Using Staff Frustration to Improve a Process

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Principal, Value Creation Partners
Daniel J. Madison is a principal in Value Creation Partners, an organizational consulting and training firm. He focuses on helping clients increase value through operational improvement, organizational redesign, lean six sigma facilitation, and strategic planning. Dan regularly teaches courses on Process Mapping and Analyzing and Improving Operations through the University of Chicago, University of Tulsa, University of Calgary, and California State University, East Bay.

The frustration lens diagnoses the process from the perspective of those who work in it. The purpose is to learn what frustrations people experience when doing their work. You can ask people about these as you create the as-is-flowchart, or you can complete the chart first and ask later. Use the first method if the process is relatively short and there aren’t many frustrations. Use the second for complex processes, particularly if there are a lot of frustrations.

With a large process, keep in mind that if you start talking about frustrations as you map it, you will take an extremely long time to finish the flowchart. Looking at a finished chart allows the team to concentrate on areas that cause the most frustration, rather than bogging down in a flurry of small irritations.

Before you begin asking people what frustrates them, set up a ground rule. Tell them, “While we’re in this room working together, we’ll focus 100 percent of the time on the process, not the people involved in it. If someone has a people issue, he or she should take it up with the project manager or facilitator, outside of the meeting.”

The frustration lens offers the following advantages:

  • Frustrations and quality issues are related. Sometimes if you ask a person about quality problems, he or she might not answer for fear of retribution. (In traditional and involvement-style organizations, blame and lack of trust are often rampant during process improvement initiatives.) But if you ask what frustrates them, then the quality issues surface in the course of the conversation. By focusing on frustrations, you can uncover quality problems without people clamming up.

When someone mentions a frustration that’s a quality issue, ask him or her to quantify the frequency of the problem. For instance, “What frustrates me is that the change order has errors,” is a quality problem. Your next question should be, “Out of ten change orders, how many have errors?” Put the response to that on the flowchart or list it on the quality problems sheet.

  • Problem areas become easily visible. People want the flow of work to be smooth and of high quality. So their frustrations often point to bottlenecks, disconnects in communication, missing information, and confusion.
  • People get to “vent” about the parts of the process that frustrate them. Venting is cathartic. When team members see you’re serious about hearing their problems, it creates enthusiasm and excitement. Buy-in for process improvement soars.
  • People begin to offer improvement ideas after frustrations and problems are identified. People who do the work often have the best ideas about how to improve it. Structure the frustration lens so that workers also provide ideas to solve their frustrations. Ideas that will have a significant effect and are inexpensive and easy to implement (i.e., the low-hanging fruit) can be addressed immediately. People get excited when they see their ideas becoming realities. Because these ideas came from team members – as opposed to a top-down management dictate – this also creates a huge boost in morale, enthusiasm, and buy-in to process improvement.
  • Problems point to process design principles that aren’t being used. Process design principles are derived from best practices of world-class organizations and are extremely useful for providing direction and guidance on a redesign. Sometimes a person will express a frustration that links directly to a design principle. For example, a person might say, “What frustrates me is the missing information on the form.” That links to design principle, bringing downstream information needs upstream. When a design issue surfaces during the frustration discussion, state the principle it relates to and then have the team consider how to incorporate it into the redesign.
  • Process mapping creates a shared understanding and awareness of problems, issues, and solutions. Sometimes finger-pointing and blaming occurs between departments. When these departments are brought together on a process improvement team, over time as frustrations are expressed and solutions offered, the negative atmosphere between the departments will begin to improve. The departments start shifting from an “us and them” attitude to a more cooperative vision. Although process improvement wasn’t designed as a team-building activity, it is.


The Frustration and Idea Bin

Figure 7.2 shows a sales-order process. At step two the account representative receives the sales order from the sales department. If this process were examined through the frustration lens, you’d ask the rep, “Is there anything frustrating at this step?” The rep might respond, “The sales orders have missing, incomplete, and wrong information.” On a flip chart, write the number two, which corresponds to the step you’re examining. Next to that write, “The sales orders have missing, incomplete, and wrong information.”

Note: Be sure to use the exact words of the person experiencing the frustration. Paraphrasing without the person’s permission is insulting and implies that you can express the person’s frustration better than he or she can. If you must paraphrase, state what you want to write, and then ask the person, “Is it OK to state it like this?”

 Figure 1 – 7.2.

Next, make sure every team member has a Post-it notepad. If anyone has ideas that will eliminate the frustration, write each idea on a note. If a person has four ideas, then you’ll get four notes from him or her. Place all the notes on the flip chart so they accumulate under the frustration you just listed. It should look something like the representation in Figure 7.3.

Figure 2 – 7.3.

Why Use Post-it Notes?

You could simply ask team members to brainstorm ideas to eliminate the frustration the account representative has experienced. The problem with that is twofold. First, people tend to discuss ideas when they’re being generated, and discussion stifles brainstorming. Although eventually you’ll want to discuss these ideas, you don’t want to do so during the creative phase. Second, not everyone is an extrovert, and some people feel uncomfortable shouting out their ideas. When they can think about an idea and write it down, they’re more apt to contribute. By using the Post-it note technique, the group will come up with more ideas than it would simply by brainstorming. The chance of someone offering a great idea increases as well.

Sorting Through the Idea Bin

Now that you have a series of ideas, how do you decide which ones are best? Use a two-by-two table to frame the discussion. On the table’s vertical axis, ask two questions: First, does the idea eliminate that person’s frustration? If it “zaps” the frustration, then the idea falls in the upper region of the vertical axis. Second, will the customer like this idea? To be considered, an idea must both eliminate the frustration and please the customer.  If not, then you’re defeating the purpose of the process that’s being fixed, which is to create customer satisfaction. However, if you think the customer would like the idea, then you’re clearly in the high area of the vertical axis.

The next question, “Is the idea both inexpensive and easy to implement?” must pass both criteria to fall in the left column. Thus, ideas that have high impact, high value to the customer, and are inexpensive and easy to implement fall into quadrant one or “slam dunk.” These ideas can be acted upon immediately. The only reservation about acting on them right away is that some might be unwound in a clean-sheet redesign (i.e., reengineering) of the process. You might ask, “Does the idea have merit, no matter what the new design might look like?” If the answer is yes, then go ahead and implement the idea.

By acting on ideas immediately, the team can experience an instant, positive effect of the process improvement effort. In addition, it sends a message to the rest of the organization that you’re serious about improving processes.

Ideas that have high impact and value to the customer but are either expensive or difficult fall into quadrant two, which has a series of question marks in it. These stand for two questions: How difficult will it be to implement the idea? How expensive? The answers to those questions will determine whether to implement it.Figure 7.4 shows the two-by-two matrix for sorting ideas.

 Figure 3 – 7.4.

Ideas that have low impact and value to customer but are inexpensive and easy to implement fall into quadrant three. Lastly, ideas with low impact and value to the customer and that are either difficult or expensive fall into quadrant four. Instead of rejecting ideas in these quadrants, ask the team, “How can these be changed so they might end up into quadrants one or two?” This will trigger another round of creativity, which might take a so-so idea and make it shine.

Next time you are mapping a process, find out what the workers feel. What frustrates them? Use this information to improve the process and at the same time build buy-in to your initiative. Lastly, the frustrations often link to process design principles that will guide you in your redesign.

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