Friday, 19 May 2017

Is problem solving a problem?

I have recently been reflecting on the differences between the approach we generally use in the Process Improvement Unit (PIU) and the benefits of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

AI has been used as an approach for change for many years, Cooperrider and Srivastva developed this approach in 1987.  To summarise this in a few words it is based on the theory that:
·      In every system, something works
·      Our focus becomes our reality
AI uses questions and opportunities for people to create positive visions of the future to build on the present potential of a process or organisation.

The problem solving approach that we have in PIU takes a different tack. From the moment we start scoping a project we begin to agree a problem statement and use a number of approaches to identify what are the problems, which of the problems are critical, what is the root cause etc.? Although problem solving can be a very powerful approach and lead ultimately to positive results and support resilience as further problems surface, there is a risk that the teams we work with may find this quite negative and that we miss out on opportunities to reward people for the things that are going well.

Cooperrider and Whitney (2001) identified the distinguishing features of the two approaches:
Problem Solving
Appreciative inquiry
1. "Felt Need," identification of Problem
1. Appreciating & Valuing the Best of "What Is"
2. Analysis of Causes
2. Envisioning "What Might Be"
3. Analysis & Possible Solutions
3. Dialoguing "What Should Be"
4. Action Planning (Treatment)

Basic Assumption: An Organization is a Problem to be Solved
Basic Assumption: An Organization is a Mystery to be Embraced

My main concern about just using AI is that sometimes there are process steps that need to be removed because they create the problem e.g. excessive approval steps, duplicating data, unnecessary handovers. How would an AI approach deal with over processing, is there a risk that it would encourage this?

As a lean practitioner ‘Respect for People’ is at the heart of my professional practice and to me this includes the concept of sincere conversation (being very clear about what is going well and what could be improved). However, the more I read about AI this also offers the opportunity for a direct conversation, but perhaps with a more positive angle.

Deming said, “A bad system will be beat a good person every time”. In PIU we are responsible for ensuring that the improvement process is robust and helpful I’m going to experiment with AI and explore how this can be used alongside problem solving; I have a feeling that the two concepts are not necessarily unconnected. I suspect there will be a follow up to this blog (possibly a Venn diagram showing the commonalities) if my instinct is correct about the two approached not necessarily being mutually exclusive.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Teaching the history of lean

As part of our process improvement training we give our participants a brief history of Lean thinking. We’ve done this since the early days of the unit as it seemed to us to be essential to describe, almost before what ‘it’ is, where ‘it’ has come from. So we talk about Scientific Management and Henry Ford, as well as lean gurus like Deming and Taiichi Ohno. We tell attendees about the Toyota Production System and Jones and Womack. And we accompany our words with pictures of the Highland Park factory.
But what’s the point of this historical background? And does Lean in public service, where our expertise lies, really have anything to do with manufacturing and the history of manufacturing?

I’d like to explore the link in this blog post, because it bothers me that we may be wasting time and causing confusion rather than improving understanding. We have some evidence for this concern, because feedback from our training often highlights the benefit of examples from the university, and criticises examples from manufacturing - or even other service sectors. And yet - as George Santayana reminds us - ‘Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it’.
So there are two questions to answer:
  1. Do the basic principles of LEAN apply to public service environments?
  2. And does knowing where LEAN has come from tell us anything useful about how to apply it in public service environments anyway?
Let’s look at the first question. Taiichi Ohno, one of Lean’s principal proponents, said All we are doing is looking at the time line, from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing the time line by reducing the non-value adding wastes.” All Lean thinking in manufacturing, it seems to me, flows from that understanding. Every effort is bent towards the end of removing wastes from the moment a customer orders something to the moment it is delivered and paid for. In other words, the profit motive is supreme. Now, how Toyota and others saw progress towards that goal being made possible was certainly radical and different to what had gone before - in particular the notion of paying attention to the workforce’s knowledge and expertise - but the underlying rationale was the same - be more competitive, make more money.

