A Business Technology Place

Straight Talk for Documenting Standard Work

Creating documentation is arguably the most dreaded task for working professionals. Not many people like to document why a program or procedure exist or how the pieces of a program fit together to make a working application. For those who do create documentation of procedures, standards, or architecture, maintaining the document becomes another challenge. It’s a conundrum; we don’t like to write and maintain documentation for processes and procedures, but we want to reference the documentation if we are unsure how to perform an operation. But it shouldn’t be this way. When we understand and appreciate the value of documentation then we’ll see the effort to create it is not wasted and provides value to everyone.

In the context of operational work, we like to use documentation to define standard operating procedures (SOPs). Gemba Academy defines Standard Work as “setting a standard and bringing conditions in conformance with the standard.” A defined and documented standard is useful for maintaining quality, simplifying processes, and creating the basis for continuous improvement. Who could argue with those benefits?

Here’s how we are approaching and working with standard work in my work group:

  1. Define a common template to use for standard work definitions. In most cases we find the template is sufficient to document the procedures we follow for recurring tasks. It’s expected the template may change a little over time. We can do updates as complete the annual review mentioned in step 4.
  2. Provide information in the template about the creation date and last review date of the standard. This makes is easy to see when the document is opened when the last time the procedure was reviewed. We put this information in the header of the document so it is the first viewable element when the procedure is opened.
  3. Store the procedures online. Our online repository shows who created the procedure, when the procedure was created, when the procedure was last modified, and who modified the last procedure. Since the material is online it can be easily sorted or searched to find a specific document(s).
  4. In the leader standard work of the management team, we set a task to review and/or update standard work at least annually. Adherence to an occurring review reminds everyone on the team which documents exist and how that procedure is defined. If all of the standard work is kept in the same repository then it’s easy to locate and to determine what to review.

Practical benefits of standard work:

  1. We can’t improve upon what we haven’t defined and standardized. Taiichi Ohno said, “Without standards, there can be no kaizen.” Once all the members of the team see the definition of the standard they can begin to find ways to continuously improve it.
  2. It provides a script for training new employees. How many times have you onboarded new team members and only given them verbal instructions on how recurring tasks are accomplished in your department. We just hope they get it and can repeat their training during live execution of the steps. For the benefit of the employee, training, and company, the SOP document is meant to provide the quickest and most consistent training. It takes a burden off the manager. It provides a sense of security of the employee. It produces consistent and expected results for the customer and company.
  3. If all of the SOPs are grouped together on an electronic board then it is easier to group and keep organized for updating. Every year, we can sort our standard work document library by last-update-date to quickly determine which SOPs need to be reviewed.

In my group, we are starting to define and add SOPs each month. The value we receive from the documentation far outweighs the time required to create the document. Standard work is a journey, not a destination. Define the work. Execute the work. Review the work. Improve the work.

Onward and upward!

concentration so intense…

One of my favorite things is reading a book and finding a statement that makes me pause and reflect. It’s the highlighter worthy statement. It’s the one I might write about or use to start a conversation with a colleague. It’s a statement the author uses to convey the point of their writing. For me, it’s a statement that feels right because it connects with my own experiences.

It happened today as I was reading Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones. Womack and Jones recapped the findings of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by saying,

“The types of activities which people all over the world consistently report as most rewarding — that is, which makes them feel best — involve a clear objective, a need for concentration so intense that no attention is left over, a lack of interruptions and distractions, clear and immediate feedback on progress toward the objective, and a sense of a challenge.”

At work, I have an ongoing conversation with a few colleagues that the most rewarding department in the company is shipping. The product comes to them and leaves them, piece-by-piece. They check a box, mark it complete, mark it shipped. This is not the type of stimulating work Csikszentmihalyi mentions. But shipping personnel are gaining the sense of accomplishment by starting and completing work without interruptions.

Here’s a challenging situation. Today’s office of matrixed organizations working on multiple projects, makes replicating the experience described by Csikszentmihalyi extremely difficult. I’ve been wrestling with the puzzle of transitioning IT work from batch-and-queue into single piece workflows. Part of that puzzle is finding solutions for how best to keep technology workers satisfied and inspired by their work. Project requests come simultaneously from multiple stakeholders including customers, product managers, and compliance teams. Project requests also originate from events like mergers, acquisitions, facility closures, and company reorganizations. All this results in what I call organizational entropy. It’s very difficult for a professional worker to achieve “a concentration so intense that no attention is left over”.

One way to minimize the number of stops and starts is by level-loading assignments to workers by prioritizing work and regulating the in-take of new work from entering the flow of production. This takes discipline from the managers to see the entire system and to manage with an eye towards uninterrupted work. It requires discipline from the workers not be distracted by upcoming work or work not requested by the customer. If I think about my typical day, I start with a set of defined work tasks for what’s important and due. It takes concentration to complete a task from start-to-finish without pausing to look at emails, new requests, or other project assignments. But when I do stick to the plan and complete the work, I find the work more rewarding.

