Tag Archives: Leadership

The Leaning of America: The Case for Small Business Process Management is Unequivocal

As a consultant to small and mid-sized business, non-profits and government agencies (with a particular focus on healthcare), I often engage executives on the merits of BPM. Said executives wonder aloud if their time is well-spent documenting, analyzing and re-engineering work and processes.  The common refrain is that they believe they have bigger fires to fight and that their people simply need to be managed to be more productive. Other excuses involve blaming external factors such as unfair competitors,  legislators, suppliers, and fickle customers.

There’s no doubt that the economy is in terrible shape. All of my clients are struggling. However, the data is incontrovertible: organizations that run lean, slick, flexible processes in every dimension of their operations are doing well compared to their less BPM-savvy peers.

In retail, Wal-Mart is peerless. Japanese and European automakers have survived whilst GM and Chrysler went bankrupt. Amazon continues to disrupt the entire universe of commerce. Kaiser has revolutionized healthcare and health insurance. Tata is helping India’s GDP grow while the institutionalized first-world back-slides. The tech sector as a whole has fared better than most other sectors. The only incongruities are the BPM-centric banks that demonstrated ethics, morals, risk-taking behavior and greed can and will outsmart BPM any day.  While there are many factors at play in the world of business and global economics, it pays to study the common traits among the winners and apply them at home.

Think Small and Lean

It’s simply undeniable that investments of time, energy and money in becoming process-centric will pay off in a number of important ways. It is also a fact that the US economy is a function of small business. Our challenge is not in doing more to demonstrate how swell BPM serves multi-national, multi-billion dollar, multi-tech corporations. There is no question that aerospace and supply-chain giants know what they’re doing.

The great challenge lies in packaging BPM approaches, tools and methodologies in right-size, right-time, right-cost portions for healthcare, social services, job training, housing and other sectors. Government and non-profit organizations are crucial participants in our economy and generally suffer from a lack of process savoir-faire.  This is especially true at the local level. Small government and small business must become process-enabled.

This call to action is all the more reason to simplify and de-code the way we talk about BPM. The more cryptic and foreign something sounds, the more geeky the approach, the less accessible and more expensive it becomes in the minds of government and small business leaders. Similarly, the more BPM is a product of software developers and the more is aimed strictly at automation, the less attractive it becomes. Electronic medical records (EMR) are a terrific example. Software developers sell software in a way devoid of attention to the most basic workflow and implementation issues; 60% of implementations fail; and today a dismal 2% of hospitals and 10% of doctors offices have a fully-functioning EMR in place. No matter how badly our country needs EMR proliferation, if our approach is tinged with greed (which it is), the initiative will stall (which it has). Compare that performance to the spread of VistA (the VA’s answer to open source, simplified solutions to the same problems). VistA is standard across the DoD, VA and many other public health domains today and spreading quickly.

Lean Initiative

True, government, social service, health, and non-profit sectors – who are often smothered under the weight of social and economic pressures in ways you and I can’t relate to – need to modernize, get lean and automate. However, so long as the architects of change speak a foreign language and offer up expensive software solutions, progress will be glacial. I propose that this country needs a Lean Agenda as much as it needs a Green Agenda. Frankly, we need lean to get to green. But it has to happen in all sectors, fields, industries and domains. And in order for that to happen BPM ambassadors need to come back to Earth and engage people in a multi-cultural fashion. We should all be painfully aware that big business relies upon small business and affordable health and social services. Unhealthy, unemployed, uninsured, homeless and penniless people make lousy customers. Get real.

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Prioritizing BPM Projects is a Sign of Effective, Experienced Leadership

I received an email from a friend of mine today lamenting the projects he’s had to wave good-bye to. The email read: “That other process improvement stuff is nice, however, right now…revenue generation is the only process that matters. We have to keep the doors open”.  It made me think deeply about my clients and the projects we’re working on. How many of  them have leaders who’ve called emergency meetings in the past 12 months to reconsider and re-prioritize their approach and focus? None. How many of them have since been panicking and flailing? All of them. Most of them have reduced schedules and laid people off lately. Not a single one ever stopped to prioritize and shift attention when they could.

What’s a Priority?