Clearly service environments, and in particular public service environments, have a different raison d’être. Profit, at least until recent times, is not a motivator. Instead it is the provision of service within budgetary constraints. However, the application of lean principles to reduce the time and resource required to deliver service is as relevant here as in manufacturing.  Delivering better service, using the same or less resource is the aim of many public organisations, particularly in these cash-strapped times.
So that brings us to the second question. What’s the point in knowing where Lean has come from? If Lean is useful in service environments, isn’t it enough to know the principles and the methods? And broadly speaking, my answer to this is yes, that is enough. One can be ‘lean’ without a knowledge of history. And I think the inventors of ‘lean’, the people at Toyota, would agree. For them, Lean is a way of working rather than a set of documents and other such codifications of practice. The enquiring mind, the search for continuous improvement, the focus on service users rather than internal operations and so on, can all be fostered as part of organisational culture without the history lesson.

In our training though, we’ll keep on doing a bit on the history, because it is quite interesting.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Influencing change

I am attending the taught module part of Sheffield Leader we were discussing Personal Influence and introduced to a model to help us consider the various ways we may positively influence people. The model identifies three key elements authority, presence and impact. It led me to consider whether this model may be useful to support our project teams during workshops and process improvement events.

Using the model may help attendees to think about how they can make the most of the workshop and ensure that they lead positive change as a consequence of their influence within the workshop.

Their expertise and knowledge of the process: what works well, what can be improved, compliance issues
Not only being physically present in the room, also being emotionally and mentally present. Actively listening to others, asking questions and respecting others opinions.
Prepared to ask the bold or challenging questions
Transforms the thinking in the room
Delivers on actions

Their expertise and knowledge of process improvements, expertise as a facilitator, case studies from previous projects
Not only being physically present in the room, also being emotionally and mentally present. Actively listening to others, asking questions and respecting others opinions.
Progressing the agenda
Prepared to ask the bold or challenging questions
Transforms the thinking in the room
Delivers on actions

As well as evaluating a project or workshop on it’s outputs perhaps the cultural factors considered above would provide a way of evaluating the cultural outputs that also need to be delivered to ensure that we support a culture of continuous improvement?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Corporation Tax Review

For the past two days we have been working with a team to review the Corporation Tax. The problem statement we considered was “The responsibility for identifying corporation tax treatment of activities currently rests with the tax team, this is a complex, high volume process which is entirely manual. The process relies on interpreting vague data and relies on a key member of staff which is a risk to business continuity.”

We mapped the process in a small group prior to the event, which helped us move things forward very quickly. The other members of the project team (not as closely involved in the process) were able to use the current state map to identify problems within the process. The main problem themes we identified were:
·       Lots of spreadsheets
·       Lots of systems
·       Granularity of data (sometimes too much, sometimes too little and provided by many stakeholders)
·       Timing – the process took about nine months and was driven by other processes e.g the publication of the university accounts/ HESA etc
·       Who knows what/ Training and Information – the tax team were using best judgement about primary purpose/non-primary purpose tax activities because the information was not available at source.
The improvements included:
·       Creating a report from the University’s primary financial management system to ensure that 90% of the data could be filtered and identified via one system report.
·       A new field in the finnacial management system to identify non-primary purpose activities at the point of set up (we will use our current data set to back fill the information in the system to avoid people having to manually fill in historical data)
·       Changes in working practices within the tax team to ensure segregation of duties (this removes the need for an external organisation to review)
·       A managed risk approach
A much quicker process (down to three months), with more contingency time built into the process
The tax team are able to add value to the process by ensuring that the system (report) does the identification and data manipulation work

The team have a set of actions that they need to carry out over the next few months, this is going to be hard because the new process cannot be implemented until the next financial year, so they will also have very busy day jobs. I am heartened by their focus and enthusiasm and look forward to supporting them over the coming months.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Student Mental Health Support

In January we were approached by staff in Student Services to help them with their review of student mental health support. The problem statement that we agreed was “Students have difficulty in accessing appropriate support and the support provided is fragmented and not tailored to the individual. There is a lack of appropriate information sharing between the various service providers. The support provision is often reactive because it does not balance prevention and support and lacks definition of capacity both in terms of service “internally” and also in links to other agencies.”

Last week we ran a five-day event to unpick the problems and identify an action plan for moving forward. Key deliverables for the project are:
  • Meaningful and ethical data/evidence base of need and demand to shape decision making for service provision (to include student well-being data). At the moment it is in a variety of systems
  • A simple, consistent and straightforward process that enables access to the right support
  • A process that delivers tailored and appropriate support for students
  • A process informed by clear boundaries for support
  • A set of diagrams/words that enables the information to be understood by staff and students
  • A process that supports Out of Hours processes (a separate university project) to input/output
We used service blueprinting to unpick the problems and then ran a number of scenarios through the blueprints to ensure that we all understood the services provision form the student perspective as well as unpicking the back office processes.

