Sorting out the muddle – Process Definition

I met a client shortly after he had purchased a distribution franchise for what was then (and probably still is) South Africa’s fastest growing Financial Services company. He had inherited a team, a culture and a way of working and was given a bare minimum start-up period before he was expected to deliver against the usual stiff targets. He asked me if I could come in and see where I could help.

I spent time with the team, addressing the vision of the business and some of the issues in their interactions. I also did quite a bit of work on Customer Service, using the ’10 Demandments’ model of Kelly Mooney. But it soon became obvious that the team really needed clarity on how to get work in, through and out of the office. There were no recognised or recorded processes. The confusion caused delays in the issuing of policies and the payment of the brokers with whom they worked, which directly impacted on their sales figures. I have done quite a bit of process modelling and suggested that they get clarity on their processes.

We started with a context diagram for the responsible areas, to get clear on general inputs and outputs. Then for each of the processes we modelled the flow of work, showing ‘swim-lanes for responsibilities, processes, deliverables and hand-overs. We also defined the detail for each process including inputs, outputs, stakeholders, requirements, triggers and risks. The template I have compiled for this definition process includes 21 elements.

The processes cleared up the everyday bottlenecks, allowing the team to deal seamlessly with their work and to address the business crises that arose. This client is incredibly dedicated to his clients and his brokers. Since this work, this client has frequently been awarded as the best franchise in the business.

Fixing the LAN – Root Cause Analysis

Here is a process for complicated problems. I worked in a company in which the Local Area Network would stop working up to three times a week.  When it happened some people could continue to work on the LAN and others could not.  No-one in the IT department could say why this happened.  After the problem had continued for almost a year and the technicians had bought a new file server and a new router at massive cost, I asked the IT manager if I could have one go at finding the cause.  I had completed a course in Analytic Trouble Shooting on the mine on which I worked and was sure the approach could work.

I gathered all the experts in one room; company technicians, supplier technicians and some industry experts.  Then I initiated the ATS process.  We defined a problem statement (what is going wrong and what is going wrong with it).  Then we listed:

  • What was going wrong and what could be going wrong but was not.
  • Where was it happening and where could it have been happening but was not.
  • When was it happening and when could it happen but was not.
  • What was the extent of the problem and what could it have been but was not.

With each new insight the techies leapt up to go and try something.  But the process depends on clear thought.  Every now and again I had to step to the door to ask everyone to sit down to complete the thought process before we tried solutions.   It turned out that we did not have enough information and the technicians had to put ‘sniffers’ and recorders on the LAN to collect data on what was happening just before it “fell over”.

It took us three months to solve the problem. Some of this was due to a lack of delivery on the part of some of the team who would not implement the data recorders.  But eventually we could reproduce the problem, which was quite complex.  It was a Token-Ring LAN with hubs on each floor of the building.  The printers on each floor were connected to the LAN using devices called “Jet Direct” which introduced faults into the LAN.  At the same time the hubs were old and had not been kept up to date with the new releases of software.  When they detected “illegal” characters on the ring they were designed to go through an automatic bifurcation analysis to isolate the problem (shut down half the ports, is the problem still there?  Yes?  Shut down half the remaining ports.  Is the problem still there?  No?  Open the ports just shut down and continue to bifurcate until the offending port has been isolated).  Something like that.  Only the hubs got stuck after the first or second bifurcation.  So some ports were shut down and others were working.  The problem we had all been experiencing.

We upgraded the hubs and the problem went away.

Now here is the thing. I knew absolutely nothing about LAN hardware of software.  There was a brilliant technician on the team who explained a lot of the detail for me.  But the team found the solution.  I simply brought the process and facilitated the sessions.  Then they said “Steve you would be a good Quality Manager” but that is another story…

A last minute call to action – Project Initiation Facilitation

Great things happen when conflicting parties are given a space and opportunity to hear one another.

I received a call at 07:30, after a long-weekend in the mountains, with a request to facilitate a workshop. Starting at 08:30 that morning!   The client, a training organisation who I had not met before, were under pressure to deliver on a large project.

There was almost no time to prepare. After battling through the morning traffic I arrived 20 minutes before the agreed start time.   Fortunately, the out-of-town delegation had not yet arrived and I had a little time to appreciate the situation and organise the room.  From what I heard though, I knew this was going to be a ‘do or die’ workshop.

