Efficiency and Effectiveness

When it comes to how I think about projects, the two words that I have always used to define my approach are efficiency and effectiveness. These ideas have been a major focus of my style for over a decade and were born of the idea of how can we do this better

To make sure we are all on the same page, I have provided a brief summary of how I define both concepts.

  • Efficiency: The reduction of wasted work/effort to the greatest degree possible.
  • Effectiveness:  Ensuring that the desired result is achieved to the greatest degree possible.

I recently had to describe my approach and it made me think to actually write it out for a blog post. My goal was to clearly define the process for myself, but also create a framework for others to use if they find it useful. It should be noted that I am writing this as if I was coming into a project already in place, but the process also holds true when creating something from the ground up.

  • Workflow: To fully understand how something is being done, I like to start by putting together a workflow diagram to visualize the process. In order to put together an accurate workflow, I try to interview anyone who impacts the process being undertaken. My goal is to cover two key ideas – the current state and ideal state. The current state provides an understanding of what they do now and the ideal state allows them to provide suggestions for doing it better. Getting ideal state information from those who do the work is – to me – the lowest hanging fruit you can get for ideas to improve a process. Once all of this is compiled, a clear workflow diagram can be put together. If not, that means I need to either interview more people or a real problem has been identified. With a workflow diagram in hand, it is helpful to then observe the actual work going on to make sure the map is accurate. If it is not, amend as needed, but also note why there were any discrepancies.
  • Hierarchy and Reporting Structure: In addition to the workflow, understanding the organization’s hierarchy and reporting structure also plays a key role in efficiency and effectiveness. The two are not always the same and do not necessarily need to be – it can vary greatly depending on the circumstances and organizational structure. However, it is important they are logically laid out in an organized format for the benefit of that organization. The movie Office Space perfectly highlights the issue of when this is not the case.
  • Process Improvement: Once these items have been mapped out – based on the current state questions – I look to see if there are any obvious improvements to be made. I have worked with a lot of groups that do not look at this regularly, so old and new processes get merged over time, and inefficiencies can get overlooked. I then start looking at the ideal state information and examples of how those actually involved in the process think it can be improved. I also bring my own experience to bear to find other areas for improvement.
  • People: People are a huge factor when it comes to increasing efficiency and effectiveness. The right people have to be on the team and motivation needs to be kept high. This allows for the two factors to be kept consistent and at a high level. The wrong people – and by wrong people I mean those with the wrong attitude – can quickly derail the situation.
  • Innovative (Spirit of Innovation): Going along with people, a general spirit of innovation must be present. This means having the policies and procedures in place, as well as a culture, where people know they can voice ideas or concerns, and that they will be heard and their comments appreciated. To me, that is the most basic element of innovation. Higher-order levels of innovation can certainly be put in place though, such as everyone spending 10% of their time on their own projects and/or working to improve an area of operation – but that is a different story. All of these require intentional decisions by an organization’s leadership.
  • Bringing It All Together: Finally, there is making sure everything comes together well – an organization’s secret sauce. There are a lot of articles written about excellent companies, but it is difficult to copy their success. Case and point, the book Built to Last by Jim Collins – a book that made a big impact on me early in my career – is not a checklist of items to form a successful company. There has to be something else. Each group must find its own secret sauce to make their organization work efficiently and effectively. However, when everything does sync up, it can be very special.

As I regularly mention, I am a process guy, so it helps me to have this all laid out. However, I want to emphasize the point that this process changes slightly every time I do it because of the unique nature of each project. When looking to do this on your own, always be ready to adapt and adjust to your unique situation.

What are the things your organization does to keep efficiency and effectiveness at a high level?

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Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

I just finished the book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp and I am struggling to clearly define my feelings on the Design Sprint process. First and foremost, I cannot disagree that wonderful ideas and products have come out of teams using the Sprint process. The idea that I am struggling with is if it is truly a design process or, rather, a reactive process to better focus/refine work that is already being done. Early on in the book, it is noted that the author draws from both Lean and Agile practices, which it clearly does, but I feel both of these practices are about starting from the beginning. The examples used in the book felt like they were all ideas or products already in the works, like the hotel robot and fitness app, but had not found the right next step – like specific functionality or a target market. I also felt like there were some contradictions, like stating a prototype is better than an MVP, but then they gave examples of building a website using simple presentation software – essentially an MVP.

Again, I love the idea of a Design Sprint. I am a process guy and really like how it is clearly laid out with well-defined objectives for each day. To me, it is the clearly defined process that is the Design Sprint’s greatest strength. To help me lay out my thoughts and maybe figure out how I would use a sprint, I have written out the pros and cons – as I see them – below:

Pros – Things that I really liked about the process:

  • As I said above, I think the level of detail provided for the five-day process is a massive benefit to help drive success. This helps make it easier for non-process people to simply follow the instructions. It also acts as an accountability measure as facilitators can easily point back to the process to stave off folks who are pushing against the process and/or an idea.
  • Making sure that all the key stakeholders are in the room is fantastic. Functional managers, decision-makers, etc. By having all of the relevant voices in the room, especially decision-makers, it helps to reduce the chances of hitting a roadblock down the line.
  • Sprints allow for quick repetitions to continue the learnings from the previous week. If the prototype completely fails with the five interviewees, the team will have at least learned why, and then be able to adapt and refine those items for the following week. Spending a week, two weeks, or even a month is likely far less time than some organizations are currently burning up on developing/refining new ideas.
  • The Design Sprint process pulls some of the best elements from the Lean and Agile processes to quickly find solutions that will lead to a satisfied customer and are therefore more likely to find scalable success.
  • An element that was addressed really well was dealing with potential conflict areas, possible groupthink, and avoiding bias. It really came through that these best practices were learned through trial and error – with the process continuously being improved with each iteration.

