The Noble Profession Of Process Excellence

th3LS50DQUFlourishing is a remarkable book, and rather heartwarming for those toiling in the vineyard of process excellence.

Remarkable because it’s a radical critique of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes – and, more widely, of 21st century capitalism – co-authored by two US business school professors and published by Stanford University.

The book is a set of interviews around eight papers by John Ehrenfeld, former Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment and still, in retirement, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale. The interviewer is Andrew Hoffmann, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

In essence, Dr Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

“Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He proposes instead a wider, richer definition: “Sustainability-as-flourishing”. “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.”  It’s a definition that includes issues of justice, inequality, wellbeing and social cohesion – with implications for the individual and the community, for every organization and institution.

His analysis is uncompromising: “Growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god”. We neglect human well-being and focus overwhelmingly on material goals – “Our metrics of success are now principally measured in material terms” – so that “in making ourselves rich, we are making ourselves existentially and psychologically poor”.  He asks heretical questions about the value of corporate sustainability measures:

“Sustainability is a systems property. You don’t measure sustainability; it’s only a possibility. You strive to attain it. No single company is going to be able to measure their specific contribution to sustainability. What’s important is whether they are promoting a culture of flourishing or not. Are they structuring their company to promote fairness, wellness, equality, ecosystem health and community cohesion?”

His conclusions are surprising. Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two big ideas. We need to shift our dominant mindsets from Having to Being, from Needing to Caring.  We need to shift from a dominant materialistic mindset to spirituality and love: “Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible”.

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Scaling Up Excellence

How’s your process excellence initiative going? Frustration and confusion everywhere, pummelled by unpredictable and unpleasant events, the stench of failure in the air?  So far so good, then. That’s according to Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao, Stanford professors whose research convinces them that ‘organizations that scale well are filled with people who talk and act as if they are in the middle of a manageable mess’.

Scaling is fraught with risks and uncertainties. Even the best leaders and teams recognise that muddling through can be inevitable, sometimes for months, while searching for the best way forward. Scaling stars have grit. ‘It’s not simply a marathon. It’s like running a long race where you don’t know the right path, often what seems like the right path turns out to be the wrong one, and you don’t know how long the race will last, where or how it will end, or where the finish line is located’.

It’s refreshingly candid advice, and Scaling Up Excellence is full of it.  On a seven year journey that started with a Stanford management education program on ‘Customer-Focused Innovation’, Sutton and Rao set out to explore The Problem of More:

“Executives could always point to pockets in their organizations where people were doing a great job of uncovering and meeting customer needs. There was always some excellence – there just wasn’t enough of it. What drove them crazy, kept them up at night, and devoured their weekdays was the difficulty of spreading that excellence to more people and more places. They also emphasized that the Problem of More (which they often called “scaling” or “scaling up”) wasn’t limited to building customer-focused organizations; it was a barrier to spreading excellence of every stripe.”

Scaling Up Excellence is a thoughtful, easy-to-read and intensely practical book about successful business transformation and innovation: how to start it, lead it, nurture it and sustain it. Continue reading

Goobledegook And The Bottom Line

ChaosThere’s a parable for our times over on the FT. It’s a story about the real-life rebellion of a senior director who refused to approve a new IT system because he had “not understood a word” of the presentation to the board. Initially the lone dissenting voice in the room, his fellow board members eventually admitted that they had not really understood the project either, which had been explained in “baffling goobledegook”.

In this particular re-enactment of Twelve Angry Men, no innocent man was saved from the gallows but the board did go on to demand that the CIO come back after translating the plans into plain English. As the author Gillian Tett notes, it’s a story that should challenge us all:

“For when we look back at 2013, one of the big themes was the regularity with which computing systems produced costly glitches.”

There’s been a lot written on IT failures and their impact, which can be devastatingly expensive. The evidence points overwhelmingly to poor communication as the most common root cause. Between all the stakeholders, but most critically between IT and the business. Successful IT project teams, as McKinsey has noted, continually engage with stakeholders – at all levels, internally and externally – within a rigorous governance framework for managing change.

What happens most often of course is that the board blindly nods the project through. But this isn’t just a problem of poor communication at board level.  At every level, there’s often a stilted and meagre dialogue running between IT and the business, increasing risk and undermining business benefits. And it’s mostly hidden in plain sight just because expectations are so low.  Caring too much about clarity and accountability can even be career-limiting.

How then do we fix this? Continue reading

Process Excellence: What’s To Be Done?

The PEX Week Europe survey results, just published, make for surprisingly gloomy reading. There seems to be something badly adrift in the world of Process Excellence.

Almost 1,000 ‘process professionals’ were surveyed last month. The single most worrying chart shows perceptions of process improvement in their organizations:

11.7% said that their process excellence program was either at risk or had already been dismantled (up from 5.7% in 2011)

15% said that process improvement was experiencing declining returns in their organization

17% reported that effort and interest in process improvement has peaked.

Which is surprising. My own take is that continuous improvement is very much part of the zeitgeist in the CxO suite, and that process excellence is becoming more widely understood as the other side of that coin.  So why do ‘process professionals’ seem so downbeat?

It could be simply a European problem, but I suspect not.  More likely perhaps is that many organizations hugely over-invested in Lean and Six Sigma programmes that failed to deliver. They failed to some extent, of course, because they were wildly over-sold.  But many of today’s ‘process professionals’ might looking back nostalgically at those heady days.

