Managers should never assume!

Managers should never assume!

Business Process Improvement (Part 4)


Saturday, May 16, 2015

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I have been constantly telling people to encourage people to question the unquestioned and not to be ashamed to bring up new ideas, new processes to get things done -- Ratan Tata

HIS request approved, the news photographer quickly called the local airport to charter a flight. He was told a twin-engine plane would be waiting for him at the airport. Arriving at the airfield, he spotted a plane warming up outside a hangar. He jumped in with his bag, slammed the door shut, and shouted, 'Let's go!' The pilot taxied out, swung the plane into the wind and took off. Once in the air, the photographer instructed the pilot, 'Fly over the valley and make low passes so I can take pictures of the fires on the hillsides.' 'Why?' asked the pilot. 'Because I'm a news photographer', he responded, 'and I need to get some close-up shots for the evening news.' The pilot was strangely silent for a moment, finally he stammered, 'So, what you're telling me, is . . . You're NOT my flight instructor?!' (ref --BPM Blog by Taskmap).

As managers we should never assume! "Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in." -- Isaac Asimov. OK -- actually, there are times that we need to assume. For example, when we create proposals and models, we typically make economic, operational and other assumptions without even realising. Even then, a good practice is to think about them, and actually STATE the assumptions that were made.

As I indicated before in the MBA Forum, often when the work starts to get overwhelming, managers assume that they need more workers. Many times it is the process that has broken, or was ineffective from the beginning. Many times it may also be that the wrong people are doing the work -- but since we are in the series about Process Improvement, we will stick to process for now.

Process modelling techniques

One of the best tools to assist with creating, fixing or refining a process is the graphic model. There are several of them available,
and you can get a
taste from the website:

You will realise that there are at least a dozen of them, some being more complicated than others. I usually prefer simplicity, and so I typically use the flowchart technique. This technique uses the familiar and more popular flowcharting symbols -- the rectangle, diamond, circle and arrow, etc. Your information technology personnel would already be very familiar with these.

There is a powerful and more useful variation, though ,that is more appealing
as it incorporates valuable information like who does what, and when. This is called Swim Lane Flowcharting and is so named as it uses the analogy of a swimming pool, with swim lanes to indicate the tasks done by a particular work unit. Please go online again and review an example:

You will notice that the horizontal swim lanes contain all the activities done by the person or work unit represented on the left of that lane. Corresponding time frames for vertical activity segments are indicated at the bottom of the chart.

Creating the process model

The person actually creating the graphic process model needs a particularly unique set of skills. You need to be able to see the "big picture" as well as being very detail-oriented, since to accurately create the model you will need to get down to a granular level, and be able to isolate each activity/step in the process. Usually, these disparate skills are not found in the same person -- so you may need to consider a team approach.

Additionally, it is typical that a single process will span multiple departments. Remember a quotation I used in Part 3 of this series: "Work transition is the silent killer of productivity of every organisation. Like a relay race, things quickly fall apart when the transition of the baton between runners falters." -- Jim Sinur. The movement of the work (whether documents being processed or raw materials moving incrementally towards becoming finished goods) typically encounters some bumps when passing from one person to another, or from one desk to another, or from one department to another. In terms of organisation governance, process improvement practitioners usually dream of the ideal organisational structure where "process owners" are given the authority and resources to manage processes that run across departments.

Let us use the bakery scenario from Part 1 of this series. At a very high level, the Purchasing Department acquires the raw materials, the Bakery Department creates the bread, and the Sales Department has responsibility to get the bread into the hands of the consumer. We need a process owner sitting at a higher level than each of these three different department heads, since the process runs through all three departments. Typically, in bigger organisations the process ownership falls into the lap of the CEO or the COO by default. Unfortunately, they also typically do not see themselves as process owners and so do not act in that role.

The As-Is process chart

The first task for the process modeller is to depict exactly what is now happening, that is, the current process. This is called the As-Is flowchart, which would actually be a set of charts starting with a small very high level model and ending with a very detailed model. Persisting with the bakery example, the first model (or first version) of the process modelling exercise would start at the high level indicating the three main steps: i) Purchase Raw Materials -- ii) Bake Bread -- iii) Sales, with each of these three activities represented in rectangular process boxes and connected by arrows. Subsequent versions would then systematically explode these boxes to show more and more detail until each process box indicates a single, granular activity like "insert bake mixture into oven". The Swim Lane chart would also indicate who does the inserting and the time it takes to insert. More anon.

Dr Kenroy Wedderburn is a part-time lecturer on the MBA programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Send your e-mails to

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