Picture this – “Concentration so intense that no attention is left over”. Office squirrels might go extinct.

Onward and upward!

Root Cause Analysis Playbook

One of the staples of our Lean journey is a monthly root cause analysis (RCA) effort. The results of the team standard have surpassed my expectations, and I anticipate more potential positive results as we mature our approach. Our playbook is simple to execute, but requires disciplined execution and adherence to standard to recognize benefit and produce long term benefits.

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Prerequisite Activities

  1. Train team members on the fundamentals and business reason to use RCA.
  2. Create team standards for documentation and frequency of RCA events.
  3. Establish place on visual management board to post active, completed, and future RCA documents.

Execution

  1. In the frequency designated by the team standard, determine the process,procedure, or result as the subject for the RCA.
  2. Decide who the point person is to manage the current RCA effort.
  3. Analyze and document
    1. Define the problem
    2. Determine why the problem happened.
    3. Determine a solution to prevent the problem from happening again.
  4. Post results to management board

Organizational Adhesive

  1. Review progress of active RCAs and results of completed RCAs during weekly team meetings.
  2. Use managers as both participants and assignment owners.
  3. Audit adherence to department standards and post results on team audit board.
  4. Use the management board to put placeholders for RCAs that will happen in the future.

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A monthly cadence works well for our environment. It is frequent enough to keep problem solving active, but not so frequent to disrupt operational activities. We have found that RCAs which require more than a month of work to resolve should be classified as a project so we can keep the monthly cadence of RCA events.

The best part is living with the results and preventing problems from repeating. So far, we’ve not had any of the problem repeat that we’ve solved for in a RCA. I guess that’s the whole point.

Onward and Upward!

Lean Visual Management Board – What I’ve learned so far

Last year we started using a visual management board to get a better understanding of the flow of work in our IT department. The board, now in version 2 and completely electronic, has become the staple of our weekly team leader meetings. With continued attention and more maturity in lean thinking, I expect to continue evolution of the board contents.  There is no destination; Journey we must.

Each week, we “walk the board” during the team leader meeting. The content of the board is the agenda of the meeting. As we “walk” we make updates, we discuss topics, and we review results. The board has posted metrics and results, upcoming production changes, a calendar of key events , training plans, action plans, and links to standard operating procedure documents. It’s like a big dashboard but yet different because we are actively working the flow of department in the department instead of just viewing it. The board provides a tool for enacting the countermeasures and actions necessary to bring visual management to life.

Here’s a rough layout of the board contents which now reside on our Intranet start page:


Here are a few of the things we’ve learned by working the board each week:

  • Making work visual allows others see how their inputs and outputs affect overall flow of work.
  • We can measure progress of continuous improvement efforts by seeing how they affect key metrics.
  • We have a consistent approach for root cause problem solving. Learn together. Win together.
  • The board promotes the development of leaders that follow the company’s philosophy for work.

The visual management board is a conversation starter. It’s a visual representation of work. It’s a mission enabler.

Onward and upward!

Lean Thinking – Virtual Circles

Stand inside a circle.

During skills training last month, I viewed a series of videos from the Gemba Academy on the seven wastes in business and processes.  The material introduced the chalk circle teaching method of Taiichi Ohno. Draw a circle near an area to observe and stand in the circle for a pre-assigned time period. Record observations of the flow of work through the department. A key emphasis is placed on finding areas of waste. (Optional step, listen to “Stand by R.E.M.”- jk)

My mind started working a puzzle to define what this looks like in an office environment for Information Technology workers. The challenge is much of the work performed by IT uses inputs to-and-from a computer. Information and flow isn’t always physically visible. Combine this with employees that are not co-located and the observation circle for IT looks impossible.

But maybe I could create a virtual circle.

What’s at stake? A  way to find inefficient processes that produce waste and processes that don’t meet customer demand. A way to identify areas to reduce the time between customer request and solution delivery. This is important stuff!

My homework.

Now I have an action item to go draw a few virtual circles and stand in them. The first two areas I want to target are the software development process and service ticket flow.

  • Virtual Circle #1 – Software features on a Kanban board. We use swimlanes to map the status of software features and bugs. The board can show information on the movement of features through the process which may reveal wastes in the areas of overproduction, defects, and waiting.
  • Virtual Circle #2 – Ticket status in the HelpDesk system – Group requests according to status, entry date, or type to look for patterns and weaknesses. As with software development, this could show wastes in the areas of  waiting, overproduction, or unnecessary movement.

I have no doubt that I’ll find areas of waste. The aim of using a virtual circle is to turn the observations into actionable tasks for removing wastes.

If you have ideas for methods for finding wastes in an office environment let me know. This is a puzzle worth working.

Onward and upward!