How many of you showed up to work today with the goal of messing up your assignment or upsetting a member or customer? I would assume the answer would be: No one. Everyone has the best intention of performing their job with excellence, but good intentions will only get you so far! It does not matter if you are in leadership in your organization or an individual contributor, we all want to do a good job, but sometimes things just get in the way.
There is an exercise that I frequently use with groups during retreats or team-building events. It is called the “Helium Pole.” Picture a light weight pole that is used to support a camping tent. It is 15 feet long with people lined up across from each other with the pole running down the middle between them. We raise the pole to about average chest height. They must hold their fingers out parallel to the ground and rest the pole on both hands. I always tell them they have two rules: 1) The pole must freely rest on their fingers with nothing providing downward pressure on the pole, and 2) they must maintain contact with the pole at all times with both hands.
Their goal as a team is to lower the pole to the ground. I tell them to start, and that is when the fun begins. I have done this hundreds of times over the past 20 years and in almost 100% of the cases, the first thing to happen is the pole will begin rising, often reaching heights above their heads. Sometimes it is on one end and not the other, but I always hear someone on one end hollering out to the other end: “What are you guys doing down there. We are supposed to be lowering the pole!”
After a couple of times resetting the pole back to chest height, someone usually will take charge and start giving directions, calling out a cadence by which the group lowers the pole an inch at a time until they reach the ground.
There are several applications to the work place with this “fun” exercise. (“Fun” for those watching, frustrating for those participating.) One lesson is that everyone started the exercise with the best intention: Work together and lower the pole to the ground. What happened? Just as when we attempt to accomplish a challenging task that involves many people who work in different areas or departments, things happen! It could be coordinating a major event at your organization or handling the new school year enrollment. There are many pieces to the puzzle that all must fit together in just the right way to make the event or process a success.
Whether it is performing your job at work or the group attempting to lower the “Helium Pole” to the ground, it is difficult to achieve your goals without a process or system to guide the effort. Many organizations start as a small team with a mission. During the early days, the group is small enough that you may even be meeting in one building, or even a single room. It is easy to communicate within the team as everyone knows what the others are doing.
You then start to grow. You expand your team by hiring more employees or recruiting volunteers. You may create different departments or teams and no longer are you all working in the same space. To continue to grow, you begin to divide and conquer your tasks. The problem at this point is that most organizations are still trying to function in the same way they did during their startup days.
Organizations that are successful at moving from startup to maturity begin to develop structured processes and deploy computer systems to help keep them organized and on track. Some of you reading this may be thinking: “We will lose the personal touch if we start using computers.” The opposite is actually true. Not too many of us have the ability to store large amounts of data in our brain without forgetting some of the details.
At one of my clients, they were at this critical juncture several years ago. They had a great group of well-intentioned and talented team members. They were doing a good job serving their clients. The challenge of trying to manage an ever-increasing amount of data using spreadsheets and simple systems will reach its limit of effectiveness. At this time, we decided to implement the popular system called Salesforce.com. We created a plan to migrate existing information from a variety of sources into this new single platform. The system was customized to work within the unique requirements of the organization and their customers, vendors, and team members. There were meetings during which some key processes were documented. The processes were reviewed and then built into our new system. The data was loaded and the team began serving their customers using a brand-new system and set of processes.
So what are the benefits of creating processes and implementing systems?
1. Clarity of Process
I have found that when you go through the exercise of defining and documenting your processes, you gain a sense of clarity as to the process in general and specifically, who is responsible for each step in a process. More often than not when I go through the process definition exercise with a client, I hear things such as: “I did not realize your team did that.” or “I think it would be more effective if my group does that task at the same time we complete this other one.” At times, we even hear: “Why are we still doing that? I think the task could be eliminated.”
2. Consistency of Delivery
As an organization grows, tasks are delegated and no longer performed by the person who designed the process. There may also be multiple teams or individuals tasked with completing the same process, resulting in a chance that personal preferences and opinions may creep in and alter the original intent of a process.
When you document a process, and then train all your team on how to properly execute the tasks, you will end up with the work being done in a consistent manner with the same customer experience. Whether it is your members or customers, everyone appreciates a consistent experience. For example, if you were to visit a Chick-fil-A and order a “Number 1 Combo” one week and then a month later visit another location and order the same thing, you would be surprised if they did not taste the same.
When you introduce systems along with your work processes, you can gain efficiency, especially when it comes to processes that are frequently repeated. I have a good friend of mine, Lee Colan, who has a saying that we should strive to “Get the highest and best use out of each of our team members.” This includes letting systems handle tasks that could keep a member of your team away from interacting with a member and doing what they do best.
It is also helpful to have your common processes documented, including those that are not ones you have to use on a regular basis. That way you will not spend time trying to remember what you need to do. When you have a new employee join your team, they will appreciate having the key processes documented so they are easy for them to execute while they are learning the ropes.
4. Improved Communication
One of the primary benefits of installing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, such as Salesforce, is improved communication. A system provides a location to record notes about a conversation that you may have had with one of your customers or members. When used properly, if the member calls and reaches someone other than the initial person they talked with, the second team member should be able to bring up information regarding the member or customer and continue where they left off.
The system can also be used to prompt a team member to reach out to a customer on a regular basis. I am not a big fan of fully automated communication, but using the system to keep you on track is a good thing.
A CRM system also improves communication within your organization. Follow up tasks can be assigned and placed on a schedule. For example, within my client’s organization, there are several steps that must take place when a new member joins. If there were only one or two people involved, and only an occasional new member, you might be able to handle it with manual processes, but when you start to grow and the level of activity increases, it is helpful to have some assistance from a system.
So what do you do if your systems and processes are standing in the way of your organization providing excellent service? Consider the following steps to get things in line.
The first stage in becoming an effective organization is to evaluate and document your work processes. This is what we call a process analysis exercise.
Process Analysis. Make a list of your key processes and systems that support your work. In this list, identify the following fields:
1. Process Name
2. Internal or External. Does the customer directly see the system or interact in this process?
3. Grade. (A, B, C, or F) where
a. A = Process is efficient and supports excellent customer service and efficient operations
b. B = The process works fine the majority of time, but falls short on occasion
c. C = The process needs significant improvement and often is the cause of customer issues
d. F = The process is broken or non-existent.
4. Priority. (A, B, C) This is a measure of how critical this process is to executing on the mission of your organization.
5. Frequency. Identify how frequently this process is used. (Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly, Annually, As Needed)
6. Key Users. Who are the key internal or external users of this process or system?
7. Related Processes or Systems. What other processes or systems depend on the results of this process? What needs to be completed prior to this process running?
8. Key Process Steps. Document at a high level the key steps involved in a process. Ask yourself: “Why do we do it that way?” If you ever find yourself responding with: “We’ve always done it that way!” then it is time for you to figure it out for yourself.
9. Issues. Document the problems or challenges faced with this process.
As you walk through the analysis of your processes, you should create a process improvement plan.
Improvement Plans. For each process that did not score an “A” in the analysis phase, create an improvement plan. Start with the lowest grades and highest priorities. The improvement plan should contain the following elements:
a. Process Name
b. Key issue being addressed.
c. Target implementation date.
d. Point person responsible for seeing that the plan is completed.
e. Plan details. Document the steps that must be taken to bring this process to an acceptable grade.
Even the best run organizations never stop improving. At a minimum, you should be reviewing your critical processes at least once a year. As you grow, or as the needs of your members or customers change, your systems and processes should adapt to keep pace.
Good systems and processes will never replace the actions of your loyal, well trained employees, but they will help them be all they are meant to be.