2016-09-14 You can’t manage what you can’t visualize

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein

The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage– Arie de Geus

When it comes to doing business in Africa, what does it take to make a company perform high and remain consistent over time? The question looks simple but I guess if it really was, well, many companies would enjoy a better health – irrespective of how their actual performance is measured.

Making the question trickier is the observation I made that often times almost everybody in a group “knows” (or genuinely thinks to do so) what needs to be done to “fix” their company or department or group and just too many people believe to know better than each other. Without a well thought framework to channel energies and get them to constructively interact for the better of the group, with a plethora of good intentions thrown randomly at the perceived problem, organizations evolve to a place and a time where employees defer decision making to the HIPPO (read Highest Paid Person in the Office, aka “the Boss”, “The Manager”, you name it, it’s just a synonym). That’s whether employees believe in the effectiveness of the HIPPO’s decisions or not.

Sometimes the HIPPO’s decisions are effective, often they are not. Why? There are many reasons, some of which could be:

  • Decisions are based on assumptions, gut-feel or instinct, not thorough, meaningful data;
  • HIPPO does not have the real “full picture”;
  • Decisions are based on past experience that is replicated out of its original context;
  • The decisions made do not address the root cause;
  • Decisions lack the necessary cross-functional buy-in to drive an effective change.

When the HIPPO has a dominant personality and / or the team spirit is broken, the people in charge behave in an over-confident manner, do not take or ignore advice from team members and end up hurting their very team they are supposed to help, which ultimately undermines performance.

With time and people joining then leaving the team, different approaches and philosophies are tried one after the other that add questionable performance while potentially increasing frustration.

I have to add that a key dimension that is often overlooked when studying performance is employee motivation. Are people really motivated at work? A Gallup survey in October 2013 surveyed 142 countries and found the following striking average numbers for Sub-Saharan Africa:

  • 10% of surveyed employee were found to be “engaged”, defined as employees who are psychologically committed to their jobs and aim to make positive contributions to their organizations;
  • 57% of surveyed employees were found to be “not engaged”, defined as employees who lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary efforts in organizational goals or outcomes;
  • 33% of surveyed employees are “actively disengaged”, defined as employees who are unhappy at work and busy acting out their unhappiness

Employee motivation is a vast topic that I do not intend to discuss here.  Just want to draw attention to the fact that higher performance goes hand in hand with higher employee motivation: the Gallup Survey mentioned above also reports that companies in the top quartile of employee motivation outperform others by having higher profitability, productivity, customer service and lower quality defects, safety incidents, shrinkage, turnover, absenteeism. With only 10% on average of engaged employees, there certainly is a lot to do for business leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explain in their book “The Progress Principle”, seemingly mundane workday events can make or break employees’ inner work lives.  What really sets the best managers above the rest is their power to build a cadre of employees who have great inner work lives—consistently positive emotions; strong motivation; and favourable perceptions of the organization, their work, and their colleagues. The worst managers (read “most managers”) undermine inner work life, often unwittingly.

How does one build that positive work cadre? There are approaches and methodologies out there that vary in complexity. Many of them I haven’t tried but suffices to say that their relevance / impact is not easy to objectively measure.

Coming from an engineering background, I value common sense, simplicity and measurability. In this article I want to share an approach I witnessed work wonders at various organizational levels. I strongly believe it has the potential to deliver ground-breaking improvements in the Sub-Saharan Africa business landscape, from a performance as well as a cultural point of view. The approach I am referring to is called Value Stream Mapping.

Value Stream Mapping (VSM is short) in its simplest form is a sketch or a chart that shows few key things EVERYBODY in an organization should know:

  1. Who is the customer(s)? – a business process should always start with the customer in mind as delivering real value through a superior customer experience is the way to sustainable growth;
  1. What actual products or services go to the customer(s)?
  1. What input(s) is sourced from the outside and what steps do inputs go through until they are transformed to the final product or service that the customer value?
  1. What information is needed / generated as inputs are step by step transformed into outputs?

In the words of french emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, “a good sketch is better than a long speech”. A Value Stream Map summarizes the four points below in a visual chart that is easy to read and tells the whole picture in a glance.

How is a Value Stream Map drafted? By bringing all people involved in the process around the same table. Showing respect to people’s willingness and ability to improve process performance is the first way a VSM can help build engagement. It helps you move from just amassing talent to starting to build a real team – by getting people to work together on something that matters, and showing them how the individual intervention impact (or fail to do so) the final outcome. Value Stream Mapping gives people an opportunity to make meaningful contributions to work and see the effects thereof.

Another powerful dimension of a Value Stream Map is that it enables organizational learning by making the hidden process visible. There is always a process. Always. The challenge lies in seeing it. The process is easier to spot in the manufacturing industry. For service or knowledge workers the process can be less obvious to spot. But it is always there. It is the process, more than people, that drives good or bad results. From my experience I have found that even people with a lot of seniority actually learn about the real, “as-is” process during a value stream mapping exercise.

Once the visual representation of the process (read, the Value Stream Map) is available for all to see and process data is plugged in, the team can more easily than ever start doing real productive work:

  • Separate the activities that add value to those that don’t. A process step adds value if the customer, should he/she be aware it was done, would be happy to pay a price for it;
  • Identify the constraints that limit flow: like a river, work items that create value should flow without stoppages from source to the hands of the customers. What we (too) often see however is that flow is repeatedly halted. There are multiple occasions for delays in the as-is process. Another name for delay is waiting time. Delay pushes value creation to later and costs money. The cost of delay is one of these hidden gorillas in the workplace. Few people are aware of it and few companies actually measure it. On its own, a systematic research and elimination of waiting time from a value stream map is capable of delivering tremendous improvement to any business. It is so because waiting time symptomatically hides many other flaws in the workplace;
  • Identify other process wastes with the aim of eliminating them: excessive inventory (e.g. buffering stock instead of fixing supply chain issues, only to find later that one has creating slow moving stock and upped working capital), motion (e.g. poor workplace layout design), transport (movement of goods or finished material), over-processing (doing work that is meaningless to the customer, which means it adds cost but does not increase value), overproduction (producing otherwise than at the pull of the customer) and error correction (true! Some jobs are about correcting mistakes somebody else made upstream. But how does one ensure people do what’s right the first time, and that mistakes, when they happen, are handled where they happen instead of being propagated downstream with amplified impact?).

The Value Stream Mapping can be the gel binding the team together, the cornerstone for continuously learning from the dynamic market, solving problems at root-cause level and continuously improving the business.

As Rich Sheridan nicely put it in his book “Joy, Inc”, creativity makes noise. Value Stream Mapping brings people together to do creative work. People in companies that do not value stream are often found in cubicles or behind walls, immersed in a deafening chapel-like silence. Interestingly enough, people who do not value stream often say they can’t do so because they are too busy, but they are too busy ad eternam because they work on broken processes. They have to understand that the cost of spending some reflexion time on a value stream map is worth the huge benefits resulting from breaking the cycle of constant fire-fighting to start delivering real focused value to the customer.

In terms of task and role structure, many companies are also still organized in a functional or geographical structure and fail to realize that value flow is cross-functional. Value stream mapping addresses that shortcoming by aligning all stakeholders of a process to the final outcome: meeting customer expectation in a superior way. There is no better way to break the functional silos walls.

While not a miracle tool that can do everything on its own, the Value Stream Map is in my view a key element that deserves a space in the modern management toolkit if one wants real experience-based team construction and continuous performance improvement that meets or exceeds customers’ expectations, whatever the industry. Real value, not pipe dreams.

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