Tuesday, 17 September 2013

PIU Launch

The Process Improvement Unit has been active for over a year now, and up to full strength since January of this year, and we’ve delivered a number of improvements around the university. The PIU Steering Group thought that an official launch of the unit would be a good way to publicise what we’re doing. Our original idea had been to buy some cut-price buns and cheap champagne from Sainsbury’s round the corner, but the VC had a better plan, and suggested we have a buffet supper at his home, inviting key influencers within the University to listen to our successes so far.

Our first task was to decide who to invite, and after long discussions, we produced a list of academics who haven’t so far been involved in process improvement and who between them covered the five faculties , and some project team members who could talk about their experiences. We also invited Steve Yorkstone from Napier University, who’s been a tremendous help to us in our first year of operation. His task was to provide the sector wide context.

The next job was to create some posters that would help us to tell the story of process improvement and of a couple of the projects we’ve worked on.  
Our Print and Design Services did a fantastic job of designing and printing the posters and we were really pleased with the result.

The event itself was a real success, although some of the attendees may have wondered why they were there. After a tour round the garden, the VC gave a short talk about the unit and our work, and spoke about us in extremely flattering terms. I gave a (very) short reply, waving my hands around a lot to explain that we work horizontally instead of vertically. People may have taken this to mean that we lie down on the job, but I meant that we work at right angles to the structure rather than with it, so that we can find out how processes work from start to finish.

We managed to get round to talk to everyone, and picked up some useful ideas for new projects, and some news about our existing projects which we need to pursue.
The event was a great way to celebrate our official launch, and we’re extremely grateful to the VC for giving up an evening to host it. It’s been a real boost to our confidence in what we’re doing, and hopefully an enjoyable evening for everyone.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Problematic Problem Statements

We’ve recently held a couple of project scoping meetings where the participants have wrangled with creating a clearly defined problem statement. There seemed to be two main reasons for this:

1. People were frustrated with talking about problems. There was already a shared understanding that the process was problematic and a keenness to take action and improve things. Time is precious and satisfaction can be gained from changing things; it makes people feel productive and gives a sense of achievement. Root cause analysis can feel like going over old ground, focusing on negatives and it does not give an instant fix.

2. People appear to feel comfortable using words such as ‘inefficient’ or ‘inadequate’. There is often a shared understanding about which problems are difficult; but they find it difficult to drill down to precisely what is causing deficiency in order to define and measure the problem accurately.

These two reasons can lead to feelings of frustration in a scoping meeting. Yet a clear, explicit statement explaining the problem is incredibly powerful, and while spending time on getting it right may initially feel like going over old ground and fruitless, once defined it gives a concise shared understanding of the problem and makes the process of agreeing project deliverables and measures of success much simpler and efficient. Charles Kettering of General Motors Corporation said “A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved”.

Our challenge is not only using tools to help people formulate strong, focused and measurable problem statements, it is also to work with the project team to create awareness and understanding so that they truly value the problem statement.