Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Process Improvement

I have been pondering about the many changes happening in the company in recent years. I had always thought that the changes were influenced by recent trends in information technology. For example, the transformation of IBM from hardware company to a services company, outsourcing trend to India and so on. But after reading Rummler and Brache’s book ‘Improving Performance’, I understood what was going on (but proves their point also that the company is an adaptive organism). In fact, Rummler and Brache, I believed provided the intellectual foundation or framework to go about transforming the company. It was as if I have read the bible on this subject with the philosophical underpinnings of the massive changes being wrought.

The company in fact is moving towards a business process orientation. The main goal is to improve internal processes. The book is an eye opener into the trends sweeping the business world. I believe that Rummler and Brache’s books are indispensable in understanding today’s world. I witnessed first hand the revolution that their work has on today’s project managers. For instance, we are always requested to do process maps or the so-called swim lane diagrams. I have even created a few in the past months for my current projects. Little did I know that these are exactly the tools and the framework and the philosophy espoused by Rummler and Brache.

‘Improving Performance’ provides a comprehensive framework to analyze and improve any workplace. I have gone over a lot of process maps in our work and was astounded by the comprehensiveness of the effort. It was truly a transforming exercise and I am glad I am able to experience it first hand. But it was only now that I understood the concepts and theory behind it. I think this philosophy or concept is one of the most important tools that one should have handy when one changes jobs or moves to a different function or work atmosphere. I am only surprised that I missed their work and instead focused on the more popular ideas like ‘re-engineering’ or ‘comparative advantage’ by notables like Mike Hammer and Michael Porter.

Both these established writers are quite good but lack the nuts and bolts, down to earth quality of Rummler and Brache’s work. To sound good and intelligent, one should quote Hammer and Porter but to get things done one really needs Rummler and Brache. I think understanding their work as a tool box is a good addition to one’s resume in addition to having PMP and Toastmaster certifications. The course rounds up one’s knowledge and helps one be effective in the workplace. I guess my company utilized their concepts a lot and looking at their documentation is a testament to its effectiveness and usability. Experiencing the business transformation by attending the training, using the tools and working in the new environment convinced me that it works.

Visual tools play a big role in the new orientation. The book ‘Improving Performance’ has a lot of visual tools like process maps, ‘swim lane’ diagrams, relationship maps, matrices and so on. So one needs to develop a facility in visual thinking and the ability to draw and express oneself visually. Hence, all the trends seem to come together now with emphasis on process improvement, visual thinking, mind-mapping, project management and Toastmasters (i.e. using traditional modes of communicating). Some sites mention that visual thinking is a problem solving technique and used extensively in process improvement and re-engineering.

In my current work, I used a lot of ‘swim lane’ diagrams, visual maps and other such diagrams to get the message across and communicate to the many contributors engaged in the project. Without realizing it, the emphasis was on process improvement than in any other aspect. The fact that it was successful in moving the project forward is a testament that the process revolution is underway. The book was written in 1990 and it was only now, 19 years later that I got a chance to read it and understand the changes happening in my company. An indispensable work for any one who wishes to improve his work or life in today’s world. Or at least to make sense of the changes and its rationale and be sane.

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