Monday, March 28, 2011

Giving Technology the Business!

Giving someone the business is a jargon you have probably heard. It means giving someone trouble, or a roughing up, or beating.  Giving someone the business can mean you are trying to make a point and willing to go to a lot of trouble to make it. So what's my point. What do I mean about giving technology the business?  First, I am not condoning beating up your techie friends. However, what I am suggesting is to take a look at your business without a technology focus for a change. Instead of focusing on how technology is used to support your business lets take a look at the business to see how the process is working, not how your technology is working.

Are you experiencing bottelnecks, backlogs, long wait times between your process steps? Once you identify exactly where the problem areas are occurring, you can begin to focus on why they are occurring. After you have identified the problem areas and why they are occurring you can begin to ask if these problems are due to poorly defined business process requirements or poorly designed technology systems? 

A common six sigma tool to assess processes is called the Value Stream Map. In a manufacturing production line the Value Stream Map is often used to identify backlogs, delays, and overproduction which cost money and create waste. It is quick and easy to see where production delays are occurring and to focus on specific ways to improve your production time. But how does a Value Stream Map help with a business process where backlogs, delays and overproduction are not so obvious. It can be done, but we don't usually look at business processes this way. The following link provides some examples of Value Stream Maps from eVSM software.

There are a couple of techniques in developing the Value Stream Map that help us look at a business process in a new way. One technique is mapping the process from the end point backward. Most of you process modeling purest out there may question this approach, but give it a chance. Start by looking at the end product, service or output. What is the end point of the process? From that point, start working backward by looking at the inputs to the last step. By starting at the end and moving backward to the beginning of the process, you can more easily determine which process steps were waiting for input. Maybe the process was not only waiting for input, but routinely receives the wrong input, or too much input. As you work your way backward through the process, document these areas where time is lost.

From a business perspective these are the delays, backlogs and production errors that are much more visible in a manufacturing environment, but routinely exist in many business processes. Sometimes you may find that a technology system or application forces an action that is not adding value to the process or may be causing a delay or unnecessary step. When system requirements get out of sync with business processes, sometimes the business is expected to adapt to the system despite the inefficiencies created. Reducing this impact is what I refer to as a high integration of business and technology.  High integration of business and technology minimizes the negative effects of technology on business processes.

Can or should the business process change to leverage the benefits of a new technology?  This hits at the root of most problems when implementing new technology. And, my opinion is that most of the problems with implementing new technology are due to business problems not technology limitations. More often than not, technology capabilities can support business requirements.  However, we often muddle things up by confusing and co-mingling discussion of business requirements and technology capabilities, losing focus on the business need and conceding change of the business to conform to existing technology limitations. Sometime this may not be avoidable, but let's not default to this way of thinking. Let's keep giving technology the business.  

I am not sure how many organizations use a Value Stream Map or similar tool to develop a fresh perspective on business processes. I think there are not many, and I suggest there should be many more. At worst it provides a clearer picture of your processes, at best it highlights the specific areas where you can reduce wasted time or process steps.  And maybe it will help define areas where your technology can better serve your business process.   


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Six Sigma to the Rescue?

I just completed six months with Villanova's online Six Sigma Certificate Program. To be specific, the Lean Six Sigma Black Belt Certificate program. I must say that it is a great set of courses that require more than a casual effort to complete. The combination of online virtual classroom lectures, CDs with hours and hours of presentations from industry leaders and the required project work, provides a great learning opportunity for those of us who are interested in that sort of thing.

This of course begs the question why? What does this have to do with business and technology integration? Six Sigma has been around for several decades and has primarily been focused on the manufacuturing industry, which limits its application for most of us who have never worked on a production line. However, the "Lean" focus is really about expanding the use of Six Sigma tools beyond the realm of manufacturing to the business service environment. So my plans over the next few months is to explore this idea of using Six Sigma to solve business problems, which includes technology problems since technology is a service to the business.

I welcome input for areas to explore, but my recent experiences I believe will provide more than enough foder for comment for the next few months.

For now, I will leave you with the a few basic points relative to Lean Six Sigma. First, the primary focus is on reducing waste in your existing processes. Waste can be recognized in many shapes and forms. Basically, if something is happening in your process that is not adding value to the service you are providing then there is a potential for waste... and therefor there is a potential to eliminate or drastically reduce it, and by default improve business processes and the bottom line.

Secondly, what do I mean be adding value...? Very simple... to add value to your service you must physically change something in a way that the customer is willing to pay for and it must be done right the first time, no rework allowed. That is the only way to add value.

So I will leave on that note for now. More to come soon.