Way back when I led Six Sigma projects and programs at Motorola I was given the opportunity to extend what I had learned to all sorts of non-traditional processes. For example, helping customers obtain grants, lobbying for legislation, and my favorite, the administrative processes in policing. Everything is a process and through that lens, I could quickly assess the waste and variation in a process. The challenge I found in these environments was that everyone wanted to jump to improvement though they lacked a strong standardized process. Unfortunately, you cannot start with improvement. Before you can improve processes you need structures in place that create the stability needed for improvement.
In last month’s article, I talked about creating a constantly changing environment that lends itself to agility. To be clear, constantly changing does not mean chaos. When I say change I mean thoughtful, planned, coordinated, and orchestrated improvement. Improvement that flows just like our workflows. Too often, especially in environments that are not heavily operational, we try to drive improvement on a non-stable foundation. This is what I struggled with within these organizations. Since that time I have learned that we must create a stable base. For the tried and true lean folks out there you know this as standard or standardized work. However, I find it is more universal to talk about roles and responsibilities and governance.
We hire people to perform a function. We must be clear about what that function is and is not or we are liable to duplicate efforts, create friction between people, and leave gaps in accountability. Roles are not purely a title. They should describe the knowledge and experience required to execute the responsibilities that are needed to satisfy a customer’s needs. Roles are going to vary by the function of the organization or the culture of the company. One role that we should consistently be able to find, and that we too often forget, is the process owner. It is often assumed that the process owner is the manager. Unfortunately, in practice, the manager is doing the job itself or is managing the people and not the process. Calling the process owner out as a specific role emphasizes managing the system rather than just the tasks and people. Identifying and structuring this role and others is an important component to the overall stability of the organization.
Clearly defined and observable responsibilities create stability. A role is broad and people will assume what is inside of that role without a clear definition. The person in the role may define their responsibilities broadly in areas where it benefits them and narrowly in areas where they are uncomfortable. And for the people on the periphery of the role, they will do the exact opposite, guaranteeing some degree of conflict. The clear definition of specific responsibilities inside of a role defends against this conflict. This is one aspect of the importance of defining responsibilities.
Without well-understood responsibilities, there cannot be accountability. “We don’t have accountability in our organization.” is a statement I hear all the time. I respond with, “You are not alone.” Sadly, people believe that this is a result of a lack of punitive actions. This is not likely; more often I observe that the individual that is supposed to be accountable does not fully understand or had not been set up to meet the expectations of the management or their peers. People must know what is expected before they can be accountable. The expectation has to be named and it has to be observable for there to be any accountability. The definition of responsibilities should not end with a simple job description. Responsibilities should be elaborated through training, mentoring, supervision, documentation, and the systems that people use. Establishing clear roles and responsibilities that people understand establishes the accountability that we can use through governance.
When we talk about continuous improvement we are referring to the iterative changes that increase the performance of an organization. An organization by definition is clearly defined roles and responsibilities of groups of people. I often find companies that want to improve while they sit on an unstable foundation. While these operations do not operate in chaos, they lack a standard foundation on which to improve. For example, when we improved the first shift at the police department it wasn’t fully adopted. The second shift logged incidents in a different way than the first shift, preventing them from experiencing any gain. A process improvement activity on an already inconsistently followed process would not likely be followed and successful. Foundation is important, if you are struggling to get new processes adopted and create that change culture, this is the place to start. Investigate your problems here and work on improvements to this part of the management system first, before attacking the process.