Inefficiencies in disguise: When process issues are not what they seem

A few months ago, I woke to find our kitchen table covered in water. Thinking it was a spill from the previous night or some shenanigans caused by the dogs, I sopped up the mess and went about my day. Upon reentering the kitchen 30 minutes later however, the water was back. This time I saw the cause – a slow drip coming from the ceiling. My small, easily solvable problem was actually a full-blown, complex issue that would require our neighborhood handyman, an AC specialist and $3K to resolve.

No doubt you have experienced some version of this. A seemingly minor problem is something larger and deeper, with an undecipherable cause. In the consulting world, these instances happen regularly, often in process mapping sessions. A client sees a correlation between an organizational process and business results and wants to fix the issue in isolation. But business issues are never isolated. Metaphorically, we’ll go in to fix a single gear in the organizational machine but upon examination, discover that the whole thing is covered in rust.

So how can you tell what to fix first? Small issues that when fixed, can contribute to the solving of the larger problem, or do you start at the top and tackle the big ones first? In this piece, Renee Camplese, our in-house process mapping specialist, and Craig Willis, co-founder of Skore, an innovative process mapping software solution, share their client experiences when finding out the problem they were there to solve turned out to be something much bigger.

What are the ways you can tell an issue stems from something larger than the process you’re mapping?

“It’s usually to do with prioritization or when the completion of work is subjective. In terms of prioritization, it’s when the team can’t agree how to prioritize or everything is equally as important,” says Craig. “The completion of work being subjective has to do with the team disagreeing about when something is finished. Recently I worked with a team whose marketing content kept getting stuck in the review phase because everyone had a different idea of what ‘finished’ looked like. This was due to a lack of guiding principles and authority to make the final decision. They also didn’t have a strategy so they didn’t know why and when to create content. No strategy meant no rules.”

General confusion and unnecessary complexity point to something fundamental that’s gone wrong. Process workarounds can point to several larger issues like a lack of role clarity, lack of organizational discipline or poor IT and systems. When work groups have little understanding of how their individual work impacts colleagues upstream and downstream or there is confusion around who owns the work, it usually means the organization operates in functional silos.

“When the room is unclear on who is responsible for what, it’s a red flag. There may be conflict in the room because the same work activities exist in multiple departments. Lack of clarity on roles can also lead to issues with decision authority. The same decision will be made in multiple functions or no one knows who actually makes the final call,” says Renee.

How do you recover in a mapping session when you realize there’s a larger issue at hand?

Renee says it’s important to make the group aware of the issue. “I call it out for the group to discuss and identify if the issue is process, cultural or other. It’s helpful to set the issue aside to tackle as a group later that day to keep the conversation on track. If the issue cannot be solved with the people in the room, then establish an action plan to solve it in the future.”

“When using the Skore approach, we always try to start at a higher level than the specific process we’re looking at. This helps at the beginning to set the scope and context of the process. But once you start to realize the issue is larger than the current process, it’s easy to go up a level, have the conversation, capture it and then set an action to follow up after the workshop,” offers Craig.

“If you’re mapping current state, you make a note and continue capturing the process with all its problems. In an ideal world, this feedback is shared and becomes insights used in future strategy development.”

Speaking of strategy, how do issues with strategy manifest themselves in process issues?

Issues with strategy come to light when things take much longer then they should because of a lack of strategic guidance. Strategy helps drive the what to do and without this, the organization can spend a lot of time guessing or working on the wrong things. KPIs and decision-making will often be non-existent or unclear.

“A lack of strategy can result in a ‘wild west’ approach within the organization,” Renee says. “People won’t be rowing in the same direction. Everyone will be doing just what they need to get their work completed without concern of the impact to other functions.”

If you see lots of rework, inefficiency or lack of clarity on who does what, it’s likely a process issue. If goals aren’t being met and there’s a lack of purpose and lots of unlinked work activities across the organization, it’s likely a strategy issue.

What action(s) do you recommend when the root cause of a process issue is discovered to be something larger?

“Back to my earlier example on marketing content, the client was provided with a framework for building their content strategy,” says Craig. “It all starts with strategy.”

We always recommend building strategy on a strong foundation of the business reality and marketplace opportunity. Without starting with the real current state, you’re essentially shooting darts blindfolded. “The most comprehensive highest-level approach is to perform an Organization Performance Management (OPM) assessment to clearly identify where the issues lie. Then create an OGSM to engage the entire organization on the strategy,” Renee recommends.

If the desire is to handle issues at a more local level, for example across a few departments, it’s useful to take a kaizen-like approach to solve. Set up teams to determine the root cause of the most pressing issues and brainstorm ways to solve them. It may involve securing approval of management to proceed or it may result in a simple fix.

Renee considers a recent session with a client. “We mapped a brand/product acquisition process for a company. We were able to identify that virtually all of the work to prepare for the ‘go/no go’ acquisition decision lived within two functions. This was because leadership desired to limit the number of people who had access to very sensitive information. But as a result, they had non-subject matter experts doing work they should not be doing and significantly compressed timelines for the balance of the organization once the new brand/product was officially acquired.”

“To solve, the process mapping team prepared the business case to bring select subject matter experts into the process earlier and then presented their idea to legal counsel and leadership for approval. The outcome was a decision to engage the right people earlier, which ultimately improved the quality of the work being done, shortened timelines by spreading out the work and allowed strategic sales managers more time to prepare for the new brand launch.”

What are the most impactful lessons you have learned in your experience with process mapping?

  • Process mapping is the gift that keeps on giving. Once you see how work actually gets done, you will be amazed at how much more efficient your business can be, function by function.
  • Process mapping is not just something manufacturing teams do. All key business management processes can benefit from understanding their bottlenecks, challenges and inefficiencies.
  • Process mapping is a strategic asset.
  • Some process issues are really strategic issues at their root, and if strategy is not well-established within an organization, no amount of process improvements can fix your issues.
  • Bad processes can slow down or keep organizations from delivering their strategic plan. Simply stating financial goals will not automatically result in goal attainment. Solid, efficient, clear processes can greatly impact goal attainment.
  • Process tends to be seen through the lens of efficiency, but it should start with a focus of value creation.

Renee Camplese is passionate about assisting companies progress along their paths to growth, which includes strategic planning, improving processes and driving commercial excellence. Contact Renee today for more information on solving both the small and large issues troubling your organization.

Craig Willis supports strategic change initiatives with his expertise in process design, improvement and change in the product development life cycle. Contact Craig today to learn more about how Skore helps tame the beast of time, cost and complexity in business transformation.

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