Stop Flying By The Seat Of Your Pants
Early planes had few navigation aids, so pilots had to use their best judgement to fly successfully - thus, the origin of the term "fly by the seat of your pants." What is today's business equivalent of flying without navigation aids? What aids might enable you to fly your business better?In a business, what happens when everyone is flying by the seat of their pants? Things will usually get done, though not without a lot of bumpiness - for example:
- Tasks take longer than planned.
- Expectations are not clear, resulting in rework.
- Due dates are not clearly communicated and thus cannot be consistently met.
- "Rush orders" and similar process workarounds become the norm, not the exception.
What is the antidote to flying by the seat of your pants? Knowing who will do what by when.
There is an excellent book, Who Will Do What by When?: How to Improve Performance, Accountability, and Trust with Integrity, by Tom Hanson, PhD and Birgit Zacher Hanson, MS, that explains exactly how to do this. (For more on this, please check out my 2015 Summer Book Reviews titled Free Range Staff.)
While the full WWDWBW process consists of five steps - Gap, Declaration, Request, Promise, and Outcome - the two key ones are:
- Request - This is an explicit appeal directed to a specific person, to perform a specific task, by a specific date and time - with the hope of obtaining a Promise from the other person, committing to do all this.
- Promise - This is the person's explicit agreement to fulfill the terms of the Request made by the requestor.
The essence of the Request is what accountability author and speaker Linda Galindo calls a "Clear Agreement." In her excellent blog post, "How Making Clear Agreements Will Radically Improve Your Business," she explains the components of a "Clear Agreement:"
- Task - Start with a statement of the task or project. You can only own what you understand. Gain a high level of understanding of the task or project.
- Outcome and Deliverables - Ask questions to gather information until you can unambiguously describe what you are expected to produce. What level of detail is expected and what’s the format you will be asked to provide it in? Are there any measures or standards you need to follow?
- Actions - As your clear agreement develops, outline what you will need to do in order to deliver the agreed upon results. Consider whose help might be necessary and determine the level of authority you will need. As more clarity emerges it is likely this will surface resources that need to be provided. Will they be provided? It is a good thing to know “up front” as you craft a clear agreement. If the task is large, break it into steps.
- By When - Someday is on nobody’s calendar. A date is required to drive attention and action. Be realistic rather than optimistic in your time estimates. Agree on a deadline that you can successfully meet.
- Stakes - Clearly state the benefits of completing the task or project and the consequences if the task is not completed successfully.
In this month's case study, our client knew they had to stop flying by the seat of their pants if they wanted to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and to be able to take on more business - and to do so, clear agreements had to be able to be made between and among those doing the work.
While our solution used Technology and improved Process to help People perform better, the hardest part of our work was getting folks to agree upon definitions for terms which initially seemed to be obvious. Our insistence on setting clear definitions of these terms mystified - and occasionally frustrated - our client's personnel. We could not, however, perform the tasks, take the actions, create the deliverables, and achieve the outcomes for which our client had engaged us without having these clear definitions.
As it turned out, client personnel understood and interpreted "project" in many different ways. The stakes were high - without getting a clear agreement on a common lingo, the project would have failed. Fortunately, clear agreements were obtained, allowing us to develop and deploy the desired solution.
Our client is now beginning to rely on this solution to define Who Will Do What By When on numerous small tasks, visibly track the status of these, and provide accountability for everything coming together at the desired time - and no one wants to go back to the lack of visibility, clarity, and accountability of their old Excel worksheets!
If you've successfully grown your business so much that MBE - Management By Excel - no longer works, perhaps we can help you clear that hurdle. Please call or email, and let's discuss whether we can help you and your business achieve results like these.
Todd L. Herman
Improving Planning, Accountability, and Profitability Using Workflow Automation
Our client is a fabrication and services company specializing in event marketing. When the business was smaller, it made only one type of product and did not wrap any services around it - and the existing processes and technology handled this very nicely.
Over time, many new and more complex products were successfully added, and then services successfully developed to provide a turn-key solution for its customers, requiring:
- Fabricating various types of base items.
- Printing and affixing graphics on the base items.
- Transporting the finished items of multiple customers to the event.
- Installing the various items.
- Being "on call" for customers at the event.
- Taking down the items, sending certain ones to the next event, and warehousing the remainder.
The company's processes and technology did not change to accommodate the new realities of volume and complexity. They did nothing to make the turn-key processing for multiple customers at multiple events more efficient and effective.
Our client identified several key problems:
- Taking on more business was virtually impossible.
- Planning and scheduling was difficult, because employees had no visibility of upcoming work, since most information was stored in Excel.
- Fixing mistakes made internally, especially products made with preliminary graphics and not the final customer-approved ones, was costly.
- Billing opportunities were likely missed because customer requests for product changes after their final approval, or for additional services outside the scope of work, were not being tracked.
The company's owner estimated that the last two problems could be costing his company $100,000 annually.
Todd Herman Associates was retained to analyze existing processes, recommend improvements, gain consensus for the recommendations, and implement the revised processes using a custom workflow automation application.
Gaining consensus was challenging, because each manager had devised his own process and technology - typically, Excel worksheets - to estimate, track, and bill products and services. Furthermore, managers in the production and service delivery sides of the business used "Customer," "Event," "Order," and "Project" differently. Our consultant achieved consensus on the future processes and on a common vocabulary. Once everyone agreed on these foundational concepts, application design and development could begin.
Flexibility in defining routings of the products was critically important, as all items are made to order. Thus, the application allows a manager to pick all the relevant processing, then provides visibility and accountability of items in each operation's queue.
In working to error-proof the process, our consultant designed safeguards into the document management process, so that all versions of a design or graphic are stored and clearly labeled, and only the customer-approved versions were available for production managers and operators.
Above, this screen shows five components to be fabricated and assembled to make one finished item. Each component has its specifications and user-defined workflow routing, as shown for the third component. Specifications and routings for the first two components have been defined and submitted to Fabrication (denoted by the green star).
Above, other types of components route through different operations. Sub-routes, such as 910, are needed for Production, yet not for planning.
Results and Benefits …
With production ramping up to support events beginning in the first quarter and continuing through the end of October, our client can now see the status of every item associated with a customer, event, order, and project. The shop is making products using final graphics, without having to find them on a network drive and guess which one was approved by the customer. Rework is being reduced, and any that now occurs can be analyzed for root causes.
Work is flowing more smoothly, and bottlenecks are being quickly identified and addressed. Everyone from the president down sees exactly what needs to be done, by whom, and by when. Users also see the efficiencies in store for this year’s billing process and next year’s event rollovers.
Above, the application's home page. Each department is responsible for specified workflow steps (left pane). The numbers following department names indicate how many components are currently in the department. System-generated notifications (center pane) are displayed for events or steps the user has chosen to follow.
Above, pressing the RSS Feed icon (top-right of the Notifications pane) allows the user to select events and steps to follow.
Would you like your operations to run more smoothly, more efficiently, and with fewer mistakes? If so, perhaps we can do for you what we did for this client. Please call or email us, and let's discuss whether our capabilities would be a good fit for your needs.