Much Lean/Agile/Design Thinking training suggests that if you change a process, better performance will follow. It often does, but many practitioners are frustrated that their streamlined process design is not delivering as expected, nor is it being followed. This poor performance might be explained by powerful, but invisible root causes.
As change agents, this reduces our effectiveness, and creates cynicism – “I told you this wouldn’t work’”, or “you can’t change anything around here”, missing opportunities to create more value.
If you only consider factors that are visible on a process or design map, then it is likely that you are not going to be successful. We need to go beyond traditional analysis by examining the enablers of performance.
Enabler (plural enablers)
If the right enablers are in place, then there is a stronger chance that the solution will stick and will deliver results. If they are not in place, it is reasonable to expect continued low performance. The challenge is that these enablers are often not visible to the eye – their impacts certainly are, but they, themselves are usually invisible, and thus go unaddressed.
You’ve streamlined an approval process, removing the input of four stakeholders who weren’t needed in the process. The “to-be” map looks far slimmer and efficient than the “as-is” map. You got the green light from the Big Boss to implement it.
You implement the new, streamlined approval process. Weeks later, those stakeholders that you wrote out of the script start getting consulted again. Then, months later, they find their way back into the process, as an informal but mandatory step. The process slows down. What happened?
An enabler that we often see in these types of processes is “mindset”, or our way of thinking. In this case, the original mindset of the people working in the process was: “if we want to avoid risk, we need to consult as widely as possible.”, based on the hidden assumptions of:
What happened in this example is that the process changed, but the enabler (mindset) did not. As a result, which one wins? The old mindset, of course.
In our research, we analyzed organizations that sped up their processes by 70-90%, improved quality dramatically, increased employee engagement and sustained that performance for years. In this analysis, we examined which enablers of performance they addressed to get there, and conducted an exercise to see what caused what.
The results were fascinating.
Not quite making the top 10 enablers of performance were some familiar-looking suspects:
Is the business process optimized to create flow and value?
Right decision-making structure to promote flow?
Likely few of factors on the list above are surprising – they all seem to enable good performance.
In the top 10 (in terms of impact), were some familiar factors:
Humans in the process have more work or complexity than they can reasonably handle, reducing flow
Incentives or disincentives cause the wrong behaviours – impeding flow.
Then, at the top of the list, are some eye-opening factors. Their effects are very visible on a process map, but they, themselves, are typically invisible.
When the process spans multiple functions, often there is no process ‘owner’ or ‘champion’ to ensure flow and smooth value creation.
It is difficult to solve problems that you cannot see. If the end-to-end process is invisible, the local ‘islands/silos’ will likely be optimized but not the end-to-end flow.
The way we think about the work. The way we think about the work guides how we manage people, process and technology. It is responsible, at least in part, for just about everything else on this list.