It is plainly ridiculous that process excellence should be getting such a bad press. So what’s to be done?

At the risk of your groans at this point, here’s some reasons why I see the enterprise process management platform as the missing piece in this jigsaw:

It links process improvement with top level business strategy.  It addresses directly the single biggest process excellence challenge reported in the PEX survey. It provides direct line of sight between the operating model and the operational processes.

It ensures sustainable improvement, the second biggest challenge reported in the survey. An enterprise process management platform allows a pipeline of improvement projects to be identified, analysed, designed and delivered – in collaboration with the business. So there’s engagement and adoption: cost cuts stick and there’s no organizational snapback after change.

It gives meaning to metrics.  A third of survey respondents reported that “My organization measures so many metrics that it’s difficult to know which ones are important”.  Define KPIs as leading indicators of the health of the end-to-end processes and they have context. Even better, when a traffic light goes red, I can see immediately what’s upstream, what’s downstream and who are the stakeholders: I can start to fix it quicker.

And, if that wasn’t enough, it allows risks and controls to be embedded and managed within the context of the operational processes, so compliance and risk management is easier – which will get the attention of the CFO at least and so address another reported challenge: the lack of executive buy-in.

With an enterprise process management platform in place, ‘process professionals’ can do what they do best.  And feel loved again.

Related Posts

21 Feb 2013   When Process Standardization Backfires

19 Nov 2012   No Other Corporate Asset Is Wasted So Spectacularly

© Text Michael Gammage 2013

Process Improvement And Packing The Dishwasher

I love this picture.  I saw this hearfelt and passionate plea in a kitchen area on the campus of a leading Life Sciences company.

The complete and total frustration, nay depair, of the author is evident. And the scrawled response “or you will be sent to bed” just makes it more hilarious.

What’s interesting, though, is that this is one of the most organised and diligent organisations I’ve ever worked with. And everyone I’ve ever met there is bright, switched on and seemingly hard-wired for collaboration. This is the last place you’d expect to see freeloaders and a societal breakdown.

I took another picture on that same campus that day.  I was knocked out by  an official corporate comms poster on a restroom wall.  [Don’t worry – if I ever come to your workplace, I do know how to behave…] 

It was an outstanding poster on the theme of collaboration, and, in particular, on the value of simplicity in allowing everyone to get engaged and work more efficiently. I can’t show the whole poster without revealing the organization (and probably infringing copyright) but here’s part of it.

Even organizations such this – an organization that installs in its restrooms high quality artwork promoting process as an enabler for more effective collaboration – even such an organization can still fall apart when it comes to packing the dishwasher.

There’s a lesson here. If process is to fulfil its potential as the language of the enterprise, then it absolutely has to be simple – capable of being understood by everyone. And if process management is to be the platform that enables effective collaboration across the enterprise, then it absolutely has to be robust but also intuitive and engaging. Otherwise it’s about as sustainable as a kitchen rota.

Related Posts

19 Nov 2012    No Other Corporate Asset Is Wasted So Spectacularly

05 Sep 2012    Translating An Operating Model Into Real Work

© Text Michael Gammage 2012

Effective Collaboration And Outsourcing Success

One slide (below) from an HfS Research webinar yesterday highlighted how effective collaboration is at the heart of outsourcing success.  Coming from HfS – at the center of the industry, with no particular ax to grind – it’s significant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The market has moved beyond cost savings. Buyers are looking for outsourcers who can deliver innovation and continuous improvement:  “Most clients want to work in a collaborative relationship”, said Phil Fersht, HfS Founder and CEO.  Yesterday’s case study featuring Syngenta Business Services and Capgemini provided a superb example of effective collaboration in practice.

Effective collaboration demands the right people, the right structures and the right incentives. Providing the underpinning framework – rich, robust and intuituve – that enables this complex, dynamic and multi-layered collaboration is the strategic opportunity facing the process management platform vendors.

Related Posts

15 Nov 2012    Outsourcing’s Secret Sauce

23 Oct 2012    Mapping The Stakeholders in GBS Success

© Text Michael Gammage 2012

Chalk One Up For Sustainability

Delighted call yesterday from a client whose CEO had made a stand for sustainability.

The CEO had invited in a well-known consultancy for a year to drive a Lean program on a payment-for-results basis.

The Lean consulting team arrived two weeks ago and explained its methodology. They didn’t care that this organization had implemented Nimbus as a process platform at the heart of the business. They insisted that brown paper and Post-It notes would be used for all their work. Amazingly, they were so attached to this that they refused even to use the client’s paper. It had to be their brown paper.

When it was escalated to the CEO, he didn’t equivocate. He insisted that this organization’s process platform must be the alpha and the omega for the Lean program. It was, he explained to the Lean consultants, an integrated business management platform, but not in any abstract sense: it was supporting people doing real work 24/7. So it was the perfect framework to identify, design and deliver sustainable improvement projects.

What tickled my friend and led to his jubilant call was the CEO’s remark at the end of the meeting, as the consultants left the room, that if he saw brown paper being used in future, he would ‘personally escort them from the premises’.

The price of sustainable excellence is eternal vigilance. [as Jefferson might have put it… ]