I recently had lunch with a new friend who, it turned out, had spent most of his life in mortgage lending. As he told me stories of his life in mortgage lending, and of his own experiences buying and selling houses and, thus, working with other mortgage lenders, a pattern emerged. Mortgage lenders often make mistakes. They don't always follow the letter of the law, and they occasionally expose their institutions to serious risks. I came away from this lunch thinking that many buyers would be well advised to hire a mortgage-lending consultant, like my friend, to help them successfully negotiate the lending process. Some of the problems resulted from lenders a bit too eager to make a little extra money – by adding features the customer didn't request. Some resulted from lenders being overwhelmed by tedious detail and trying to save a bit of time. Some probably just resulted from not having enough information or not knowing enough about how to structure certain kinds of deals.
This lunch conversation reminded me on an article I just read on the cause of deaths in the US. It turns out, depending on how one measures, that simple mistakes by hospital personnel, usually resulting from a lack of current information, is either the third or the sixth most important cause of death in the US. To be fair to US hospitals, they are overwhelmed at the moment. Obamacare has resulted in large numbers of people — who were previously uninsured and likely to seek hospital care in only the most dire circumstances – now routinely seeking hospital care. Predictably the US will need to train more physicians and nurses to keep up with a suddenly increase in demand. Even in hospitals not dealing with lots of new patients, physicians and nurses find themselves faced with a constant barrage of new machinery, new drugs and new treatment protocols. One need only read a daily, online news source, to see how new studies and new drugs are being constantly introduced. In addition, most hospital IT systems are subpar and struggling to catch-up. The US has been trying to embrace a common patient record system for years and has yet to achieve it. Each hospital and most independent physicians maintain their own data filing systems, and reaching a point at which information on a patient can be easily transferred from one hospital to another, or from a physician to a hospital remains a major challenge.
I mention both these situations simply to underline a basic idea. Organizations that seek to be good need to constantly work on updating and enforcing their basic processes. Major process improvement projects are fine, but they are only a small part of the picture. For every major problem that management identifies and assembles a team to fix, there are hundreds of small tasks and activities that need to be improved. In many cases, even after a major effort to improve an important process, changes occur that render some aspect of the new process out of date.
Everyone knows this, of course, and lots of people have been talking about it for years. We need to create learning organizations; we need to have process teams comprised of employees who work to improve their own processes; we need to assure that every business manager thinks of him or herself as a process improvement coach. Incentives and bonuses need to reflect our priorities and reward those who keep working to generate more consistent, efficient, and effective business processes, day-in and day-out.
If you think in terms of Process Maturity, we are speaking of traits associated with organizations operating at level 4 or 5, and sadly most organizations aren't operating at that level. Most organizations are working on making improvements to their most pressing problems. They use outside teams of process experts or IT specialists and they take months to try to solve major problems. That's fine, and it needs to be done, but it is only the beginning phase in becoming a truly process-focused organization.
A mature, process focused organization has incorporated the importance of process into every nook and cranny of the organization. Mortgage loan officers and nurses at mature process focused organizations understand that they are responsible for implementing processes in a consistent manner. Managers and supervisors work with employees to identify problems, define the causes and then eliminate them. And then the team proceeds to keep records to track their progress to assure that they have eliminated problems.
I have talked with organizations about courses to train employees and supervisors in process improvement skills, and usually gotten a poor response. Most organizations prefer courses that train teams of specialists to work on major redesign projects. To be fair, I believe that Six Sigma organizations do more training in this area, but overall, just as most organizations are at level 2-3 on the process maturity scale, most organizations seek training in basic process redesign skills and not in the more advanced and subtle skills required of supervisors and employers.
Take one example – a new employee training class. Good instructional design is not trivial. It takes time and effort to assemble a good 2-4 day class that teaches the skills required for jobs like mortgage lending or nursing heart attack patients. Once a design team has developed the class and instructors have been trained to teach it, the course is implemented, and immediately begins to drift out-of-date. Given the rate of change, it's inevitable. Even if it wasn't, employees, once trained, begin to be “retrained” by other local employees. They hear things like: “Oh we don't do it that way here – no one has time to do it that way. We do it this way&hellip” If supervisors aren't diligent and employees aren't constantly reminded of the importance of doing something the right way, they will soon be making the types of common mistakes my friend for mortgage lending described over lunch. Or, worse, the kinds of little mistakes that end up killing people in hospitals.
Good processes don't result from good process designs or good training programs, or good software applications, although they are all necessary. Good processes result from teams of employees who value high quality work and who struggle to do such work, day-in and day-out. That, in turn, results from employees and supervisors who know about processes, who talk about them, and who struggle to constantly improve them.
It's easy to read what I have written and then dismiss it. “It sounds nice,” you may say, “but it doesn't reflect the way people actually function at my organization.” Perhaps so, but if you visit organizations like Toyota, GE, Motorola or IBM you can see that it is possible. At the few organizations that have achieved level 5 maturity, you see employees struggling to do really fine work, day-in and day-out. You can observe meetings where employees sit down to review their processes and make changes that will improve those processes. You see a team of employees stop a process and work with a single employee to assure that he or she is doing what is required. It takes a major commitment on the part of senior management, it takes years of work to put a process culture in place, and it requires a constant effort to maintain it. The end result, however, is a superior organization that generates superior results. You see organizations where the little things get fixed as quickly as they occur.