Process Improvement – Getting the Right Details Right by Jason Kilgore

If a symphony performance is to be truly exceptional, each musician must master every note within the selection.  Each instrument must be finely tuned.  The venue’s design must enhance the look, feel, and sound of the event.  The “team” must function as a unit, keeping rhythm and timing.   Well-designed processes are much like a symphony performance.  There are a million details that must be considered, vetted, and executed.  Process improvement is a disciplined approach used to synthesize random details into a cohesive series of desired events.  Here are three reasons why improving processes depends on getting the right details right.

Reason #1:  Details are the difference between success and failure.  John Wooden said it this way, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” Even the casual sports fan recognizes that games are won and lost by doing the basic fundamentals correctly.  Play good defense, don’t turn the ball over, use proper technique, pay attention to the out of bounds lines, keep your eye on the ball – the list is almost endless.  The same is true in process improvement.  Mistakes in our business, as in sports, compound on each other to the point of complete system failure (our team makes mistakes, the other team scores; the other team scores, our team loses).   Success depends on doing the little things right – each person on the teaming do his or her job precisely, on cue, every time. Ignoring the details makes us average at best.

Reason #2:  Understanding the details requires building relationships.  As project groups come together to decipher data and map processes –activities necessary for improving processes – relationships are built.  Poring over details focus our minds on the common goal, encourages lively debate, and pushes our team toward consensus.   Each person learns to appreciate the talents, contributions, and motivations of every other team member.  Teams focus on the opportunity to the point that personality flaws are overlooked and connections are made with people who share a common passion for improving the status quo.  Subconsciously, we build a robust database in our minds of who does what well.  Our success depends on our ability to leverage our collective strengths and overcome our collective weaknesses.

Reason #3:  The ability to discern the important details fills the leadership vacuum.  Finding people who can lead process improvement projects is difficult.  There are those who obsess over every detail, unable to discern the critical few from the trivial many.  (They become paralyzed by indecision and are ultimately ineffective.)  Other “big-picture” thinkers make universe-altering decisions without giving careful consideration to the tactical details.  (This type of person quickly loses interest in the project altogether.)  It takes both of these people to make a project successful.  Yet, a third type of person existing in the narrow middle, is able assess entire systems, identify key triggers, and initiate improvements.  It is critical to have a person the team with the ability to act as funnel, ensuring proper focus on the details that really matter.

Shuffling through mountains of details is seldom fun, usually thankless, and always time-consuming.  However, uncovering and acting upon the nuanced opportunities will transform your business.  And that is truly rewarding and worth the time and emotional investment.  The details do matter.

Process Innovation – Don’t Be Afraid to Dream

Earlier in my career, I designed and developed gadgets for the automotive industry.  We sold new technology to every major car company in the world.  That was a great job.  Not only did I get to invent, I also had to test-drive many prototype vehicles – Corvettes, BMW’s, Jaguars, and Neon’s.  (OK, the Neon is not so impressive.)  This is typically what we think of when we talk about innovation.

In the business arena, innovation can take on different personas.  Sure, we still must innovate new products to remain competitive.  But, we must also innovate our processes to remain profitable.  Times have changed and our labor-intensive, paper-pushing processes have become outdated.  Today is the day to re-think and re-engineer our way of delivering value to the consumer.  [As a side note, I suspect process innovation will replace process improvement in the industrial vernacular to differentiate between revolutionary and evolutionary change.]   As I reflect back, I have noted several similarities between product innovation (inventing new stuff) and process innovation (designing efficient workflows).  Here are four that come to mind.

1.  Dream crazy dreams.  It is amazing to me that much of what we have today – iPhones, space tourism, and microwave popcorn – were considered science fiction fifty years ago.  These crazy dreams dreamt by stoned artists and writers, mad scientists, and off-center movie producers have sparked our collective creativity and opened our minds to new concepts, fantastical ideas, and larger-than life possibilities.  It reminds us that innovation begins in taking the time to dream crazy dreams.

2.  Ask dumb questions. One of the great things about what I do is that I get to ask the dumb questions – questions no one else will ask because they challenge the norm.  It takes courage to ask questions in a work environment whose answers are taken for granted. Honestly, it’s not so much that the question is dumb; more often, the answer is dumb.  “Why do we do it like that?”  “Because that is the way we do it here.”  Which of the previous familiar phrases is the dumb one – the question or the answer?  In our roles as leaders, constantly asking why incentivizes our team to re-think our assumption that the world is still flat.

3.  Think big thoughts. Dreaming crazy dreams and asking dumb questions alone do not result in innovation.  Crazy dreams create solutions-based concepts.  Asking dumb questions highlight the problems in need of a solution.  Thinking big bridges the gap between the future-state [crazy] dream and current-state [dumb question] problems.  Thinking big forces us to operationalize our dreams, applying workable solutions to the problems we uncover by asking the dumb questions.  If we can think bigger thoughts, we will begin to innovate.

4.  Act every day.  Innovation is not just a mental exercise in the world of WHAT IF.  True change (the result of innovation) comes in daily turning our big thoughts into action.  I wish innovation were as easy as giving a motivational speech to our team and challenging them to implement our ideas.  But, it is not.  True innovation requires the person with the brilliant idea to work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to bring that crazy dream into reality.

The innovation continuum is full of irony.  If we could capture the exhilaration of innovation before we dream the crazy dream, then we would never dream.  If we don’t ask dumb questions, we will never learn.  If we don’t think big, we will remain small.  If we don’t act every day, we will not act at all.  The brilliance of innovation is only seen in the rearview mirror.

Jason Kilgore