First of all, if you’re still slogging through 4-6 month process improvement projects, you’re braver than I am. Get lean in your approach, folks. Secondly, if you don’t know how to prioritize in this economy and are struggling to choose which of your projects should “rise to the top of the list”, please ask your peers and ask the big boss. Go to the executive team and ask them to help you decide if you need help. But no matter what, show some initiative and demonstrate that you’re thinking like an executive. If not, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Short answer: it’s a priority if it will immediately help us make more money (sales) or save on costs (making us more profitable). Sales are tough now so anything that can reduce costs is a big hit with executives and shareholders. If you’re a non-profit, cost reductions are popular with boards and donors. Toot your horn. If you’re a government entity, you have serious challenges too. You must get costs under control. Government doesn’t often lay people off but I have seen it happen in the past 6 weeks. I have seen it happen where people dragged their heels, hemmed and hawed, went to far too many meetings, and took too many vacation days. They complained and wondered who was in charge. They failed to prioritize and act swiftly and assertively. Now they’re looking for work.

Inventory your projects, identify the revenue generators and cost-efficiency opportunities and move them to the top of your to-do list. Everything else takes a back-seat until your executive team gives you the green light to relax and do something interesting. That may be months from now so get comfortable fighting fires.

It’s Time for Strategic Business Process Management

I am coming off several weeks’ having to reassure clients that they are doing well and that – so long as they stick to their knitting – they’ll be ok a year from now. I have others who have required some serious, adult discussions. They lack a cohesive strategic plan, therefore, they lack in the areas of discipline, direction, commitment and – frankly – workflow IQ. They struggle with change, flexibility and orientation (“where are we?!”)

The disconnect is rampant. Perhaps it’s in the name. Shall we refer to business process management (BPM) as Strategic Process Management (SPM) from now on? You heard it here first, folks.

Strategy+Goals+Objectives+Metrics

I’ve heard others call it Business Motivation Modeling and agree that we need a deeper understanding of critical business drivers. This field and the broader business interests and stakeholders it serves needs to reminded constantly of the “means”, the “ends”, and the “influences”.  By keeping a strict focus on strategic goals (building the business, becoming #1, being fastest, cleanest, safest, whatever) and tactical objectives, business analysts and process engineers ought to be able to produce the outcome they’re looking for and they ought to be measure whether they’ve achieved their goals or not.

Environmental Analysis

However, failing to manage strategy and failing to carefully and comprehensively assess what is happening economically, politically, socially, technologically, competitively and legislatively will absolutely result in painful surprises. I have seen people very proud to have hit sadly meaningless targets lately.

Strategic and Technical Advisory Groups (STAGs)

I am calling for the formation of STAGs in every organization with 25+ employees. This committee will review and evaluate business process and other organizational change from both a technical standpoint and a strategic standpoint. Strict adherence to strategy (bearing in mind that strategy – not values – can and ought to change to reflect the environment) will be their direct responsibility. There will be an executive on each STAG until and unless every organization recruits a Chief Process Officer. Perhaps then, the brilliance of BPM will have been fully activated.

Spy: Small Business Process Improvements Based on Process Benchmarks

I have to admit to being a chronic process observer and critic. Every time I sit in a restaurant, go into a store, arrive at a hotel, go to the doctor or shop online I pay attention to what staff and managers are doing and I judge. Sometimes I am deeply fond of what I see and other times I am vicious in my critique. While I am a little obsessive about all this, there is some virtue in the exercise. As a consultant, it’s important to have had exposure to tactics and process that work especially well in order to make stronger recommendations for clients. It’s also important, working across sectors to develop a mental inventory of what doesn’t work, what can be emulated and what can be tweaked to serve cross-purposes. Frankly, I would hope that anyone aspiring to build a business, product or consultancy in this domain would be doing the same kinds of things.

Spy versus Spy: Lean Innovation

Welcome to the age of transparency, reverse engineering and piracy. Watching the equivalent of So You Think You Can Dance on Indian TV broadcast by satellite last night, my Indian friend quipped: “They copy everything we do”. Reading about the new film Duplicity in the latest issue of Fast Company I am reminded that the “leanest” forms of adaptation are mimicry and emulation. It’s called “evolution” folks.It’s the 100th Monkey Theory in blazing sound and technicolor. In some cases, it’s downright criminal so be careful where you draw the line.

