted the old Tom Peters and Bob Waterman “Bias for Action” and built it into their operations with an almost religious zeal. They get a lot of stuff done, incredibly quickly.

But now this extraordinary task focus is starting to bite them. There are multiple teams doing overlapping improvements; there is a lot of rework and customers are complaining about defects and missed shipping deadlines. They have tried to embrace process improvement, but they keep jumping to solutions before they understand the problem. It is clear to me that this organization is taking a “To-Do-List on Steroids” approach to process improvement and it isn’t working all that well.

So I am struggling with how to help my client, and her people move beyond seeing their operations as just a set of discrete activities. I would like them to step back and look at interrelationships between activities and with the inputs and outputs of those activities. I would like them to understand the flow between those who provide inputs (suppliers) and those who receive the outputs (customers.)

There is nothing wrong with task focus. Most of us get through our weekend with a long “to-do” list. It works for discrete work and one-of-a-kind projects, where the primary objective is completion. It requires planning what to do, how to do it, and who does what by when. And there is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when the job is complete and we can check it off or cross it off our list. (Some us are so motivated by the check mark that if we do something that isn’t on the list, we put it on the list in order to cross it off. Seems silly, but it still feels good.)

Process focus requires thinking about why we do something, and for whom, and what output the “customer” expects. It requires thinking about the inputs that produce that output and the people that supply those inputs. It requires thinking about the connections between activities and the overall flow of the process. And probably most importantly these things are measured, for quantity, quality and timeliness.

Once one begins to see the world in process terms, it is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it is easier to make lasting improvements. The curse is that process awareness is very difficult to “turn off,” which makes renting a car or checking into a hotel potentially very frustrating.

So in order to help my client, I've worked to remember how I acquired this blessing/curse.

Starting out consulting in the automotive industry, I was exposed to the assembly line. The assembly line and the concept of “flow” were the great inventions of Henry Ford. I remember news stories growing up when McDonald’s applied these concepts to create “fast food.”

At the Forum Corporation I learned how to deliver training, a process if there ever was one. I began to see that training didn’t work unless the inputs were right, (trainees understood the need for learning) and the outputs were right (the new skills were reinforced in the workplace.) My newfound facilitation skills lead me to be hired to facilitate Quality Circles an early process improvement methodology that sometimes was run in an event focused way, (i.e. disconnected from the required inputs and expected outputs) and so didn’t work.

One of those early projects was at a Heinz plant in Pittsburgh. The initiative was called “Focus on Productivity,” and was abbreviated as, “F.O.P.” on posters throughout the plant. This project was during the time when Anthony O’Reilly was CEO and unfortunately the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a front-page story of his record breaking annual salary, $37 million. F.O.P. became “Fatten O’Reilly’s Paycheck” to the union workforce and I learned that engaging employees in process improvement could be affected by many things.They need to see "what's-in-it-for-them."

Process focus finally really came home to me in the lunch line.

I was training Influence Management at DuPont, a three day program that taught project engineers how to “get things done through people when you have no organizational authority.” It was great program and very well received, but the DuPonters taught me as much or more than I taught them. I once stood on a chair to post a flipchart and three burly guys came over and picked me up and placed me on the floor. Safety is kind of a big deal at DuPont.

DuPont is also one of the most process-focused organizations I have ever worked in. It stands to reason that they would be both safety and process focused given that they got their start making gunpowder more than 200 years ago. “If we got it wrong we blew people ‘across the river.’”

My first training class of engineers came back from lunch the first day complaining bitterly about the hotel lunch line. “Somebody obviously doesn’t understand how you make a sandwich.” I had gone through the same line and, yeah, the condiments were at the end and I went back and forth a bit but I didn’t get what the big deal was.

The next day they complained louder and longer at lunch to the point that one of them took me to the line:

“See,” he said, “you have to run all over the place to make a sandwich.” Well, I did see and in my desire to make the class happy, (and not to waste so much time after lunch since the final day was a short one anyway,) I sought out the hotel banquet manager, René, after class.

“It’s set up that way to make it easier to replenish.” René told me through clenched teeth. “They’re not supposed to make their sandwich in line. They’re supposed to pick up the fixin’s and make their sandwich at the table. It’ll get them through the line faster.”

The next day, hoping to head off the complaint barrage I shared René’s rationale and got hooted out of the classroom. “Typical that they’d build the line for the supplier and not the customer.” “Don’t they realize you only give us 45 minutes for lunch.” “Building it at the table makes a mess and wastes food and I don’t want to do that at the table; I want to talk to people.”

I relayed the feedback to René and she moved beyond clenched teeth to bite my head off. “Next do you want to go tell the cook how to cook?” She asked. I sheepishly demurred.

So imagine my surprise when the next week in the same hotel the sandwich line looked like this:

The class had no complaints and after class, I went to thank René for responding to feedback. She was off and the assistant banquets manager was Raoul.

“I set up the line like an assembly line.” Raoul informed me. “René thinks the line is a lunch meat warehouse that you pick your ingredients from, but I always want to build my sandwich in the line. She also measures time in line and I measure time in the lunch room, which, I think, is the way the guest would measure it.”

I was in that hotel a lot that year and René always set up the line her way and frustrated the class. Raoul set it up his way and there were no complaints. I learned the impact of process, and some of my work has been in this arena ever since.

I think I have now come up with some of the principles for teaching process focus:

1.    Legitimize task focus. It isn’t wrong; it’s just used for simple or ad hoc work.

2.    Experience a process as a customer. Maybe the lunch lines, maybe two Starbucks that do things differently, maybe something from the client’s company.

3.    Reflect. Talk about the impact on the customer, the measurements, where to start and stop cycle time, the inputs. Relate it to the existing business.

4.    Hands-on. Try improving a process. Reflect. Try improving another.

5.    Keep it simple. At this company, and at others of my experience “process” means bureaucracy because those who have tried to implement process thinking have tried to codify every tiny step. The complexity overwhelms people and slows everything down.

My experience so far is that process focus can be taught the same way I learned it. Like any new way of thinking and acting it takes practice and feedback, and more practice. But the pay-offs can be tremendous.

In case you missed it, my last post was Training For Continuous Improvement

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