This month I am working closely with one of our production teams to help fix some process issues. I thought I would discuss my approach each week as a sort of diary on improving an Agile process. Out of respect to the project team, I can’t give any context or details of the project itself. I am an extra pair of hands in this project so the team can continue to focus on building a great product while I apply grease to the wheels.
I often say “start with the customer” or “focus on the client”, which is also the first, and most important step, when you are doing process improvement. The whole point of improving the process is first to make the client happy. A happy client means they are less likely to add friction to the process. This is not to say that you should set something up that does not work for your team just because it will make the client happy. However, setting up a process for the benefit of the team without considering the client is backward.
Whenever I start a new project, or work on improving processes within a project, I find an opportunity to talk alone with the client to find out what is and is not working. Some clients are very open about their frustrations, others may talk around the issue, and still others may throw out red herrings to direct attention away from the real problems. In all cases, I spend a lot of time listening, asking a lot of questions to make sure I understand and get to the heart of the matter. After I talk with the client, I then talk with the team and see if the frustrations are the same or different. Often the team has similar frustrations with their own process. The most important point I check on is whether the client and the team have learned that it is painful to keep working with something that isn’t working and that they are ready to make some changes. If the client and the team are not ready to make changes, or they want to change vastly different things, then it will be impossible to make any significant process improvements.
The second thing I do is learn as much as I can about the client’s internal process. It’s great if the client is open about how they work, but often it takes some time and the right questions to figure it out. If possible, I would find an opportunity to visit the customer and see how they work first hand. Back in my very first job, I had spent a few days working on my customer’s manufacturing floor and attending a couple of key internal meetings. That made all the difference in helping me understand my client. One of the things I learned on that trip was that even though I thought we were talking the same language, it wasn’t exactly the case. We were calling different things by the same name and there were misunderstood expectations. Every company evolves their own lingo and norms. We often forget that clients and suppliers do not have the same dictionary. Once I start to have an understanding of the client’s process, I map it out and use that as a starting point to plan revisions to our process. I use the document to capture all questions and issues that come up along the way so by the time we have all our questions answered and our process mapped out we will have generated a document describing the process. We continue to touch base with the client once or twice a week to work through the questions and come to agreements on how we should work together.
Proactive or systemic process improvement are ideal, but sometimes it is necessary, even helpful, to react to a situation that goes wrong. It then becomes a real, relevant, concrete issue that the team and the client can immediately examine and make some corrective actions. Once the dust settles a bit, take the opportunity to have an honest discussion about what happened, work though what was and was not working in that part of the process, come to an agreement on some communication protocols and longer term corrective actions. No matter what, keep making the effort to understand the client and their expectations.
It’s important to remember that good process greases the wheels. It will not solve the problem if the wheels are missing, but it will reveal the problems faster. More on that on a future post!