There are well over a hundred Lean tools that the diligent manager can try to master in order to improve performance and culture in their organisation. Some are to do with measurement, some with mapping processes, some with solving problems, and some with getting staff engaged in improvement.
However, one tool that is often overlooked is one of the simplest and one of the most powerful. That tool is Process Confirmation. The reason it is overlooked is that is seems too simple, makes managers feel uncomfortable and also means directors and managers committing some of their own time to doing something, rather than just giving others permission to do something.
The aim of this short article is to look at why all organisations need to use Process Confirmation, what it is and how it works. We tried to write a longer, more scholarly article, but frankly, you will pick this up in about five minutes. It is making the time to actually do it that is difficult.
What do we see in organisations?
We tend to work with, and visit, lots of different organisations across the public and not-for-profit sectors. Time and again we see the same sorts of issues coming up:
Policy – Executives or policy teams develop policies. The policies get issued to corporate and operational managers and staff teams. However, the teams may, or may not, implement the policy as expected. (The percentage take-up may vary, but we have seen some very low figures for teams actually implementing centrally-developed policies.)
Processes – Organisations write procedures and manuals, often with many thousands of words and exceedingly complicated electronic process maps. The procedures get issued to team leaders and staff, and again, the staff may, or may not, follow the procedures. Often keeping the bits they like and changing the bits they don’t like.
Software – The organisation buys a new piece of software (usually as a computer version of the Lone Ranger, in the hope that it will solve all the problems that people have with their processes at the moment). People get training in the software (and we see many problems with the timing of that training and the way that the training is delivered). But after all that, the people may, or may not, use the software in the way it was intended.
What is the common thread here?
We think that the common thread is that the ‘organisation’ has an expectation that the systems it has made available to its staff actually work, and that staff are actually doing things in the way that the organisation intended. All too often, one, or both, of these statements is false. Either the systems/ processes/software as designed don’t work, or people don’t follow them, or both.
So what is the ‘organisation’ that we are talking about? It is the directors and managers and team leaders that have a management responsibility for delivering the objectives of the organisation. A manager’s prime responsibility is to manage the resources at their disposal to the organisation’s benefit. This includes making sure that what we ask people to do is the correct thing and that they are doing it as required. Process Confirmation is simply a formal way for directors and managers to check that processes do work, and that people are following those processes.
As consultants, we all too often conduct a diagnostic in an organisation and then feedback to managers to tell them things about their organisation that they don’t know. We have not used any magic powers to capture this information! All we have done is sit with staff, ask them what they are doing, why they are doing it, how they are doing it, and what problems they have doing it. This usually identifies a whole host of issues that could have known to managers (and may have been known to some of them) but did not reach the eyes and ears of those who needed to know. Process Confirmation is about directors and managers looking with a fresh eye at what is done in the teams that work for them and to ask simple questions about what works and does not.
What is process confirmation?
Process Confirmation is “a tool or method that provides managers with an adequate level of confidence in process quality and repeatability”. It involves going to where the work is actually being done and confirming that the way is it being done works and is in accordance with the organisation’s policies and procedures.
The Objectives of Process Confirmation are to:
- Confirm that formal work standards exist (in other words, ‘do we have a defined process for that particular activity?’)
- Confirm that the formal work standards meet customer need and adhere to corporate policies (‘are we asking staff to do the right things in the right way?’)
- Confirm that the formal work standards are actually being followed by all staff (and if not, why not? For which the usual answer is ‘it doesn’t work!’)
- Recognise people when standards are worked to in full (process confirmation is not about catching people out, but about being honest about what is working and not working)
- Ensure the reliability of performance data (are we capturing the right data in the right way?)
- Identify deviations from standards
- Identify competency issues and close the performance and skills gaps to eliminate deviation (if people are trained by the people who were trained by the people who were trained by someone who received the original training, all without any real documentation, then do not be too surprised if they have not captured everything they need to know!)
- Continually eliminate waste.
We use Process Confirmation to test that our current processes and systems work and are followed by staff. Testing through confirmation shows that we value every process and person. If people are struggling then we should find out about it early and be in a position to help them before they fail more dramatically.
How do we conduct process confirmation?
Process Confirmation cannot be done from your office! You have to go to where the work is done, and spend time observing what is being done, so that you can decide what questions to ask and what improvement might be needed.
In this section we have assumed that you are a fairly senior manager with a number of areas or teams. If you are a service or line manager it just means you have fewer choices about where to go, but you should still conduct Process Confirmation in your own team or service on a monthly basis. It will allow you to check that all your processes are adequate and that all your staff can apply them effectively.
Process Confirmation consists of five key stages. If you have a Lean Champion then ask them to work with you on the first few visits. It can make it seem less like a management audit and will help staff to see that it is about improvement rather than punishment.
- Decide – what to observe and where (Your choice can be based on the criticality of processes, where things are known to be done well or badly, where you have not visited for a while, where you have other meetings. What you should not do is just visit the teams you know, or the locations which are close. Anything under your span of control should expect a Process Confirmation visit at some point.)
- Plan – get to know that process, its aims and objectives, plus any easily obtainable data about what is done. (You do not need to become an expert in the process or team issues before you visit. Asking ‘what do you and why?’ is perfectly acceptable). You also need to make sure that there will be activity for you to confirm, although you may not always want to trumpet your visits too much in advance!
- Observe – collect the data.
a) Introduce yourself to the line manager / team leader and the staff you will be observing. It is important to stress that you are confirming the process, not trying to trip up the staff. As Deming observed, 94% of problems are process problems, and that is what you are mainly trying to find. Even if someone is doing something terribly wrong, it is probably the training and support processes they have gone through that made them do it that way.
b)Sit in the work area, observe what is happening, ask a question occasionally if you need to, but generally try to make yourself as invisible as possible. Check what the staff are doing against what you understand as ‘the process’ and identify the good and bad points of both the process and the way it is being applied
c)Collect your thoughts and reach your conclusions.
- Feedback – you need to give some immediate feedback to the people you have observed and their line managers. At this point, if you have identified any major concerns, raise it with the line managers to check your own understanding of the processes and policies that should apply. Never blame any of the staff or managers for what you see. Process Confirmation can only work if people see that you have understood the 94% number. Some problems will be due to individual members of staff or managers, but the majority will be as a result of your own systems, so be gentle and understanding. Leave them with some positive and any immediate actions that they can implement (and put on their Information Centre if they have one).
- Action – make a note of all the issues. Make sure that they are fed into your corporate problem solving process (for our clients this would involve feeding the issues into the relevant level of Information Centre). Work with the managers to develop improvements and solutions. Check that the actions are implemented. Then plan your next visit to another area.
All levels of manager should conduct regular Process Confirmation visits. What ‘regular’ means is up to you to decide, but since this is basically about checking that your own staff are doing the right things in the right way, how can you afford not to do it? Developing a culture of Process Confirmation at every level is a cornerstone of continuous improvement and will have a massive impact on the quality of communication across the whole organisation.