So much of our attention in the lean community is on continuous improvement. Normally that is interpreted as "process improvement". In the project world processes are often incidental to the work we are doing to fulfill the promise of the project. In other words, the value stream goes through a series of tasks like writing software code, documenting a feature, refactoring, etc., none of which follow a repeatable step-by-step process. Architecture and construction projects are similar. The process stuff is supporting the value stream. When we make so-called improvements to process we are dealing with "the how" some outcome is accomplished. Rarely are improvements focused on "the what" of the outcome. Ric Merrifield tells us to shift from the how to the what to get innovation and to really cut costs.
Shift from "the how" to "the what" to boost innovation and to really cut costs.Ric's book, RETHINK: A Business Manifesto for Cutting Costs and Boosting Innovation, does a good job of getting our attention off the how and onto the what. He offers story after story of companies that stay clear about what makes them distinctive to their customers. While the process for delivering on results is always important, getting the outcome right makes or breaks our projects. My colleagues and clients have heard me say over and over Don't improve on something that we shouldn't be doing in the first place. Ric says it more forcefully,
Never has there been a more important time to continually improve your company's efficiency and productivity. (F)or that to happen, they are going to have to avoid the "how" trap, rethink and focus on their "whats," and become a collection of plug-and-play operations.
Ric has been thinking about this stuff for awhile. A year ago he and co-authors Jack Calhoun and Dennis Stevens published a paper in HBR, The Next Revolution in Productivity. In the paper they describe the five steps: (you can substitute the word "project" for "company")
- Describe your operations in terms of desired outcomes (the whats)
- Identify the activities supporting the desired outcomes
- Identify the capabilities supporting each of your activities
- Identify activities most critical to your company's success
- Design a more efficient operating model
RETHINK takes the fine HBR paper and wraps it in one engaging story after another. I particularly enjoyed reading another take on Alcoa's turnaround in the early '90s. (Steven Spear writes about Alcoa in Chasing the Rabbit.) CEO Paul O'Neil put a singular focus on safety as an outcome (a what). Not only did safety rapidly improve, but it drove improvements throughout the business. Ric shares this kind of re-thinking throughout the book.
The idea of starting any improvement effort by looking at the purpose of the process is certainly not a new idea, nor is it new in the project setting. The Lean Construction community has been pull planning projects by starting with the big outcome promised to the customer and then working backwards to define the series of outcomes that allows the team to keep that promise. We call those outcomes conditions of satisfaction…just another way of saying "what".
RETHINK takes the fine HBR paper and wraps it in one engaging story after another.One last comment, I enjoyed the playfulness in the jacket title. Perhaps it's my imagination but I detect a little Microsoft vs. IBM humor. For the last 80 years, IBM's motto or value, as they say, has been "THINK". The book jacket shows the title as "re-th!nk". Ric has been a Microsoftie for the last 10 years. Can it be just a coincidence? Nah.