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  • It’s the process not the people — when issues or defects arise investigate the process first.

    Over the years I have lead global organizations of significant size and they were lenses through which the rest of the company could be viewed. All of the organizations faced challenges, process issues and defects. Individuals brought problems to me and laid them at my doorstep. Although not in any job description, by definition a senior leader’s focus will be on what is not working well in the overall organization. The more senior you are the challenges are tougher and more numerous.
    Frequently people would ask, “ How do you do it, how do you survive, dealing with problems and challenges every day?” The answer lies in my approach. My consistent response was, “ Process issues and defects are gifts. They give you the opportunity to make improvements on the never-ending journey towards excellence. I appreciate it when individuals tell me that something is not working properly in the end-to-end business process.” The proper approach is required so that resolving issues will result in finding the solution more quickly, building individual capability and a culture of continuous improvement and strengthen your credibility. The benefit to you, the leader, is better use of your time.
    When an issue is brought to your attention often people will play the blame game and say either another department is not doing their job or a specific individual is not doing their job. This is the pivotal point at which you must move the conversation to another plane.
    Take two key actions regardless of the situation:
    [1] Include the individual bringing the issue forward in the work of problem solving
    [2] Peel the onion until you are satisfied the true root cause is known and, wherever possible, let the data speak.

    Including the individual, who surfaced the issue, in the problem-solving builds their individual capability. It is a teaching opportunity that should not be lost. In the future you want employees to solve the issue without involving you, which keeps the monkey off your back. When you jump into the immediacy of “fighting a fire” your time is diluted and diverted from other value-adding work.
    Peeling the onion to determine root cause is also important. We make the assumption that the person raising the issue is telling the truth. And indeed they are from their perspective. However, there are other parts of the story that need to be uncovered. Here are a series of questions that will assist in peeling the onion:
    • Can you clearly state what the issue is? In my experience about 50% of the time the real underlying issue is not the same as the initially stated issue.
    • What are the upstream process steps? Does a process map exist? If not, can you draw a process map?
    • Are there mathematical systems steps that occur in the upstream processes and has the math been verified?
    • Working backwards against the flow answer the question: How many upstream departments touch the process and what do they do?
    • How should the process have worked? What outcome was expected?
    Usually by now, you have a good picture of what actually caused the issue or defect. Now focus on developing and recommending a solution. Each issue will have a unique solution but typical solutions involve driving standard policy, procedures and work steps.
    The following example illustrates the problem-solving steps. [Note: this example is a simplified amalgamation of real life situations that I have encountered.]
    Situation: Buyers feel that Accounts Payable [AP] staff are slow in getting to their work and therefore the buyers go into the system to see which vendor payments have not been processed by day 15 after the invoices have been approved. The buyers then send e-mails to AP asking them to please process vendor payments since the payments are late. The AP department thinks that the buyers cannot add or subtract, although they go ahead and process the payments when asked. Company policy states that vendor payments will be processed on day 20 after the invoices have been approved. The bottom line is that buyers think AP staff do not know how to do their jobs and AP staff think that the buyers cannot add or subtract.
    Action: Asked one buyer and one AP staff to review the overall process to determine what was truly behind the thoughts of each group.
    Discovery: In the buyer’s training manual and desk reference, it states that vendor payments will be processed on day 15 after the invoices have been approved. It is also verified that in the company policies on vendor payments, vendor payments will be processed on day 20 after the invoices have been approved. Essentially both the buyers and the AP staff were going about their work consistent with the documentation that they had each been given.
    Action and Solution: The differences were clearly and concisely summarized and given to the CFO and COO. The pros and cons of 15 and 20 days were outlined. The CFO and COO were asked to confirm what the appropriate timing to use for releasing vendor payments. They chose 20 days, therefore, the buyers revised their documentation. Lastly, but most importantly, the results were communicated with all buyers and AP staff. Complete sharing and communication of the solution is essential to ensure successful implementation.
    Famous last words: One of the buyers said,” Wow, we have been blaming each other for a long time when in point of fact we were each using different operating assumptions.”
    I must say it was fantastic when the buyer had the “aha” moment and just blurted out the comment. It embodies everything that lean/six sigma teaches. It is very easy to point a finger at an individual or department. It definitely takes more work, and sometimes hard work, to find out what actually is going on. In the long run, however, taking the time to focus on the process and determine the root cause builds both mutual respect/trust and individual capability. And best of all it eliminates issues permanently.
    In summary, view problems and challenges as opportunities to make lasting process improvements. Focus on the process. Be sure to involve a cross-functional team in discovering and developing the solution. As a result the teams will be energized and proactively develop solutions to issues and challenges that face them.

    Published on January 10, 2012 · Filed under: Process Improvement; Tagged as:
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