I’m sure by now you’ve heard that the sum total information in the world is doubling every 3-6 months or something like that. Similarly, in an open information age, we have the capacity to observe, re-engineer, implement, measure and observe again at dizzying rates. Knowing that competitors are observing and mimicking us should serve as a catalyst for greater and faster innovation (and ever more patent filings).

How About A Small Business?

Small enterprises can’t afford teams of engineers and analysts that prowl the web and deconstruct rival products the way Toyota and Honda tore into the Saturn. There is no virtue in piracy so what’s a small business to do? Give observation and emulation a try. Watch what others do and then think in terms of business process. What process can you borrow and pilot in your own shop?

Process Benchmarking

A Benchmark is a standard and, for our purposes, the Gold Standard. The Best Practice. I want to advocate for an open process exchange that enables up-and-coming enterprises to learn from the best. This idea may never take root in the private sector but it might in government and non-profit sectors. For example, what can my library learn from the Pentagon? What can a Blood Drive learn from the Census? What can the EPA learn from Green peace?

As a small business owner, I can effectively identify the leader in my market, the highest quality product or the lowest priced competitor and I can start studying how they deliver their products and services. Similarly, I can go to the leader in a totally unrelated field and observe them in action.

Benchmarking

Rivals’ and leaders’ strengths my not be in their products (engineering, materials, quality and performance) alone. You can look for benchmarks in the following areas:

  • Suppliers – supply chain, quality, ethics
  • Human Resources – recruiting, hiring and retention
  • Customer Service – walk-in, online and telephone, service responsiveness policies, dress code, etc
  • Marketing and Sales – packaging, pricing, branding, placement, promotions, sales tactics and pitches
  • Finance – pricing, financing, terms

The point is, identify some leaders, grab a pad of paper and a pen and go observe what they do and HOW they do it. Imagine how you could mimic, emulate or adopt what they do.

Keep it Simple

A final word on simple. While their algorithms are crazy complex and probably cannot ever be emulated, Google stands as the single greatest example of simplicity in customer experience. That simple one-box web page with scarcely 50 words on it – as of today – owns 64.2% of the world wide web’s search activity. They are killing their rivals with simplicity. How can you do the same?

Business Process Re-Engineering: The Enemy of Inertia, Waste and Consensus Complacency

Working with several governmental and non-profit agencies recently, I noticed a pattern emerging that is at once counter-productive and based entirely in fear. What I used to think of as intellectual sloth is giving way to wasteful complacency and what I choose to call a “consensus trance” resulting from fear of losing one’s job and identity. Who would have ever thought the BPM field would awaken so many strange psycho-social bedfellows?

Snap out of it!

I find that the best response to this trance is a tactic long employed by carnival hypnotists: snap people out of it. As an outside consultant, I have a responsibility to identify waste and recommend alternatives and solutions. In order to pull that off in an atmosphere of fear and economic uncertainty, I am resorting to a heightened assertiveness, directness and tough love. I have to point out that it is not simply a matter of process but a matter of organizational dynamics causing my clients pain. Morale is taking a direct hit as it often does when people aren’t performing in ways they know they could (given the opportunity) however, coddling people and enabling even sicker patterns to take root is not the answer.

“Will” the change you want to see in your organization

I am encouraging (if not demanding) that mid-level people and directors seek out more definitive executive sponsorship and greater political will power to enforce change initiatives. Slowly, it’s working. I am documenting decisions like never before so that I can hold people accountable. I am measuring project status at every turn. I am amending contracts wherever possible. None of this is fun but it is all so necessary. If you haven’t already done so, push hard on your Project Charter and Executive Sponsor. Then push even harder on Project Management and then hold people accountable with actual consequences.

Failure is not the end of the world

If your project fails, your process re-engineering efforts produce the wrong outcome, or people on your team fail to meet expectations, act accordingly and appropriately and move on. Dwelling on the fall-out right now will not help anyone. What we need is will, speed, and efficacy.

Let me know what works!

BPM Requires Will & Leadership: Part 2 – The Solution

The Solution: Leadership and Management for the 21st Century

I am suggesting a rather radical approach to the process re-engineering required to pull ourselves and our organizations out of the pits and back into the game. Frankly, it begins with leadership. We have to be led out of the dark places we now inhabit. The problem with leadership is that it is – in business, non-profits and government – totally antithetical to our political system and philosophy. Our democracy is in much better shape than our economy so perhaps there is a lesson in there for us.

