Saturday, March 21, 2009

Process Improvement for Nonprofits – Part 4: “What is stopping us?”

Step 4: Design new processes or steps: “What will work for our organization?”

Habit #2 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is “Begin with the end in mind.” Do not spend too much time wrestling with what “the end” is for your department. There can be many “ends” within a workflow such as reportable statistics or closed matters. All you need to do is begin the process re-engineering with those ends always under consideration.

Now, work backwards with this question: “What is stopping us from ____?” For example, “What is stopping us from having a reportable ____ statistic?” “What is stopping us from marking this matter ‘closed?’” You get the idea.

The answers point you to the next step back in the process. For the reportable stat example, that may be a finalization step or documentation step. Before that, you may have a communication step. And so on.

Most people find diagrams, flow charts and white boards very useful here. Some use software such as Visio or process mapping tools. Anything that allows you to erase and edit easily will work. Focus on the “what” here, before you decide on the “how” aspects. Ignore as best you can the way your department currently gets from start to finish. Try to draw this map fresh, with a sense of simplicity and directness.

The benefit of working backwards is that you can put aside some of the religious battles that may be attached to the way some tasks are currently done in your organization. It is a little like changing your approach to writing a report. If you start with the conclusion, then write the section leading up to the conclusion, followed by the section that will precede that one, you eventually get to the beginning. This way, you avoid writer’s block and a lot of wasted time editing out irrelevant passages that you wrote while struggling with what to write. You may not end up with a Harry Potter-style tome, but you can certainly get a technical report completed more efficiently.

With a good perspective of “what” needs to be done, now study the diagram for “how” you should get there. This is an inventory of the details in each “what” step. If a communication should be made, for example, should that be done by memo, email, letter, wiki or blog post? Who should communicate to whom, how and with what level of security, urgency, certainty of delivery and accountability? Does the communication itself complete that task or trigger another one?

At the end of this process, make sure you capture the diagram and all of its detail. You will need it in the next stage.

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