Most people know what it’s like to be overwhelmed at work: managing a chaotic to-do list and constant emails, developing a poor work/life balance, putting out fires, and responding to the loudest voice in the room.
“It's easy to get caught up in a situation where you're doing so much firefighting that you don't ever have time to put out the fire permanently,” said Daniel Norton, EMBA ’19, and a co-founder of the software company LeanKit. “You don't have time to make things better. All you're doing is just getting up every day and trying to avoid disaster.”
This is a common scenario for knowledge-based workers. It’s difficult for workers to even acknowledge they are struggling, let alone find and fix the source of the problem. On the other hand, it is easy to tell when factory work goes awry: think products piling up on an assembly line, or Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz frantically shoveling chocolates into their chef’s hats as sweets fly down a conveyor belt in a classic scene from “I Love Lucy.”
Lucy and Ethel had a clear problem. They could see the work piling up in front of them. But it is hard to identify issues when the work is piling up in email inboxes. And it’s often up to workers to raise their hands and say they are struggling.
Visualizing work processes with tools like Post-it notes leads to efficiency, according to Norton and his classmate Amy Kimball, EMBA ’19. They designed a step-by-step process improvement framework as part of their Organizations Lab coursework at MIT Sloan, in which students apply what they’ve learned to a process at a company. Instead of improving one process, Kimball and Norton developed a method of process improvement that can be replicated and applied to any process.
The idea draws from dynamic work design, a framework created by MIT Sloan professor Nelson Repenning and senior lecturer Don Kieffer, who lead the Operations Lab course. Dynamic work design makes intellectual work processes visible and easier to improve.
“Most innovations and process improvement[s] have come in physical work, in factories basically,” Repenning said. “Most knowledge work processes have hardly been designed at all. People just start doing them and then they make ad hoc changes as they go.”
“For managers, the huge potential there is to start looking at their knowledge work processes with the same level of systematization or rigor that you would with the physical work.”
Norton and Kimball tested the method at the Boston VA Research Institute, where Kimball is the CEO.
The institute, a medium-sized nonprofit that conducts, supports, and promotes biomedical research, was struggling to improve workplace processes, Kimball said. Employees felt overwhelmed and frustrated.
The half-day initial project kicked off what is now a sustainable culture of process improvement, Kimball said.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to process improvement, based on Norton and Kimball’s research at Boston VA Research Institute. Your details will change, but the process is the same.
1. Identify problems
First, you need to find the problems.
Process improvement at the institute began with a half-day meeting, starting with ground rules (stick to “‘I’ statements,” don’t be accusatory, and no implying/finger pointing).
For three minutes, each employee wrote down at least four problems they saw in the organization on Post-It Notes, using one Post-It per problem. Then each person read their problems out loud and stuck the notes on a wall — a visual representation of what was plaguing workers and keeping them up at night.
Problems can’t be solved if nobody acknowledges they exist, and research shows that the longer problems linger, the harder they are to fix, Repening said.
“It basically forces people to ask for help, which is the hard skill to get in many organizations because people perceive that as a sign of weakness rather than helping the work move forward,” Repennning said. Kimball said finding common problems helped put her staff at ease.
2. Establish the backlog
Next, ask people to write down as many processes as they can think of that are plaguing them, one issue per Post-It Note. At Boston VA Research Institute, the answers were read aloud and posted in the first column of a visual process improvement board on the wall. Duplicates were stacked on top of each other to make it clear that several people thought it was a pressing issue.
The backlog made problematic processes less nebulous, Kimball said, and established what the team was working with.
3. Load up the queue
Decide what processes you are going to improve, and in what order. To begin with, Norton and Kimball recommend a manageable number of processes to improve, like five. At the institute, everyone was given the opportunity to vote for one process from the backlog they thought was most important to solve.
Early phases of process improvement should focus on low-hanging fruit, or small changes that are relatively easy to implement. For example, the institute’s team selected moving review of a document from step four to step one of a process. The institute’s team made a priority matrix determining effort and impact, and said the starting point should be low effort, low impact to increase the chances of results and reinforce buy-in.
The team took a vote on the first project and put the top five processes to change in the second column on the process improvement board.
4. Map the current process
For the first process, make your work visual by drawing a map of the entire process, from beginning to end, on a whiteboard.
Employees should avoid mapping the process as they think it should be, Norton said, and be sure to truthfully outline the current state of things.
Norton said his background in software, with clear physical steps and inputs and outputs, was an asset. “I had never in my life worked with a research institute before,” he said. “But the core of it, they had a process, right? ... And if you can find a process, you can put that into a visual workflow.”
5. Identify one small change
As a team, identify one small way to improve the process. It is best to address areas with ambiguous hand-offs, misaligned incentives, or based on “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, Norton and Kimball said.
Suggested changes are best coming from those directly involved in a process. “If leadership pushes solutions onto the team, they may be misaligned and nobody’s going to carry them out,” Kimball said. “Let the people doing the work give it a try, and see what they organically come up with.”
Small, incremental changes are a key to the process. “We’re big believers [that it is] much better to do successful small projects and build momentum rather than try to change everything at once,” Repenning said. “If we can do a quick-win project, we get some confidence, we’re heading in the right direction … Because maybe we generated some small result, but also in that little project you learned an enormous amount that will make you more productive in the second one.”
6. Do the experiment
Implement the proposed change and see it through for five iterations. It’s okay if it fails, Norton and Kimball said, or if the team starts making other improvements organically, which is a byproduct of a problem-solving mentality.
7. Look back and celebrate success
After the experiment had been completed five times, gather to determine if the experiment was successful. At the research institute, team members were given a survey before and after the experiment to see if responsibilities and processes were clearer.
The institute’s first change led to eliminating three instances of scanning a document, making a form e-signable, and consolidating the process from three departments to two, among other improvements. The processing time for the document was reduced by more than two weeks, and more staff members said they better understood the process and their role in completing it.
At the end of the process, even skeptical employees were on board, Norton said.
No matter the outcome, Norton and Kimball said teams should celebrate with things like a celebratory lunch or small giveaways after their first process improvement attempt.
After celebrating success, it’s time to move on to the next process in the queue. Process improvement isn’t a one-time thing, the researchers said, and instead represents a cultural shift.
Visualization techniques, including Post-It Notes and the process improvement board — which Norton calls “artifacts of success”— should remain in sight to remind the team of what they’ve done and what is left to change.
Dynamic work design, visualization particularly, is effective because it changes the physical environment to force a new set of habits.
“People will tend to pretty quickly fall back into the same habits if you haven’t changed the physical environment,” Repenning said.
Even Post-It notes can bring about this change. “This has given us all permission, and a structure, that we can’t ignore because it’s staring us in the face every time we have a team meeting in that room. It’s on the wall,” Kimball said. “This is a forever change.”
How to begin your own process improvement project
Repenning believes this framework is scalable and applicable to other organizations.
Some companies, especially smaller businesses, have expressed concern about taking time to hold project meetings, Norton said, but in the end, it is worth it. “The goal here is that we’re going to free up some of the time you’re spending on an inefficient system,” he said. “Once something better is working, this will produce a positive growth of your revenue.”
Kimball said leadership should set the tone for the process, but those doing the work often have the best ideas. “I wouldn’t want someone above me to be commanding solutions on me,” she said. “My role here is to bring us together and create an environment of trust and openness, and accountability and commitment, and to empower the team to find the solutions that are probably in them but that nobody attempted yet.”