Going digital or going bananas

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Founder & CEO, Elements.cloud
30+ years in business transformation and operational excellence as executive sponsor, consultant and software vendor. Author of 8 books, prolific blogger and conference speaker Based in San Francisco, London and in a 747 Powered by Duracell

What is clear that every company, no matter what industry needs to “go digital” to reduce costs and improve customer experience.  For some industries, it is revolution rather than evolution. “Digital” is more than just driving efficiencies, it is reevaluating business models. As whilst digital can improve efficiencies it is eroding margins at a faster rate.

Nature is a great teacher. Think about the structure of plants and shells and the Fibonacci sequence. Or the strength of the honeycomb structure. These are math and engineering. But a bunch of bananas can teach us about going digital and business change. Seriously? 

A bunch of bananas

Take the humble bunch of bananas. Have you ever seen a banana where one banana has ripened faster than the others in the bunch? Are one of two bananas dramatically larger than the rest? No. The energy is expended equally across all the bananas so they grow and ripen at the same pace. This is great instruction for how we should approach digitization of the business.

Optimizing the digital experience.

Digital is not a neat website with some bots. It is reinventing the customer experience and using digital to enhance it and at the same time drive down the delivery costs. The implications of going digital reach deep into the organization. The promise made on the website needs to be delivered by back office operations and systems – seamlessly.

That means companies need to take an end to end perspective on the customer journey and operational processes. Firstly, then need to consider their industry, the trends and how digital is changing the business models. This is where you need strong business analysis skills and a process mapping approach that is designed for top down process mapping with business users, using a simple notation like UPN (Universal Process Notation)  https://elements.cloud/2016/06/01/upn/. 

When you started to digitize – i.e. automate – these processes you should make sure that there is a similar level of investment across the end to end process. This is where the bananas teach us something.

There is no point having an amazing website that promises 1 day delivery and has a compelling buying experience, but then those orders cannot be automatically routed and fulfilled.  Or the fulfillment is completely automated, but the order forms are confusing to customers so there are incorrect orders which means much of the invoicing is manual with high level of returns. 

The entire end to end needs to be optimized to eliminate manual intervention and bottlenecks. Digital means that many companies on razor thin margins and any order that needs manual intervention could be a loss.

Change hurts 

This digital transformation is fantastic for the customer. Better customer experience. More responsive. Cheaper. But the story inside companies going through digital transformation isn’t so pretty. 

Automation technology has taken out many manual workers, but now AI and bots are removing the need for administrative and support teams. This is leading to some painful transformations inside companies. Not everybody is going to lose their jobs. But most people in the organization will be impacted and have to change the way that they work, are measured and paid.

Middle managers are offering the most resistance – and also the most at risk from going digital. They feel threatened by younger more tech-savvy staff. Digital through improvement collaboration and automation is flattening org charts. The answer is adapt or die. What is worse than change – is being made irrelevant. 

The challenge of going digital

The biggest barrier is people not technical.  

Firstly, senior management need to recognize that they need to drive the change from the top and that it will have a dramatic impact on the business. It is easy to just leave it for another day, or week or month before you get started. But the longer they leave it before they get started, then changes are more urgent, disruptive and painful. History is littered with examples of companies that saw the change coming, but did nothing about it, such as Kodak and Blockbuster.

Next, the department heads need to get together and jointly design the new digitized end to end process. This will be painful as it could mean making them and some of their teams redundant. No-one is going to get excited about attending workshops where they will be designing a business that could eliminate them. These need to be collaborative workshops to ensure that the end to end processes is optimized and the handoffs between departments are clearly defined.

Finally, there is the need to get all the teams to adapt and change to work to the newly designed processes using the new technology. This is more than a 2 day training course. In the new digital world, it is process diagrams – which were used to redesign the business – made available at point of need linked to training scripts and video clips.

Changing the way that we eat bananas

Again, bunch of banana teaches us the challenge of change. 99% of us eat bananas the wrong way. I certainly did. I hold the bottom and break the stalk and peel it.  Or at least I did until the correct way was explained to me. The stalk is strong as it supports the banana on the tree. Therefore, the less ripe the banana, the harder it is to break. Often you need a knife to get it started. But it is perfect to hold. The other end is easy to open no matter how unripe the banana. Watch primates, who do not have knives or the luxury of only eating perfectly ripe bananas. They hold the stalk and open the banana from the other end.

So how does this talk about change management? Even though I have told this story at countless conferences, very few people have changed the way they eat bananas. Myself included. Why? It is slightly more messy digging your finger into the soft end until you get good at it. And the old way is not that bad – until you have a less ripe banana and no knife. 

Ingrained habits are very difficult to break. It requires frequent practice of the new way until you master it. It needs reminders that the new way is better. And the pain needs to be great enough to make you change.

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