Where to Start with Process Improvement in a New Organization

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Most of us have found ourselves in the situation where we are assigned to oversee a function or department new to us. Without knowing what we’ve inherited, the honeymoon period kicks off – those critical ninety or so days where we have to demonstrate that the hiring manager made the right decision. During this time, we meet with our direct reports, talk with customers, watch how things are getting done, and diligently investigate areas identified by our boss. But true progress is somewhat elusive – we just don’t really know where to dig in. Not knowing where to focus their energy, many new managers hammer down on the administrative side of the job. Unfortunately, they quickly lose the ability to see with fresh eyes the reality of the situation. They get sucked into the void of the status quo.

Let’s rewind this scenario a bit. As a new manager, you are dropped into a cloud of smoke and given a handful of loose directives with varying degrees of expected timelines. Here is where I suggest you as a new manager hit pause. Leaping into the fray comes with a great risk – wasting your efforts on activities counterproductive to the goal of transitioning your team/department into what the enterprise needs. But where to start….

Start with the customer! The customer is the supreme judge of success or failure for any organization. A customer may be internal or external to your company based upon the placement of your team inside the org chart. The customer is the safest place to start for a new manager. Have you ever heard a senior leader say you were too customer focused…? or that you needed to calibrate yourself to someone other than the customer? The simple fact that you are aiming at the most critical influence of the organization virtually assures you are not going in the wrong direction. 

But what does start with the customer really mean? In my experience, I’ve found that starting with the customer means understanding who is the recipient of the outputs delivered by my team/department and evaluating whether we are collectively delivering what they want or need. 

From my perspective, this assessment boils down to 3 primary steps. 

  1. Map your customer’s processes for how they utilize the output of your team. In other words, ask the following questions:
    1. How do they know what output they need? 
    2. How do they order it? 
    3. How do they take delivery of it?
    4. How do they use it? 
    5. How do they dispose of it? 

These are the simple questions – invariably there are more in most instances. 

  1. Walk through each customer process step by step and identify if and how your organization could make this step easier for the customer. Are you providing outputs that require additional work for the customer? Are there things you are creating that are wasteful? Are there things you could be doing that would be beneficial for the customer? And most importantly, is what you are doing today what they want? At this point, document this list of opportunities. 
  2. With opportunities captured, it is time to meet with your customer(s) and share what you have learned. Let them see the list of opportunities you have identified. Solicit their input and buy-in to the opportunities. Discuss how you can collectively prioritize the opportunities and even begin building an agreed upon order for their execution.

In contrast to the “ready, fire, aim” mentality so prevalent with new managers, this approach delivers several major benefits for any new manager. Managing and driving the adjustments of any department or organization entails understanding the lay of the land. This exercise provides the background foundational awareness for a manager to pivot in any direction. Second, this approach eliminates the risk a new manager will go in a direction that is invaluable or in opposition to future aims. Wasted effort is reduced to the bare minimum. Finally, the agreements forged with the customers of your department/team set the basis for a mutually beneficial relationship where all business partners benefit. 

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