Put Down the Shovel and Pick up the Drafting Pencil

This summer, I’ve purposefully dedicated more time for recreational reading, with an eclectic list that ticks like a metronome between fiction/hobbies (e.g, Cutting for Stone) and marketing/business (e.g.,The Checklist Manifesto, which I highly recommend). I’m fortunate to be married to a bibliophile who carves through books like a hungry Vegan through a field roast. The gems that Lori plops onto my desk are never those I would have spotted for myself.

yardsShe recently surprised me with Yards, by Billy Goodnick, a hipster California landscape designer. I’m a hobbyist gardener who’s always looking for tips and ideas on how to enhance our urban yardscape. Despite my intent to merely skim the book, Goodnick reeled me in with his colorful language and cocky irreverence for traditional garden design.

As I dug through the chapters, I became captivated by (1) his methodologies for defining the garden space and (2) his insistence on weighting the early design process over the urge to immediately plant. How refreshing!

Most non-professionals (myself included) head straight for the garden center to grab the most exotic plants, but Goodnick instead encourages a more strategic approach: mapping the use and traffic flow of the yard, exploring multiple design alternatives, and patiently testing environmental conditions (sun, soil, water). Then, only when the groundwork has been laid, should you begin to consider the right and desirable plants to lay in the ground.

I’d translate his common-sense approach as roughly 50% strategy / usability and 50% tactics. What thrilled me most (geek that I am) was how well I’ve seen the same design philosophy used in business:

  • In marketing, the best campaigns are designed carefully, customer-focused and specific in time and metrics (using a SMART approach, for example).
  • In new product development, you will have fewer delays and far lower costs with an emphasis on planning and solidifying requirements in the early stage of the product design process.
  • And in process improvement, the most experienced practitioners know that without a well defined problem statement and detailed charter, your project stands little chance of moving beyond the first tollgate.
Charles Kettering, the American inventor and engineer, famously stated: “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” Whether we’re talking product design, marketing, continuous improvement, or even gardening, I’d say that the sentiment rings true. Take the time to truly define the issues, look at it from several angles, and resist the temptation to dig in too early. I’ll try to remember that in the frigid, dark days of February, when those vibrant, entrancing plant catalogs arrive in the mail.

The Perfect Process

In my recent monthly Webcast, I was honored to have Bill Demidovich of Lean Ohio as the guest presenter. A consummate process improvement professional and polished speaker, Bill spent the hour walking through the guiding philosophy of LeanOhio and revealing the details of several excellent case studies of broken – and then fixed – state government processes.

The audience loved the examples and the exchanges between speaker and moderator (myself). The post-event “fan mail” as I call it was entirely positive and appreciative. Overall, an excellent example of content marketing: we entertained and informed the audience while simultaneously gathering and qualifying training leads for the sales team.

Although we’d walked through a dry run with Bill a few days earlier, I was surprised and inspired with a single statement in the live Webcast. In reference to the many labyrinthine government processes his team was asked to fix, he explained: “Your processes are perfectly designed for the results you get.”

I surmise that this is something we all innately understand – yet consistently deny. When our business processes fail our expectations and the expectations of our customers, we often look to a single point of breakdown: “The paperwork was late because of Barb in HR” or “No one noticed how low the inventory was.” In reality, as processes evolve and organizations grow, plenty of these missteps and unnecessary decision points actually become baked into the process. It’s the “new normal” process.

One of my favorite of Bill Demidovich’s slides (the presentation and slides are available to the public on the MoreSteam.com Web site) was the one that showed the “actual process” as a dashed line and the “idealized process” we expect as the straight solid line:

processRather scary, eh? Seem familiar?  Alas, it’s not until someone has the courage to recognize and address the “invisible” problem that you can begin to show that the process is operating exactly as it was designed (and redesigned and amended and branched and modified and whatever else). You’re very lucky if the someone who faults you is an internal stakeholder who means well, not a valuable customer.

As for marketing and sales, I recommend you:

  • Take a look at your own internal processes (e.g., how timely are qualified leads are delivered to the sales team?),
  • Use any available data to determine if it’s operating within your specifications (e.g., days to completion),
  • Keep an ear out for anything that your team may just smooth over with a despondent “that’s the way it’s always been,”
  • “Walk” the process, and map and describe it,
  • Reveal it to everyone who needs to understand it isn’t working,
  • Begin to resolve the issues you find and redesign your process.

That’s when the improvement can begin. Until then, well, congratulations. Your process is imperfectly perfect.