Tim Hebert
October 26, 2016

ARTICLE: Continuous Improvement - High-Tech or High-Touch?

We love our gadgets. Some people travel with several—if not a dozen or more—high-tech devices that can inform, track, automate and organize their lives; we can’t imagine how we ever lived without them. How did we ever see or talk to anyone before smartphones, tablets, laptops and GPS guidance?

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I remember in college (I’m dating myself here) we used to have little whiteboards on our doors and we would leave our friends notes if we wanted to relay information. “I’ll be at the dining hall at 6, meet me there!” Alternatively, friends could pick up a phone—one with a cord attached to it—and leave a message on an answering machine, probably with an actual little tape in it. Things are certainly different now. My 11-year-old is texting his classmates to collaborate on a school project and sending assignments via Google Docs.

So what does this all mean in the world of continuous improvement? We are always looking for ways to do tasks quickly (think automation). We want to have the ability to program or schedule it to be done. We want a system (technology) that can accomplish that task for us.  And why wouldn’t we? We’ve made so many great advancements, we should be able to put them to work for us.

The thing about continuous improvement, though, is that it doesn’t always immediately lend itself to high-tech solutions. But wait? Isn’t the goal of continuous improvement to automate and streamline? The answer is yes and no. Through continuous improvement, we strive to find the bestprocess to achieve something. We look for the most efficient, accurate, value-add solution and then, if a technology or system can help us do it, we apply it.

[Continuous improvement can often mean change. Are you ready for it?]

As practitioners of continuous improvement, we need to be careful not to be drawn to the shiny, fancy, do-it-for-you systems that claim to do it all; they simply don’t exist. Every business is different and very few can buy a system, install it, and have it run their business effectively. A system needs to be configured to work with your processes, NOT the other way around.  When you start changing your process to fit into a system, you are treading on dangerous ground.

A good system installation, migration, or upgrade starts with mapping all of the processes that the system will touch and making sure that the processes themselves make sense. If you put a broken process into a shiny high-tech system, you get a faster (maybe), more automated (maybe), way to deliver a bad process with poor outcomes—not the Return on Investment you were looking for.

At Atrion, we start any technical solution with a full Business Process Mapping (BPM) exercise. We map the current state of the process, what we want the future state to look like, and determine what gaps we need to solve to get from one to the other. There is BPM software, but we don’t pull it out just yet.

The first step we take, even at our technology-based company, is to put a big piece of brown paper on the wall and pull out the colorful sticky notes. We create our current and future state maps using color coded sticky notes (green is good, red is bad, yellow is a question, etc.).  We make sure to have all of the necessary stakeholders in the room who can speak to the current state process, and ideally some who don’t know the process (to get us thinking outside of our habits or perceived constraints).

Inevitably, we put the sticky note process steps up on the brown paper and as different team members start talking, we realize they may need to be moved around. Sometimes, one person is doing a process and thinks it works one way, and the person right next to them is doing the same process in a different way.  Having it up on the wall, color coded and able to be moved around drives much higher engagement from the team. In other words, it is very “high-touch”.

Once you have your processes where you want them – bring on the sexy software. Make it work for you, not vice versa. Configure it to maximize your efficiency and automate your tasks. Just don’t ask it to do a process that YOU don’t fully understand, or be surprised if you put a broken process in and don’t get the results you were looking for.

There is no replacement for people sitting together in a room, hearing each others’ viewpoints, having healthy debate over how things should run and coming up with solutions together. And whether you’re Microsoft or a two person law firm, high-touch wins over high-tech every time.

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