Cons – Things that stood out as not ideal:

  • The first thing that really stood out to me is that the book clearly draws from Lean principles, but does not address the most important idea of starting with customer discovery – identifying a customer’s hair on fire problem before developing a solution. Sprints seem like a reactive process to not finding initial success, and needing to find a small pivot, rather than a proactive approach.
  • Key assumptions are made from Monday to Thursday. That time is wasted if you only learn that on Friday – even if the interviews yield information for a small pivot.
  • Only five interviews make me feel nervous if there is not a clear next step to verify the information with additional potential customers.
  • Finally, I believe each example given in the book depended on a large amount of work having already been done before the Sprint came into the picture. None of the examples seemed to really be pure design. It seems more fine-tuning to get the right fit before launching.

As I look back at my notes, I feel the main issue I keep coming back to is the idea that a Sprint is meant for an idea that has already been started. It is not a design process that starts with a truly blank slate. There are a number of assumptions made on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and this would be the case whether it was the very start of an idea or with a team that has already started building.

So, I started thinking about what I would do to address my concerns before conducting my own Sprint. Right now, the process is laid out like this:

As a firm believer in Lean principles, I think more preliminary analysis, understanding, and customer discovery in needed to increase the chances for success – faster. Below is the addition of an initial week to add in more customer discovery, but following the same timeline and processes set in place for the standard Sprint: (click to enlarge)

As I write this, I fully understand no one can control certain factors about getting interviews and even the interviews a team would get on those two days would not be able to fully validate anything. However, it would at least present a firmer foundation to launch the Sprint and could potentially involve fewer resources (people) throughout the week to reduce the impact. It should also be noted that if the first five interviews on the standard Sprint fail an extra week is going to be added anyway.

At the end of the day, I do really like the Design Sprint idea and approach. It has clearly been very successful for many different companies. I just look at it and think there are ways to make it an even more powerful tool for an organization to use.

What do you think? Are there other ideas for improving the Sprint approach?

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Crisis or Opportunity?

doors-1587329_1920I always try to look for the opportunity in tough situations. We are certainly in a tough situation right now, but I have tried to look at it as an opportunity to improve upon current practices. Many are having to make a swift transition to remote or virtual programming, but that does not mean there is any real innovation or process improvement. That is what I would like to talk about here.

The first time I dealt with the idea of having to rapidly create change was in 2008/2009 as a result of the Great Recession. My organization had a massive budget reduction, so I was asked to review my department’s entire portfolio and then provide recommendations to cut costs. The way I looked at the challenge was how to maintain or even improve upon current practices while reducing or eliminating costs – a search for innovative solutions. By operating with that mindset, it forced me to look at process improvement and understand what current funds were actually ‘buying’ – what value was actually being received for spending that money. The result of that process was an exciting set of improvements that stayed with the department long after our budget returned to normal levels. That exercise made a lasting impression on me and the lessons learned in the process still influence my current approach to innovation and process improvement.

In today’s crisis, as a result of the novel coronavirus, many businesses are not just quickly, but immediately, having to change how they operate. My own organization is having to make the transition, so I have been faced with a similar set of challenges as I did 11/12 years ago.

Below are the steps I take when needing to improve and change my current practices:

  • Start from the beginning: Write out your process in as much detail as possible – using a workflow diagram can be very helpful. Think about how and why everything is done. What are the aspects that could be improved? Play devil’s advocate and come up with alternatives that would provide the same or better results.
  • Follow the money: Where in the process is money (or time) being spent – either directly or indirectly? What value is being received from that expenditure? Is it worth it? Are there other ways to receive the same results, but with less money (or time)?
  • Ask the people: Who are the key stakeholders involved along the entire process? How do they influence the process? Take the time to interview all of the key stakeholders to get their understanding of the process, recommendations they have, and connect what they state to the time and money put into the process. End-users can be particularly important as their value expectation should weigh most heavily.
  • What else is out there: Are there other groups inside or outside of your organization doing something similar? Try to look at their process and learn if some of that process would benefit what you do.
  • Putting it all together to innovate: Armed with all of this new information, lay out what you think the new process could look like – even listing some different alternatives for each step along the way. Again, a workflow diagram will be helpful with this. Then get some feedback from relevant stakeholders to find out what they think. Where are the gaps? What did you miss? Then insert the new feedback and create a final first draft.
  • Test it out: Where possible, test something in a small way to verify it works as desired and then adjust as needed. Once ready, implement the process with less time and money being spent.

This is the process that I use and try to keep to it as much as possible when analyzing a process. With so many people now working remotely, shifting to virtual platforms, cutting out travel, and canceling programs, there is tremendous opportunity to reevaluate, overhaul, innovate, and improve current practices and processes to – hopefully – be more effective and more efficient.

What are the ways you or your organization are innovating?

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