Identifying and Appointing Our Leaders

Our business leaders are very rarely elected by virtue of their competence and performance. More often, they are; dictatorships (sole proprietors); family-owned monarchies where the crown is passed to heirs; pseudo meritocracies where high performers are imported by the board from outside the company; or corrupt, criminal gangs that promote the most manipulative con-men from among executive ranks only. I hate to be so cynical but make a list of the organizations you know who hold elections for executive post and share with us. I dare you!

The democratic process is our most cherished accomplishment yet we fail to recognize the irony of its absence in business leadership.

Gary Hamel challenges us in the current issue of Harvard Business Review (February, 2009) to acknowledge and develop 25 modern management practices. It’s a brilliant proposal. Most of the 25 have direct and immediate implications for the future of BPM so I urge you to read the article. Here’s my brief summary for your consideration:

  • Promote interdependence by encouraging the formation of smaller business units that participate in multiple internal as well as external networks
  • Reinvent management at the individual level and provide everyone the data they need (within their small business units) to know how they are performing in real time. Transparency will ensure that only the strong survive. There will be no hiding from the truth when you leverage information.
  • Recast the organization as a social system where leaders are social architects who provide everyone the time, space and resources to collaborate and innovate.
  • Celebrate and harness divergence of ideas and diversity of tactics.
  • Minimize the tendency to recede to the way things have always been done. Recessions are born out of retrenching.
  • Innovation and invention will provide for the variety, selection and deployment required for evolution.
  • Spread the responsibility for strategy and direction throughout the hive, herd or flock. “Buy-in” is a notion that involves a sales job. Aim for participation instead.
  • Democratize information. When leaders hoard information, they are feared instead of trusted.
  • Enable the revolutionaries and measure the number of new ideas people bring to the table. Find your renegades.
  • Promote experimentation and accept small, failed pilots as proof that people are trying to find a new and better way to make your widgets.
  • Include people of all ranks in the engineering of the work they do. Defining one’s work incites a deep sense of ownership and passion.
  • Retrain leaders and managers so they can acquire the tools and practice management in complex ecosystems.

Economy Prods Business To Recognize Necessity Is Mother Of Invention And BPM Is Her First Born

There are some fabulous examples of companies who get it. “It” is the urgent and important need to do things differently. It’s so simple, in fact, that it trips otherwise smart people up and is sending more businesses of all shapes and sizes to the brink. Simplicity is so elusive.  We crave complexity – particularly in our work – so we can show off our unique skills and maintain our competitive advantage as individuals. That lust for complexity, individual notoriety and competition among our own ranks is what is killing us off, my friends. Striving for simple and cooperative when conditions are such as they are is what saves us. Your competition is out there, not in here. Your customer wants your product, not you. Your price comes down and your quality goes up when you get simple. You get simple when you learn to manage your business process with the right intentions, motivations and vision.

Learn From Example

The very best example I have seen this year is that of Hyundai. Not only are they making a far better product than in the past, they have applied process innovation to their marketing and sales strategy at a time when every other major car manufacturer is bailing out. The adage that you can leverage economic crisis to your advantage with marketing and sales is true. They have stepped up sales to rental agencies, launched a new advertising campaign and re-engineered their financing allowing customers to return financed cars they can no longer afford without any penalties and without any credit score blemish. I was floored when I read about it in Business Week magazine (February 23, 2009).

What If?

What Hyundai has done – and what many other companies out there are doing – is successfully asked “what if?” The rules are changing in very big ways and you need to change and innovate just as quickly (if not faster). Hanging on to old notions of how things are done (the very essence of BPM’s mission is to slay that kind of thinking) is what will drag you down. Your business cannot outlast transformed environmental conditions. These economic conditions, this climate is having the same chilling effect on Circuit City (RIP) as the last ice age had on the sabre-toothed tiger. A once feared creature that refuses to adapt will soon die. Look around and ask “what if” until you find an adaptation you can build consensus around. Then overcome your fears and resistance and act. Take the bold step Hyundai took with their financing terms. Do something “unheard of”.