Long considered an organisational panacea, improvement workshops are a common feature in most services organisations. Managers view workshops as important ingredients to combat resistance to change by involving staff, reduce costs and improve services. What if the resulting wall of post-it notes is actually a hallucination, packed full of assumptions and none of them reflective of what is actually happening?
A common scenario
Whenever a change or improvement initiative comes along, the service improvement or project team leap into action. Contact is made with hard-pressed senior stakeholders. Negotiations made for slots in diaries already crammed with meetings. The day arrives. The group convenes in a room. Facilitators marshal participants to provide current and/or future state processes in post-it note form. Analysts suggest exciting new tech and hey presto on the brown paper at the end of the day is some form of map. These rapidly become a program of change or project. What could be wrong with that?
The top 10 danger signs
Having spent two decades running workshops, using lots of different approaches in the private and public sectors these are my observations of the common danger signs.
1. Work as done and work as described
Pulling people out of the work and into a room to describe what they do is a risky endeavour. Psychologist Stephen Shorrock articulates that work as described, imagined and prescribed is often vastly different from work as it is actually done. Improvement on this basis has the same effect as building a house on sand. It will eventually to lead subsidence and collapse.
2. Purpose, value and measures
When building any service the key factor is to understand what the customer is trying to do (their purpose for demanding something from you). Meeting this demand is to create value for them. For example to help them solve a problem or to get something done. The measures in use rarely tell leaders or managers if their service is actually creating this value for customers. When asked most managers will show you their efficiency-focused staff activity measures, normally the number of contacts, jobs per day, adherence to targets or the time to close service requests. These measures rarely reflect the actual service experience of customers. Without an effectiveness view all activity is considered valuable. Each post-it note is perceived as value-adding. And because there are no useful measures, you won’t know!
3. Another type of meeting
All workshops focusing upon mapping, improvement and redesign are actually about some form of change. Even traditional consulting firms understand that all change is actually about psychology. Meeting rooms are poor environments to overcome the psychological barriers to change. Professor John Seddon has written widely about three forms of learning and change; coercive (I tell – you do), rational (I explain) and normative (You see it for yourself and understand why it needs to change). Workshops then are rational spaces and in this sense they are another category of meeting.
4. Workshops – parts not the whole
Point interventions are a particular feature of many improvement workshops. These take a part or one point of a larger interconnected process or service, for example involving a specific team or teams. Without understanding how the whole works and with a poor understanding of value or measures, tools are applied and the parts are ‘improved’. This inadvertently leads to unintended consequences, driving problems into other parts of the services.
One reason why workshops are chosen is because they limit the time groups of workers are away from work. Rather than spending the necessary time to do it right (get knowledge in the right way), the focus is upon quick time-limited slots. From an effectiveness perspective, this activity is often harmful.
6. Designing the future state
Workers are often invited to attend design workshops (the ‘future’ state) in a room. How the work actually works has not been uncovered, assumptions have not been tested and measures have not changed. This amounts to guesswork, or what I call casino design. The resulting process maps are turned into change programs and projects. It isn’t known that what is planned will work. The organisation’s money is gambled on the red. The predictable unintended consequences will appear in due course with years of follow-on work required to correct the mistakes made.
It is common in many improvement workshops to teach and deploy process efficiency tools. These tools mostly originate in manufacturing to solve problems in those types of organisation. Tools are seductive (see ‘the law of the instrument’ and Professor Ray Ison’s concept of social technologies) and applied without knowledge of context there is evidence that this approach can lead to functional production-shaped businesses. The Finnish academic Christian Grönroos has identified that value creation and quality is different in services. Applying efficiency tools often makes services worse from the customer’s point of view.
8. Power and control
Senior leaders and managers have a say over who is involved and sometimes what is covered. Often managers and staff who can be trusted not to rock the boat are selected to attend. It is common that senior managers are in the room at the same time. The staff participants can be seen looking to and at the manager when choices are made and work is described. Professor Chris Argyris describes the way leaders seal and reinforce organisational norms, limiting embarrassment and threat. It is not unknown for the things that leaders do not like to be quietly edited-out later.
9. Digital layering
A common assumption is that technology can reduce costs through automation. When designed well, this can be true. Business analysts and technical innovation leads are now present in many study and design workshops. In services organisations there is lots of new technology such as chat bots, web chat, and older tech such asinteractive voice recording (IVRs) and digital workflow. I have witnessed many examples of digital technologies layered onto poor processes or layered-in where using people is actually the better option. People often have the ability to make judgements and absorb more variety than technology. In this sense much digital technology actually automates dysfunction, leading to unnecessary cost and often a worse customer experience. Sometimes the result is that the costs go down for the organisation (they get rid of a few people, or an old IT system) whilst failure demand increases or customers go elsewhere. Some IT layered into services (for example digital workflow) designs failure into software, locking in cost and activity and making it harder to change or remove later.
10. Underlying causes
Mapping a service in a workshop treats work as a physical ‘process’ of activity. Tools are applied and ‘waste’ removed. In many organisations there is never an attempt to profoundly understand why the waste came into being in the first place, or why the work happens in the way it does. There is no search for underlying causes. One consequence of this is that the problems re-emerge over time. In any service there are a large number of things that have been put in place to control people and costs such as policies, procedures, targets, spreadsheets, budgetary spend etc. Professor John Seddon calls these Systems Conditions, the things that condition how and why work works the way it does. Changing or removing these, and helping people to understand why they need to be removed will give you a much bigger return.
Transformation failure rates
Much of the activity carried out in workshops is turned into transformation, change and improvement projects and programs. With reported digital transformation failure rates running as high as 84% and costing the U.K. billions (under-reported), the causes are easy to see, and all to predictable.
What can leaders and managers do?
|Recognise that there are problems with the current efficiency approach. Leaders might consider taking one small change first and apply theory and method to approach it from an effectiveness perspective. This removes much of the noise involved with large scale change and will provide an opportunity to do it different and better.|
|Be personally present to send out a signal that this matters. This means time and every hour spent doing it right, will save 1000 hours downstream trying to fix it when it goes wrong. Studying right doesn’t have to take long. You will get quicker as you get better.|
|Spend time in the work and free-up time for a small group of people from across the work to study and learn. By all means use a meeting room. Just to do it to consolidate learning.|
|Understand what the purpose of the service is outside-in. Start with the point at which customers ask (demand) you to do something. Spend time reflecting upon these demands and write on the wall what they are actually asking for, their purpose and what matters to them. Follow the requests through to completion. Make it visible and understand why it works the way it does.|
|If there is no learning it isn’t working. Keep an eye out for the ‘aha’ moments. The counterintuitives that should come thick and fast.|
|Get external help but exercise caution. Many consulting firms use efficiency approaches. Search out the effectiveness ones and check for evidence.|
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