Moving on from this we had a successful session where we created a vision for the future. Moving to the practical process proved trickier, people had difficulty determining what could practically be done over the next few months and there was also some cynicism as to whether the future vision would ever be implemented. After considering a number of options, the team agreed that they would do the following things (to be achieved over the summer period, and in place by for start of term):
  • Produce and use a shared toolkit for all MH student support practitioners
  • Request resource for supporting students with lower level needs (wellbeing advisers)
  • Share information across services - use Titanium System initially
    (Update: we subsequently learned that this will need to happen at a different point)
  • Shared triage across services predicated on use of the shared toolkit and shared computer systems
  • Sharing of risk assessments (if it changes, inform the relevant person)
  • Sharing the management plan developed post risk assessment
  • Provide MH Support Services to students who are on Leave of Absence
  • Create a task and finish group to collectively use the existing data to identify demand across services, and peaks in the academic cycle for individual services
  • Establish a reflective practice group for CWaG, Mental Health Advisers, Disability advisers, Counselling Staff, Student Advice Centre and UHS
  • Better communication to Personal Tutors about access to services
  • Leaflet and webpage cull
  • New publications/webpages to have a more joined up approach and branding
  • Include staff from other MH services on team building activities (reflective practice group initially)
The group also made the following recommendations:
·       Review regulation 26
·       A building/place for MH Support service, sensitive location and environment to reflect easy access for students with anxiety
·       Services organised according to need rather than staff group
·       Students at the centre of care (easy access)
·       Multidisciplinary team approach to mental health support. Mental Health Adviser role having a clearer position within psychological/wellbeing services
·       Clear strategy about what the university is trying to achieve in order to define our services
·       Good governance
·       Initial assessment by experienced/expert staff who signpost/refer accordingly
·       Targets for outcome rather than output or throughput
·       Authority to ask for incorrect support information (web, leaflets etc) across the university to be cleared
·       Clear communication channels between academic departments and MH provision to address concerns about a student
·       More hours of access, not just 9-5
·       Reduction in no. of computer systems in use
·       Text reminders for all appointments
·       Pre-arrival process for new students (with a diagnosis) to ensure that support is in place on arrival. Then check/improve support plan once student arrives
·       Joined up and proactive work during Intro Week to support new students and ensure access timely access to the right services

My personal learning from the event continues. I knew that this was going to be challenging and emotive, that people’s past experiences were going to impede their ability to move forward. Mitigations that were in place included a strong and supportive sponsor, who gave a clear and encouraging welcome speech, regular updates to the sponsor who supported the direction of travel, comprehensive ground rules for the workshop. Instinct tells me that the facilitator role could have done more, we collect feedback from the team and sponsor, this will be useful for ongoing evaluation and reflection.

Thursday, 23 February 2017


Today I attended a full day training session on ‘Scrum’ - part of the Agile development methodology. The training was organised by our development team, and we in PIU were keen to attend to understand where similarities in approach between Lean and Agile could be useful, and where differences that could trip us up might lie.

The training was engaging and interesting, and our trainer Tom Sedge had extensive knowledge of the subject. He explained that there were considerable similarities between Lean and Agile, and he was not wrong.
I want to focus here, not on what Lean and Scrum are, but on the similarities between the approaches.


IMG_4289.jpgFirst up - the common nature of the problems Lean and Agile are designed to solve. Training attendees (most of them working in development in one way or another) produced a list remarkably similar to the one we see in our process improvement projects.


The ‘Agile mindset’ maps more or less directly on to concepts in lean to do with the ‘servant-leader’, respect for people’s skills knowledge and experience, and making decisions about the work as near as possible to the place and people where the work happens, and seeking continuous improvement in small increments,


