Is Process Optimisation Killing Your Business? – Part 3
By: Nicholas Hill
28th May 2020
5 minute read
In Part 2 of this blog series, I described some of the less desirable side effects that an increase in the process over time can have, how it can have a negative impact on your business, and most importantly, started to show what to do to prevent it. In this, the final part of the blog series, I’ll complete my exploration of ways in which you prevent being dragged down by process by exploring the role of environment, business model and communications.
A single workspace and set of tools are unlikely to satisfy the needs of starters and finishers.
Early stages of a project, and starters, are more likely to require open spaces for lively group workshops, tools that support rapid prototyping and modelling and surroundings that inspire creativity. The latter stages of development, and finishers, will need quiet space for concentrated work, CAD systems, document management systems, and comprehensive test and verification facilities.
To be effective, the organisation needs to understand the difference and provide the right environment for everyone.
The business of delivering ideation workshops, exploring product concepts or creating proof-of-principle demonstrations are examples of activities for which the outcome is ill-defined. The commercial engagement often comes down to ‘having a go’; sometimes one can pull a rabbit out of the hat, sometimes not. When it comes to the invention, for example, there are no guarantees. Perhaps the customer will like our design concepts, perhaps they won’t. Everyone understands that.
On the other hand, if we agree to develop a product for a customer and introduce it into manufacture, we are making very specific commitments to the deliverables at the end of the project. There will be a very precisely defined outcome, and we haven’t finished until we’ve ticked all the necessary boxes. There is a much higher degree of risk in this type of work. This risk must be considered in advance and it must be clear who carries it (us or our customer).
This doesn’t just affect the project delivery processes, as described above, it influences our business model and has a big impact on the sales process. The overhead involved in early-stage projects tends to be very low because the risk is low, whereas the overhead involved in later-stage projects can be huge because of the degree of detailed analysis that is required before a timescale and price can be agreed upon.
Be clear about which it is before you start bidding for a project.
One day you are exhorting staff to focus on efficiency, process optimisation, risk reduction and refining company systems so that projects can be delivered on time and within budget; the next day you are emphasising the benefits of taking time out for navel-gazing and experimenting with nebulous ideas in the name of innovation. Not surprisingly staff can be very confused by such mixed messages: “how am I expected to spend quiet time following a train of thought that might lead to some new insight when I have a project manager chasing me to meet a critical deadline on Friday?”
You are going to have to set things up such that the tension between these two modes of working is balanced in some way.
You’ll rightly have some processes that make project delivery manageable, repeatable and efficient.
Resource managers will be putting staff into teams to best match supply (new projects that need resource) to demand (staff with the right skills for the job). Project managers will be making sure that their teams stay focussed on project deliverables.
But clearly, if you want to ensure that your staff have the space for some quality ‘off the clock’ time they will need that time allocated. And done in such a way that resource managers recognise it as equally valid to ‘on the clock’ project time. You might need a project manager for off the clock time to make sure the time is being put in.
A somewhat analogous situation exists in external communications. Your organisation may genuinely be able to execute pacey, short, speculative projects and also large, complex, rigorous and demanding projects, but you will have a difficult job getting that message across to customers.
The sort of shop window that would attract a potential customer who is looking for some very rapid ideas development or a ‘quick and dirty’ proof-of-the-possible demonstration will not attract a customer who is looking for rigorous design methodology, highly detailed work breakdown, thorough verification plans and precise deliverables. The former will be looking for evidence of disruptive thinkers who can create novel opportunities, the latter a team who can precisely specify and then deliver reliably what it promises, with a high degree of risk management.
About two years ago Plextek started thinking about how to introduce new innovation strategy and design services to our business, to complement our existing technology and engineering services. All the tensions discussed above were very much in our minds. The people needed to deliver these services would have a very different mindset to our engineers, even those at the ‘starter’ end of the spectrum. Processes would need to be minimal to allow the maximum amount of flexibility and pace. The environment needed to be open, inspiring, suitable for interactive workshops rather than functional and lab-based. The office culture would be quite different, led by ‘creatives’ rather than scientists and engineers. It would be difficult to present our traditional services and our new services within one marketing ‘shop window’.
After much discussion, we concluded that the tensions were just too great to exist within one entity, so we made the decision to set up Ignite Exponential as a separate business unit to provide these new services. Although it was closely coupled to our existing business, Ignite Exponential would have the freedom it needed to support its own flavour of people, process, business model, environment and marketing.
This is an extreme example, where it seemed it was not possible to create sufficient space for two such different ways of working under one roof. It’s important that a business can recognise when this is the right solution. But it must also be prepared to work hard to allow very different ways of working co-exist under one roof wherever possible, to suit the type of project being undertaken.
As a keen traveller, what I learned from this is that I needed a new checklist. It’s called ‘Minimal Gear’. The rules work in the opposite sense to my traditional ones. When I come back from a trip I look at what I took that I didn’t need or could have done without, and cross it off the checklist. The list gets shorter and shorter over time rather than longer, and I regain that ability to make ad hoc decisions without feeling encumbered by heavy bags or the value of what I’m carrying. I haven’t thrown away the old checklists: quite often they are appropriate to use. But I now have the luxury of two modes of travel, with a system that can support both of them.