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Better Processes, Better (More Profitable) Projects

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Best Practices; Project Management

Date: July 2012

By Bradley A. Malone, PMP

This is the eleventh in an ongoing series of organizational project management maturity articles by InfoComm University™ senior instructor Brad Malone.

Project management is an exercise in maximizing effectiveness — doing the correct things correctly.  Process management, on the other hand, through standardization, repeatability and continuous incremental improvement (sometimes monumental improvement), strives for efficiency — doing the correct things without waste.

There are a lot of programs out there that address process standardization and improvement in more words than I'll use — programs such as Lean, Six Sigma, Business Process Engineering, SIPOC (Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer), and so on.  More study on any of these topics will certainly yield positive benefits, especially at an AV integration firm characterized by many similar activities and deliverables over multiple projects (including service and warranty calls). But for now, let’s keep it simple.

I view process as simply how we do things. If you watch people and how they do something, you can measure their effectiveness (quality) and efficiency (speed and waste). You can look for areas to improve, steps that don’t add value, delays or wait times that could be removed, and steps that create errors, which may have to be checked and/or fixed by someone else.

But all processes start simply; we perform hundreds every day, often without conscious thought. When I teach, I use simple everyday examples to help explain concepts, rather than diving right into the work environment. When you consider everyday processes, it can make concepts easier to understand without appearing judgmental (jump right into work processes and people sometimes feel judged or threatened, like someone wants to know exactly how the worker does what he/she does).

So with that in mind, I’d like to use a simple example of a process and I’m confident you’ll be able to extrapolate to your job functions (hanging a screen, mounting a projector, programming a control system, stocking the warehouse or van, etc.).

Cup of Joe

This morning I made a pot of coffee. I have a drip-coffee maker, so I put the paper filter in the basket, measured coffee into the filter, added water to the reservoir, and put the pot underneath. Some people I know put the water in first, then the filter, then the coffee. Both involve a slightly different process but achieve the same result.

How do you make coffee at home? Some of you may have different coffee makers — a French press, a Keurig, maybe even a Bunn — and the type of machine makes a difference in the process. If it's a Bunn, for example, you have to put in the water last — and from a different container — because a Bunn coffee maker operates differently than a typical drip coffee maker. Now, if you never had a Bunn coffee maker before and received one as a gift, did you know to put the water in last, with a separate container, so that you didn’t make a mess all over the kitchen counter? And if you didn’t already know, did you find out in a good way or a bad way? Surely, there are people who figured it out the hard way; they put the water in first and it went all over the place. Here’s then an opportunity for understanding a simple process and making improvements to it.

In a lot of companies, people learns things the hard way, and organizations that truly want to improve have to determine how costly it is to learn those hard lessons (in the case of the Bunn coffee maker, how wet is too wet for the counter and floor?). Companies need to look at processes from an organizational perspective, not just an individual perspective. If 10 people are going to make coffee and achieve a predictable result, they need to understand the machine and its supplies and determine the best way to make good coffee. They need to be proactive about understanding the process and its intended results — think about it; talk about it; measure, document and standardize it.

I'm not talking about turning people into unthinking robots; I’m talking about the need to consciously look at how people do things. A lot of organizations spend an incredible amount of time and money documenting perfect-world processes, yet they don't really look at how their people do things now — on a daily basis — and determine how they can make small, incremental improvements.

In order for a company to improve its processes, it must do a couple key things:

First, it must understand why a process is in place, its purpose — achieving value in alignment with the organization’s goals and strategies. If an AV firm is doing something on a daily basis, or its doing it for a project, it needs to know why, what's the intent, and what's the value?

Second, the company must measure what it’s actually doing, not what it thinks or wishes it were doing.  What I find in a lot of organizations — and I've trained and consulted around the world — is that people don't like to be measured. If you ask someone, “How do you do that?” they'll say, “How do you want me to do it?” or “I’m doing it the way I was taught.” They’re afraid that by measuring them, the company is judging them. Still, organizations need to watch how employees perform processes and assure them they’re not measuring the employee, just the process, of which the employee is only one component. 
 
Organizations with mature leadership usually don't have the judgment factor permeating their culture. In such organizations, the attitude is, “I’ll write down what I do, then we'll get together and improve on it.”  Improvement is based on the value the company needs to achieve, viewed from the customer’s perspective, not based on ego or a need to be right. Mature companies document and improve their processes incrementally — in a nonjudgmental fashion — attempting to remove waste, variation, or steps that don’t add value.

Ham for Dinner

Here’s another example of a typical process of which the participants have little understanding but are caught continuously relearning old habits. It’s a typical family holiday and two children watch their mother prepare a ham. Their mother gets the ham out of the refrigerator, puts it on a cutting board, cuts off both ends, and then puts the ham in a pan and into the oven.

“Why do you cut off both ends of the ham?” the children ask.

“That's just the way we cook our holiday ham,” the mother replies.

“Why?”

“Let's ask Grandma,” the mother says. “She’ll know why.”

When their grandmother arrives, the children ask, “Grandma, how do you cook a holiday ham?” Their grandmother answers, “You cut off both ends, put it in a pan, and then put it in the oven.” 

“Why?”

“That's the way we cook holiday ham,” their grandmother replies.

“Why?”

“Let’s ask Great Grandma,” their grandmother replies, “She’ll know why.”

When their great grandmother arrives for the holiday dinner, everyone sits around the table to enjoy the ham. The children wait until she’s taking a bite to ask, “Great Grandma, why do you cut both ends off the ham before you cook it?”

Great Grandma smiles and answers, “Well, children, because the pan is too small.”

And so it is with many organizations: A process is put in place by one employee (often a founding member of the organization), followed by other employees and more employees after that, until the reasoning behind the process is lost and, often, any understanding of the value is also lost.

It's really incumbent upon a mature organization to periodically and objectively (which doesn't mean judgmentally or robotically) look at how people are doing what they are doing and align it with why they're doing what they're doing. Taking simple steps, I’ve seen organizations dramatically increase their efficiency, boost profits and reduce overhead. Creating efficiencies through process standardization and improvement also helps cut down occurrences of reactive drama or crisis modes and fosters greater commitment among all the organization’s employees because they feel responsible for improving how things work.

Bradley A. Malone, PMP, is an InfoComm University™ senior instructor and president of Twin Star Consulting, an organizational excellence and program management consulting company serving multiple industries worldwide. He holds the Project Management Professional (PMP®) designation from the Project Management Institute (PMI) and is one of PMI’s and InfoComm’s highest-rated instructors. Please share your thoughts with him at brad@twinstarconsulting.com.