In terms of structure and process, similarities exist between the ‘Daily Scrum’ where progress is checked and problems highlighted, and the daily improvement meeting in lean - designed for the same purpose and running (usually) for no more than 15 minutes. The ‘Scrum Master’ for the scrum meeting, and for the general running of the ‘sprints’ which is where the productive work happens, is seen not as a manager, but as a ‘servant’ to the development team. Lean specifically recognises that managers are ‘unproductive’ and their role is to support those who are ‘doing the real work’.
For our projects, the Project co-ordinator fulfills a similar role, and is chosen not for their management position, but for their facilitative and organisational skills.
Each ‘sprint’, running for two to four weeks, corresponds to the lean notion of implementing change in small, achievable, chunks.
The visual nature of the control mechanisms in place in the scrum method - The Kanban board - has a direct parallel in the lean world, and indeed the name comes from a lean term. We’re really keen on visual management in PIU, and I was delighted to see a representative from a software training consultancy arguing strongly for a simple solution based on a whiteboard rather than complicated software! Importantly the concept of ‘pulling the work’ is being used, rather than the traditional management push on to potentially overloaded workers.
I also noted that only two ‘sprints’ (or work packages) are ideally ready to be worked on at one time. This means that the work necessary in specifying the real work is kept to a minimum, done only when necessary, and replenished when necessary, again using the pull principle. This has two benefits:
  • It saves effort on development of work which may not be done in the near future (or ever if circumstances change)
  • It allows for greater understanding of the necessary work before it is attempted

Again, this is the Lean ‘Just in Time’ principle at work.

There was a lot more to the training - the concept of sprint burndown seemed to me to be similar to the concept of takt time for example, and the notion of quick decision-making in an uncertain and imperfect environment.


We  were asked at the end of the day what we  will implement as a result of the training - a really useful training technique to encourage people to think actively - and I came away thinking that we should consider whether to tighten up our implementation plans so that they resemble more the ‘sprints’ of scrum. It seems to me that this would have benefits in concentrating teams’ minds, and in producing work packages that provided real benefits in a short time.
I also really like the ‘planning poker’ cards - not really planning or poker but used to quickly estimate the time to do a piece of work. I’m sure we could make use of these and there’s evidently a ready supply in the department already.

More Work

I have some research to do as well. The ‘Stacey Matrix’ is a useful prioritisation tool, and I need to find out more about the Agile Manifesto.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Power of Observation

One of the value adding activities that PIU offers is facilitation of process improvement events and workshops. How do we evidence that this is value adding?

We always ask for feedback from our project teams about our facilitation, and have consistently score well – although I sometimes worry that the outcomes of the event bias the facilitation score (and I recognise these factors are not mutually exclusive.

We always try to co-facilitate our events and this helps our reflective practice. My concern is that sometimes there is a risk that we reinforce the wrong behaviour (with the best of intentions – we all like to be supportive colleagues, constructive feedback isn’t always easy).

Recently we have had two external people who kindly gave up their time to observe and feedback on PIU’s facilitation skills and practice.

One of the concepts we often talk to our project teams and training practitioners about is Gemba (going to where the work happens) and how powerful observing a process can be to get some data about performance. We also warn people that it is likely if this happens as a one off (or rare) activity this can effect how the process performs. Regular, informed and supportive gemba walks or observations need to be in place to truly gain insight into process performance.

The first observation happened last week when the Engineering Timetabling Team agreed to have an external in the room. We put in place a confidentiality agreement and the team were very clear that the focus was on PIU facilitation not their comments or behaviour. I found this quite daunting, even though it is an activity that I am confident in delivering.

For me it was essential that the person recognised that their role was peer-support, and they were keen to learn as well as give constructive feedback.

At first I was conscious that being observed did change my behaviour, I found myself making eye contact with them rather than the project team. However, it was a four day event and I soon forgot that they were in the room and focused on the task in hand. 

Did it change my practice? Probably. It had a positive effect on my facilitation of the event. I was more focused than usual on how I was running the event and probably a little more thorough with my preparation.

What did I learn?  The feedback was incredibly constructive (and positive) which was really helpful. I had time to discuss points that I had been concerned about how I had introduced a couple of activities and a couple of times when I may have misjudged the mood of the room E.g There was one point when they were very tired and I probably should have used the time differently.  Knowing that I was going to receive feedback absolutely made me reflect more on how I had performed.

Why agree to be observed a second time? Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment, I had another external person observe a customer journey mapping workshop this week. This time the observer was from outside of Higher Education, I welcomed getting feedback from someone outside of the sector, lean principle no. 5 (pursue perfection) for me means constantly striving to be the very best. It is my view that learning from other sectors can help us look beyond our comfort zones and inform our vision with regard to perfection.

Would I agree to be observed again? Absolutely, I also highly recommend it to others!

I am grateful to the participants of the workshops for allowing an external person into the room. I also offer a big thank you to Paula and Simon for their time and constructive feedback.