Systems, Support Process

September 29, 2010

In the technology part of our businesses, words – and I mean simple words can be be confusing.

How about the word system?

First there are the definitions that we know from a standard dictionary.

Then there is the word System in the context  of  Systems Theory, which states that while individual parts may be independent, they also are interacting, therefor problems in one input can affect other outputs further down the value chain. (Which is a lot of the basis behind Theory of Constraints process modeling)

And finally, a common usage in business technology; a System being the computer server, storage, and/or software that provides a particular resource. As an example we talk of an E-Mail System, or ERP System.

All of these uses of the word are completely in line with the definitions that we have in our trusty dictionary, but what will get your technology projects, investments and communications into trouble is the over use of the word system in relation to the business process that your system is trying to help.

I found an excellent article by Bob Lewis titled; Business change methodology gaps. The article is written about business change, but one quote demonstrates how often we abuse the word system when used in relation to technology supported business process changes;

Most organizations are still stuck thinking in terms of system deployments rather than process changes. Don’t believe me? How many companies title their projects something like <System Name> Implementation? When the project title misses the point, how likely is it the organizational change will be on target?

Do your sales staff give a damn about a CRM System?

No – they don’t.

Your sales staff have issues ranging from managing communications to effectively managing the pipeline. They need a business process that alleviates the pain points in managing their communications and improve that pipeline management.

Managing those communications or pipeline issues requires looking at the business process. And asking how that process can be improved. And then leading the change for that process.

Once the process is looked at and understood, and a new process designed, can technology help? Certainly.

Technology can then help you standardize or automate parts of that business process.

The SMB Takeaway

I believe it is time that we seriously reduce our use of the word System when it comes to any corporate IT enabled project, change or initiative.

As Mr. Lewis states, lets call it what it is. It is business process. It may be process changes. But calling it a System just confuses the issue.

On Designing Systems & Process

September 17, 2010

My thanks to Eric Brown, who graciously accepted a guest post of mine on his Technology, Strategy, People and Projects blog.

The post does a brief comparison of business processes with personal time management.

As individuals, things can fall through the cracks, ditto for business.

As individuals, rework and lost time can occur, again ditto for business.

Add Eric’s blog to your regular reading!

Process And IT Costs

August 30, 2010

Do you know if there is any value at all coming from your technology investment?

Unfortunately for many SME’s, they  don’t know. One reason for this disconnect is that we can have very little understanding on when money spent on IT is an investment, or well, just an expense.

One way to improve your value for price in technology is to look at where that money is being spent. And for many small to medium business, the primary two buckets your IT spending will fall into is supporting your direct activities or to increase their effectiveness. (note that more strategic use of IT for driving growth is beyond the scope of this post)

Process, IT Cost And Value

I want to demonstrate that taking a more holistic look at the way you do business can improve IT spending by ensuring that your IT spend is is being applied to those two buckets.

When there is work being performed, and that work is performed more than once, you can be sure that you are looking at a process. It may not be articulated, or formalized as a process – but it is a process.

As a SME business owner or executive, if you were to write down each step, and each event that happens when a new or existing customer calls looking for your product or service – what would that chain of events look like?

Many of us will make a mistake here!

We have the tendency to say; ‘Well sales gives that information to person ‘X’ who gets it out the door…’

I guarantee you – in most cases, you would be wrong.

I state wrong, because that statement is a generality, nice to say, but usually not the exact steps being performed.

If you look closer at what actually happens, it may look more like this;

a) phone call / email is received – maybe written down on a message slip?
b) if it is an existing customer, perhaps terms or conditions are looked up?
c) if a new customer – perhaps you collect information? even just in email?
d) is a message slip handed over to someone else to look at inventory or availability?
e) perhaps forward that message slip or email to someone else who can schedule or ship?

You get the idea. It is very, very rare that what you think happens in a particular situation is actually what is really happening.

Note: For a real example of a ‘process’ in action read this post titled; Don’t Automate Broken Processes

Once you have taken some time and drawn out each of these tasks and steps, you can begin to see where your technology investments can be made to support your direct activities.

In this case, any IT tools that can reduce manual steps and work in this process can be considered as directly supporting your activities.

To take a step further, look at how long each of the tasks you identified in the previous step take.

Any surprises?

Did you find one area where the majority of time is wasted before your product or service can actually be delivered to your customer?

Real World Example

A company I am familiar with is using an on-line sales force tool to track their sales funnel. In your sales funnel, I know that there are some critical numbers needed to gauge your success. Simple examples could include gross margins, cost of sales etc.

The automation tool that this organization was using had some sophisticated advanced metrics reporting, but as a higher cost option.

Because they wished to avoid paying for this reporting option?

From the president to the sales director, five senior people spend hours per month collating the data required for those metrics!

Looking at the time being wasted in their processes has shown them that getting the additional automated reports is more than worth the cost, in other words, to increase the effectiveness of their process.

The SMB Takeaway

Is a tech spend proposal supporting either of those buckets?

If not – why are you spending it?

Are you missing the technology driven boat?

As a general manager in a small to medium enterprise, take a brief minute and consider the steps and time required in your business to do tasks such as the following;

* The steps involved in your order to cash cycle

* The steps involved in your order to shipping cycle

Why?

In this post titled Real SMB IT: Company Size Is The Wrong Metric I stated that you cannot compare your IT spending simply based on your organization size. Two companies may have the same relative size, but have diametrically opposite requirements in IT sophistication.

