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The case: Facility service provider DoneWell Ltd. has a problem. The last couple of months, the departments Operations and Support are having a hard time processing the growth that the Sales department has realised. Besides this issue, old frustrations are back on the rise and people are complaining a lot about poor communication and sloppy work from other departments. This results in rework and miscommunication, which is just adding to the workload and becoming a real issue.
But how can they tackle these issues in a business process improvement project in a way which does not slow the work down even more?
In this article I walk you through an semi-fictional business improvement case, which is based on multiple projects in which I was responsible as project leader. In this article I added the learnings from these projects for you.
Working on business process improvement, project-based
With this question on the table, the heads of Sales, Operation and Support sat together. They wanted to set-up a special project to find solutions and improve collaboration. To shape this project, they also discussed who should be the project leader. They quite quickly agreed that it should be someone who could objectively lead the project, and that it therefore could not be someone from their own departments. They chose me, Marisja Verweij as freelance project manager of improvement and development projects, to be the project leader and liaison.
The project would be a success when the work processes would be more efficient and collaboration and communication between and within departments improved. To accomplish this goal in its context, the three heads approved with the following suggested guidelines, which have been inspired by the agile way of working.
1) Working in a multidisciplinary project team
2) Not spending too much time on figuring out the perfect solution, but developing and testing ideas in short cycles to keep moving
3) Working creatively and transparent to make progress visible
4) Focus is on learning, so there is a flexibility in execution of a plan when needed
Project set-up with a multidisciplinary team
Together with the department heads I looked for a good composition of the project team. For this, we considered motivation, expertise and position to be important criteria. The department heads made sure that the project members were also available to work in the project for four hours every week, during the coming two months.
We selected the following team members:
1 External Project leader (myself)
1 Senior sales representative from Sales
1 Account manager from Sales
1 Work coordinator from Operations
1 Facility professional from Operations
1 Project assistant from Support
Choosing our approach
In the first project team meeting we discussed the project guidelines and objectives and why everyone was selected. We then started off with describing the business processes, starting with an assignment from sales to execution. We used an online whiteboard to organize all the steps in the business processes and while doing this, we also discussed the bottlenecks with its causes and symptoms. The two people from Sales noticed it was intereseting for them to hear what the effects were of insufficient handoffs from their end to the operations department. The two Sales professionals acknowledged their key role in this, and also added that their targets and client focus does not make them focused on some details. They also invited the other departments to help them improve this. It also became clear that the process lacks a reflection or feedback opportunity between departments (and the client). Therefore, returning issues needed too much time to come to light and fixed.
We came to the following main topics we needed to work on:
1. More efficient transfers between departments and better communication
2. Improve quality in our service
3. Organize learning and ongoing improvement
Working in short improvement cycles
To give structure to the operation of these questions, I introduced the design cycle you see in the figure below.
For each topic, the project team brainstormed about solutions and developed tools that would help them implement these. The status of the development of these ideas, was organized on a online kanban board. Less talking, more learning and doing; that was our motto. With this pragmatic mindset we could celebrate small success and results early on in the project.
To address the dynamics between the departments, I made the team members make their own visual constellation of the present and desired situation between the departments. With Lego’s and other objects everyone translated their vision to a constellation and presented it to the group. This was a powerful tool to explore all different paradigms and for getting to know each other a bit better. During this activity, the group found out that they share the same core values; Quality, Collaboration and Learning. They expressed their wish to dive in these core values some more with the whole organization outside of this project.
During the regular department meetings – which were also held in the common meeting room – the department heads asked the project team members to share an update with their colleagues. This gave opportunity for colleagues not involved in the project, to ask questions hear about the progress of the project team.
Flexibility and focus on learning
We embraced all ideas and efforts that served the original objectives of the project, whether its results directly or indirectly benifitted in this project. And we were willing to make changes in execution of our strategy. For instance, during the project we found out that it was a better idea to integrate the second topic about quality and service with the first topic about efficiency. Since the approach of both topics would be the same, we could save time by developing ideas that checked both boxes. There were also appointments made to shadow a colleague from another departments, to learn more about each other’s work. And the project assistant from Support mentioned that he would like to do a project management course in order to learn how to take on a more leading role in process quality control and help the Sales department in their work.
How did this improvement project end?
Within two months there were enough smart solutions implemented that improved the whole process. Of course there was a still natural friction between the different expertise, but there was also more room and opportunity created for conversation and feedback. This resulted that frustrations were overall handled more constructively. The project team and the department heads acknowledged that there still was much more to do, but that they really benefitted from the project and this positive start.