Last night I succumbed and went to a branch event organised by the Chartered Quality Institute (CQI). It’s the first time I’ve been to any such event. My motivation for going was somewhat mixed. I decided to go partly because the title seemed interesting – How to achieve continual improvement through process change by engaging and enabling your workforce. OK, it’s not Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or The Matrix, but we’re talking Quality here. These are serious people OK?
I also decided to go because, well, it was just down the road. So I didn’t have much of an excuse. The fact that it was blackened sky and threatening rain and a good night on the TV almost changed my mind. I wasn’t put off by the fact that when I arrived, the venue name was quite different from that on the invitation letter and that the room had been labelled with “CQJ” (can’t get the staff or maybe a Quality joke?). I wasn’t put off by the gangs of youths pouring out of the nearby McDonald’s who looked to be having far too much fun. I was somewhat reassured by the small group of uncertain guys crowded into the CQJ room, peering outside through the window at me as I tried to rearrange the original venue letters anagrammatically to see if it would fit the new name.
It’s well known that evening events like these are mainly attended by the retired. It’s not that they have nothing else to do or that they’ve looked forward to it all day; no, it’s just expected – giving something back to the community. This was no exception, but they were inviting, affable and friendly.
The talk was actually pretty interesting. The speaker reminded us that many problems in business can be boiled down to an inadequate process or incorrect execution of the process. A process here is, in the ISO sense, used widely to mean anything (activity) that transforms things (inputs to outputs, adds value). The real challenge is to make processes accessible and simple to follow. Beware of oversimplification though – I think it was Einstein that said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.
If processes are too complex or too difficult to understand or find, people will circumvent them and just do what they think best. Making them simpler (the processes, not the people), more visible and accessible means that they are more likely to work and be followed.
As the speaker explained, one way to analyse a business is simply to divide everyone’s role into two columns – “Things they do” and “Things they produce”. In describing items in the first column, we always use verbs (doing words, like “Write a specification” or “operate the milling machine”). The second column is full of nouns (objects like “a report” or “a widget”).
This can be used as a strict rule to write visual flowcharts of the process. Strict in the sense of not missing anything out, where the process is expressed using a verb and inputs and outputs are expressed as nouns. For example, for hiring a new person, we could have a flow chart sequence such as: (noun) vacant position – (verb) define job role – (noun) Job spec – (verb) pass to head of HR and so on. This noun-verb-noun sequence is deliciously simple, yet a powerful discipline to make sure you distinguish between “process” and “product”.
Flow diagrams of course are a simple visual representation that can replace many words. The speaker went on to describe a web-based application which holds these process maps in a process library. These are easily accessible by all in the business, underlying data and forms can be accessed by clicking on the relevant part of the process. The whole thing is searchable too.
The other discipline is that every output must have a customer (internal or external) and every process must have a person accountable for it. Where there’s no accountability, that’s usually a process that will fail.
As the speaker noted, building a visual process library can be quite an undertaking, so it’s not for everyone. Small businesses are less likely to be able to spare the time and resources to commit to it than larger businesses. An honest assessment.
So, my first foray into the world of events like this. Was it useful? Yes, it reminded me of what I can get up to when I retire. It also reminded me of the value of getting professionals together to discuss and explore issues. Insights that can transform your thinking and add value to what you do. Not to mention the biscuits, sweets and coffee – worth attending just for that.