Focus on Process First, Not Technology

Posted on May 29, 2012 by

It is amazing to see the human tendency to embrace technology in an effort to reduce waste. I have discovered this pitfall on multiple occasions. In a recent Rapid Process Improvement Workshop with the WA State Dept of Agriculture (I attended as coach to newly trained facilitators), a team was tasked with improving the product registration process to speed up registration time for WA state companies. After documenting the current state and providing the participants with some basic lean principles, the second day focused on brainstorming ideas to reduce wait times, turnaround times, and rework. 

Time and again, the participants were placing broad trust in new software and systems to track workflows, incompletes and other tactics to “speed” up the work. An example with data tracking illustrates this: the team spent too much time (my view) trying to design an elaborate method to track daily work in outlook, sharepoint, and other programs. Often times, technology creates the waste of complexity, search times, and other wastes it was intended to eliminate. When I asked the group what it would take to simply track the data on a worksheet, and total it for the team on a visual board, I received several puzzled looks. Luckily, at the break I helped explain how visual management works to the point where it became clear how simple this would be.

Creating a future state is best done with technology in the back seat. First and foremost should be applying lean techniques to the process. Specifically, what steps can be taken to better manage demand, increase flow, and level the work. I believe one reason why people find it easy to try the technology fixes first, is best expressed by what Jim Womack continually says. “Management will usually try anything easy first, before they will try anything difficult. Machines are easy. Management is hard.” People hope that technology will be the silver bullet for improvement. But pls. remember the real silver bullet lies in fundamentally rethinking how our processes create the most value.