Pockets of Knowledge, Islands of Excellence

When I am asked to help with a strategy transformation I commonly encounter what I would call process entropy: the notion that "this is how we have always done it" compounded with the knowledge that things need to change so please, oh outsider, come and help us.

The surprising, and little known, fact is that there are certain individuals in every organization that know the ins and outs of your process, can pin-point the process breakdowns and help avoid making the wrong turns in designing a new process.

I am reminded of a former financial services organization which asked me to help with the requirements for an enterprise fulfillment solution. Our business sponsor was astute to recognize the need to "Lean" out the process first. The difficulty was that each line of business seemed to have their own process for accomplishing the exact same thing and they dreaded at the thought that anyone would take away their "uniquenesses". So we started out by creating process maps for documenting the "as-is" state. We quickly realized that there are similarities that can not be refuted. These similarities were easier to depict at a higher level view of the process than at the task level. Clearly the activity level for one LOB differed from another. If you pull back and take a holistic view then everyone pursues the same common purpose they go about it in different ways.

This similarity is covered by Cedric Tyler and Steve Baker in their book "Business Genetics", where they suggest a comprehensive view of an organization consists of pursuing the five "W"'s: Why, What, Where, When and Which. These pillars can be posited as follows: understand WHO is doing WHAT, WHEN are they doing it, WHERE are they doing it and WHICH information do they need to do it. They suggest simple mapping efforts to accomplish this.

Funny - every time I start a project I always chart out the territory by building my own "org" chart of sorts: not a traditional who-reports-to-who but a hierarchical diagram of functional ownership. I usually use a tool such as Freemind (a mind mapping tool)

Pockets of Knowledge
So after you interviewed and built an "as-is" understanding of your process, the next step is to "improve" it. You might be following DMAIC if you are executing your project as a Six Sigma effort, or have Lean Action Workouts to let the business drive the change if you are executing Lean/TPS.

What I would like to draw your attention to is the "pockets of knowledge" that exist within the process. These are individuals, from the most unlikely places in the organization, who possess the most extensive amount of knowledge about the business process.

In the past, I have found certain IT people, who were so experienced in responding to system enhancements and had been with their organization for long enough, that they understood the most intricate process challenges and gaps across functional silos. I have encountered these "local experts" at every part of the value chain and they always surprise me with their directness, non politically correct depiction of the present state and their eagerness to help move the organization to the future state.

At NBC I found people who came from accounting and moved into operational roles to have similar insights into revenue generating processes. Sometimes it is simply a user of a system that is part of the workflow of a core business process - someone who had to "invent" ways to interact with the system that were not thought of when it was originally designed.

These experts do not live in constant fear that their job might be made redundant by improving the process, the kind of fear that can put the Kibosh on any well intentioned process improvement initiative. Some organizations even hire FUD managers (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) to handle those aspects of organizational change.

Pay closest attention to the local experts of your process. They have been through many previous attempts to make change, and if you establish a reasonable amount of trust and are sincere about your desire to help the process (and not just cut "heads", or as it is known in corporate lingo "cost-out") - then you will find them a wealth of information to understand the gaps between the current state and help you build a transition plan.

How do you identify a local expert?

The most direct answer to the question is unequivocally simple: Walk the process! Take your but out of the chair, out of the constant meetings (even action work outs) and go walk the process. This means you need to meet with people at their desk, see with your own eyes their problems, understand what they go through to deliver what they are expected to deliver and "feel their pain". This pain might be a cumbersome system they need to interface, or an unbelievably complex process that boggles their minds each time they need to work through it.

Here are my persona experiences of "walking the process" and the surprising results they yielded:

By walking the process I learned that although a system was available to complete a task, the person was so frustrated from trying to get real results that they walked one flight up to another department each time they needed materials, and brought them back downstairs to their working area.

By meeting with an individual in their working area I was able to observe an enormous pile of folders on their desk. I drilled down into the root cause of this "stockpiling" and 6 months later that person's desk is not littered with photos of the family and excellence awards...

By "shadowing" another person to meetings with their internal stakeholders, I was able to observe a pattern of communication breakdowns that was causing misunderstanding between functional areas. After a few facilitated sessions, the participants adopted simple prioritization tools and collaboration techniques that helped deliver high performance results, increase in sales and reduction of process defects that they were previously unable to address.

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