The room was all wrong. Tables had been set up as in a horseshoe format, too formal for a high energy workshop.  I had the participants in the room rearrange the tables into islands while I spoke to the sponsor about the agenda.  She gave me some hurried background and said they really needed a project plan but their client were frustrated and angry.  Their organisation had passed the project between teams within their business and had consequently slipped badly on delivery.  They had however organised their project team and were ready to launch into action.  Their client, a massive quasi-government organisation were frustrated with the non-delivery and were flying a high-level delegation in to Cape Town to address the problems.  I was half-way through compiling an agenda when the client delegates arrived.  One of the delegates had lost his luggage on the flight and was visibly annoyed.

I welcomed the new arrivals, and suggested we settle down after they had had a cup of coffee.  As I was introducing the agenda and agreeing the behaviours for the day, the delegate who had lost his luggage launched into an energetic commentary on the lack of delivery of my client.  After a short speech he looked at me and paused.  Though I was ready to launch a project initiation workshop, I realised the out-of-town team were ready to shut-down the project and I knew the situation had to be handled carefully.  I know that the solution to most conflict lies in helping the parties to listen to each other.   Instead of pushing on with the agenda, I decided to pause, slow the process down and deal with the high emotions.

I said, “Clearly you feel angry about the way this project has been handled. Is there anything more you would like to say?”  He then explained how the deadlines had been missed, the lack of communication, and how this had made them appear incompetent to their sponsors.  The manager who was passing the project on to the new team started to explain the reasons for non-delivery.  I felt the hackles rising in the room.  I cut in and suggested that it would be best if the whole team listened to what their clients had to say.  The team sat and listened.   During this first session the voices of the out-of-town delegates moderated and calmed.  The client manager who was handing over the project excused himself from the workshop.  The new manager took up the baton saying the project team was ready and that she intended to make things happen.We spent about an hour dealing with the emotional side of the conflict.   I asked if the team was ready to talk about the way forward.  They agreed this was right and I took them through an ordered project re-initiation session.

We spent the rest of this first day scoping out a project.  The intiation was underway.

A workshop to contain project slippage – Project Refocus Facilitation

I am sometimes called to facilitate sessions that no-one else wants to touch because of the potential unpleasantness.  I was asked to facilitate a session for a client working on a project in the Oil Industry where the IT team were not meeting their deadlines and were not taking ownership of their lack of delivery.  After a thorough briefing with the project manager I set up the room, the delegates arrived and I started the session.

As I began to suggest acceptable behaviours for the day a big fellow rocked his chair back into the wall and asked “Why are we doing this workshop anyway?  You are just wasting our time!!”

The room tensed up.  Dramatically!  For about 10 seconds no-one spoke.  I don’t think anyone breathed.

Then I said “OK, so you think this is a waste of time. What are your concerns about holding this workshop?”
“Well” he replied “this project is delivering and is under pressure and by holding a planning workshop you are wasting our precious time.”
So I wrote on the flip-chart “This project is delivering and is under pressure and by holding a planning workshop you are wasting our precious time.”
Then I turned to him and asked, “what else is there?”.
His face contorted.  He was very frustrated.  There was a long pause.  I waited in silence.  Then he lead a flood of comments and objections, all of which I wrote down under the heading “Concerns”.
When I felt we had exhausted the pent up emotion I asked “You have just passed one of your project milestones, did you deliver what was required?”

There was a long silence.

Then there were general noises of agreement from the IT team that indeed they had not delivered.

I then asked if they were ready to define a schedule for delivery and they agreed this would be a good idea.  We took a break for tea and got stuck into the programme for the day.  The deadlock had taken two hours to resolve.

Using strategy models for coaching – One-on-One Coaching

I helped a Doctoral student to define the difference between coaching and facilitation as part of her thesis by listing the two key criteria used to mark the difference and labelling the quadrants.  The emerging model aligned with the process the client had used with her clients for the research.

I have a client who has paddled down the three tributaries of the Amazon and other rivers.  He has written an amazing book and was looking for assistance to define a marketing strategy.  So I used the four Ps.  His product is the book – the price is set, his place or channel is that he is self marketing and we are talking about all the opportunities for promoting the book, at major sporting events etc.  And then the thinking arena also comes into play as he wrestles with the enormity of what he has taken on.