Dear Kevin,

I try to hire the best employees. Once they’re on board, I work hard to motivate them, applying what I learned in my management training. My employees don’t seem lazy, and they’re definitely smart enough to do the job, but for some reason things aren’t working. People keep making mistakes and our work is falling behind. What can I do?

Signed,

Seriously Cynical Supervisor

Could you have written this letter? If so, you’re not alone. I hear variations on this story all the time.

One accounting manager, swearing as usual that he had really smart employees, figured they were dropping the ball only because they didn’t take clients and the job seriously enough.

WorkflowThe manager’s first inclination was to deal with the problem by paying incentives for fewer mistakes, reallocating work among staff, and replacing his worst employees as soon as possible. He hadn’t considered that maybe the employees were doing all they could and that systems were the culprit all along. Then he dug deeper.

The manager and staff set out to discover what caused their biggest headaches and found that broken work systems were at least partly to blame. They grouped them into three problem areas.

Problem #1: Even when the staff members thought they were on the same page, each had a different idea about who was going to do what. Staff members were shocked that fingers pointed to them when a project was dropped, a deadline was missed, or a critical call to a client wasn’t made.

Problem #2: When the manager and staff agreed to procedures, they didn’t account for the unexpected. So, exceptions piled up in the manager’s in-box, waiting for the manager to decide what to do with them. Because urgencies were buried in the pile, the manager often didn’t know about them until clients squawked.

Problem #3: Sometimes a second or third accountant needed to help with a project. When that happened, whoever was handing it off to the next accountant tended to figuratively “throw it over the wall” and assume it was taken care of. Unfortunately, the other accountants often had no idea a project was waiting for them until clients asked where their data or reports were.

The team looked for ways to fix their broken work processes and systems. Here’s how they went about it.

First, the manager met with staff to prioritize services they provided according to resources required, ROI, and constituent needs. Since it would take a while to work through every process, they wanted to start with the most critical ones first. The manager charged staff members with most of the work so they would own improvements they came up with.

Kevin Herring

Kevin Herring

Second, staff members mapped their workflows. They looked for ways to streamline processes, attacking both actual and potential process bottlenecks and redundancies. They tried to account for unusual and unexpected situations so in-process work would “hang” less often. They pared down misunderstandings about responsibilities by clarifying who would be accountable for each step and that everyone was accountable for the end result. Again to support staff ownership, staff members drew each final process map and selected a process champion to coordinate future tweaks.

Third, staff created systems to regulate each process step and make sure everything went according to plan. They automated as much as possible using technology. When they couldn’t, they built in reminders and quality checks like alarms, checklists, and speech balloons that cut down on mistakes, missed steps, and missed deadlines.

Last, they reviewed each staff member’s roles and accountabilities, including what each would do to make the changes, and they made sure any anticipated problems had well-planned responses.

It was a great plan developed from a reliable process. But it’s truly often the case that “the devil is in the details.” After creating their plan, they had to grapple with the hard work of personal change and successfully executing it. That’s when things can get tough.

Here’s What Happened Next

The new workflow maps made it easier to pinpoint bottlenecks and identify where communications and other systems broke down. They also made it easier to see how to fix some of them. One substantial delay occurred nearly every time the team had a new project. Project information would be placed in a file and sit in a basket waiting for the manager to assign the project to a staff member. If the manager was out of the office, it could take weeks. The bottleneck showed up on the map and prompted the team to discuss why things were hung up.

When the team put their heads together, they came up with criteria for assigning projects that everyone understood, allowing any staff member to review a project and route it to the appropriate accountant instead of waiting for the manager to do it. That not only got projects started more quickly, it also gave staff more responsibility and freedom to organize their work.

A process map also showed that a number of problems resulted from staff members forgetting to do something or assuming someone else had taken care of it. So they created a checklist to make sure they always obtained all the essential information they needed to understand expectations and move projects forward with fewer mistakes.

While they were analyzing processes, the accountants recognized they needed to communicate better with constituents. They decided to reach out to them to get a client perspective and were surprised at what they heard.

Constituents told them they thought some accountants were “slacking” because they had stopped asking constituents to send certain monthly reports. They figured that if staff hadn’t been acquiring the reports they needed, they couldn’t be doing all the work they used to do. Constituents were surprised to hear accountants could access the data in other ways because of new technology, so they no longer needed to ask for the reports. If the accountants had simply told constituents why they were doing things differently, constituents wouldn’t have drawn the wrong conclusions. This led the accountants to rethink how they had been communicating.

Accounting staff often found themselves stuck waiting for information from a constituent for the constituent’s project. When their last communication left the responsibility with the constituent, accountants were only too happy to forget about it and work on something else. Unfortunately, constituents sometimes forgot or misunderstood what was happening, thinking the accountant had dropped the ball, so they blamed the accountant. It usually worked out that each blamed the other while the project sat and fell further behind schedule.

Staff decided to fix the problem by personally owning the outcome of any project and agreeing that accountants should coax things along regardless of who was responsible for a given task. It eliminated confusion about accountabilities and gave accountants permission to nudge a constituent anytime they weren’t getting what they needed. That way somebody was always responsible for keeping projects progressing to completion.

The accountants now have several new processes they’ve put in place. Checklists and reminders are preventing mistakes. They’re even doing weekly 15-minute check-ins as a team where they review the status of every project to make sure nothing gets dropped. It seems to be time well spent.

They say they still have to map more processes, but right now they have their hands full implementing all the changes they’ve made. And it’s paying off. They’re making fewer mistakes and are getting more efficient, even though they know they still have a ways to go. Best of all, the “blame game” has ended and happy constituents have let them know they’re on the right track.

Kevin Herring is co-author of “Practical Guide for Internal Consultants” and president of Ascent Management Consulting, which specializes in productivity improvement through performance turnarounds, leadership coaching, and appraisal-less performance management. Contact him at kevinh@ascentmgt.com.

©2015 Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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