To define technology sophistication? Put simply, this means; how dependent upon technology is your business?

In that post I stated that if you require less technology in your business, you cannot directly compare your IT spending simply based on the size (either in staffing or revenue) with a similar sized business that has higher technology requirements.

In that original post, I did give one warning, and that warning was simply that; there is one huge place this model will fail

And that place of failure?

That place of failure  is when you have started to miss the boat. It is when your competitors that historically had similar levels of IT sophistication, are investing in a way that they are beginning to eat your lunch.

And how do you know if you are missing the boat?

To borrow from comedian Jeff Foxworthy,

If their sales revenue per sales rep is twice yours simply because your sales tools consist of a shoebox with Index cards, you may be missing the IT Boat

If their on-time and correct  first time order delivery is 95% and yours is only 30%, you may be missing the IT Boat

If their aged receivables are pennies on the dollar over 90 days, and yours is 80% of sales over 120 days, you may be missing the IT Boat

The SMB Takeaway

If your competitors, have started to embrace technology to speed up the manual processes that can hinder the growth of  their business, but you still use index cards, blue line pads and the fax machine.

I’ll put my money on your competitors.

Definition: Sophistication

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There is much argument about whether or not there is a place for process management frameworks in smaller start up sized organizations.

One of the key arguments that detractors use is that start ups must remain nimble. And that to stay nimble, start ups cannot have one hand tied behind their back dealing with the overhead of some fancy dancy process structure.

To me, that argument is only half right.

Certainly, you do not want to be a hugely bureaucratic series of silo’s where nothing ever gets done!

Framework

But I think that you are missing the point if you believe that creating bureaucracy is all that a basic process management framework is going to give you.

At its most basic, a Process Management Framework (PMF) helps you make things consistent and repeatable.

In other words, it can make it easier to scale, easier to on board new staff, and require less operational management.

Cowboy Culture

Start up Companies often act as  can-do Cowboy cultures. You spend 24 hour days fueled on caffeine and energy drinks to pull the irons out of the fire, get them tested, and send them out the door. Heroic efforts by the team and a case of beer when that last deliverable  was hit.

These are actions of heroic proportions, all performed by individuals that no one else even knows how, let alone what they have done.

A consistent and repeatable process for many key activities provides a baseline that allows others in your organization, or even outside contractors, to help.

Growth? the team does not need to spend weeks getting the new staffers up to speed, the how, and the when are well documented and available. The senior staff then help out mentoring with the why and other issues.

That new product launch example I used above? perhaps beyond the engineering team, everybody from reception to sales could be able to assist the final debug and quality control, because the QC process / testing method was thought out documented.

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Photo Credit wokka via flickr

Resistance To ITIL?

February 12, 2010

Resistance? To ITIL?

That can’t be true!

Everyone knows ITIL processes can improve IT service support and delivery costs, improve internal IT service management processes, and even make coffee in the morning!

You can laugh now! Everyone does not know that ITIL can improve internal IT processes. (OK, the part about coffee is untrue as well!)

But for SME’s looking at ITIL, first, it is a journey. And like all journey’s it involves change in the way people work, and changes in what they may be responsible or accountable for. And like any change, we as humans can resist change when we don’t understand the WIIFM. (What’s In It For Me?)

Along that concept, Ann All at ITBusiness Edge has a great article that I want to pull two bits from.

First, your IT team may be as resistant (or more so) to change as anybody else in your organization.  For some technology staffers, it may simply be not understanding the business implications about what ITIL can provide. And for some it may be because they are addicted to the glory of heroic  IT acrobatics, after all, avoiding any incidents or problems in the first place is hardly glamorous. And some technology staff can simply see it as an unnecessary inhibitor or overhead to their getting real work done.

The warning here is that an announcement that ITIL is going to happen on Friday! – Sorry, that won’t work. Like any organizational change this journey will be slow, require 10 times the communication that you thought necessary, and has to be taken in small, incremental steps. (You can try to do it all at once, but unless your teams and your people thrive on ripping the guts out of your business and rebuilding it from the ground up, you will have a hard time of it)

The second piece I wanted to emphasize, is that implementing ITIL processes are not an all or nothing exercise. I know that I have written a lot about this, but here is one excellent example. As the article referenced above states about one journey into ITIL;

… didn’t invest in a new tool until nearly three years into its ITIL initiative,

It is not all or nothing.

People, process then finally tools.

They built their methodology in bite sized pieces, then started looking at service management software tools to help them.

Not the other way around.

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I was recently talking with the president of a SMB, and during that conversation he mentioned some technologies he was thinking about implementing to improve some of his internal processes.

It is a constant refrain.

Prize Ribbons

Technology Takes Last Place

Technology should be a distant last place in your considerations.

Technology is a tool that can be used by people.

A tool used by people to generate business results by following business processes.

Read these two reviews by John Caddel, and Bob Sutton referencing the same study on improving medication processes in hospitals. To quote Mr. Caddel;

I’ve seen both these situations in action: the ability of front-line personnel to understand and fix problems with the processes they use, and the effectiveness of often-overlooked simple and low-tech solutions.

The SMB Takeaway

Technology tools can help standardize, they can help speed up existing business processes. But if those processes don’t even exist right now. Don’t think (or let vendors convince you) that a software tool will be a magic bullet that can do it all for you.

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Photo Credit bunchofpants via flickr