Can Self-Improvement Translate to Project Improvement? Part 2 – Habits and Process Change

Projects transform some aspect of a business, and business transformation is synonymous with business process transformation.  So, what is a business process?  For every output there is a series of tasks, performed by systems or people, that were involved in translating inputs into that output.  These steps are the business process.

In the previous post “Can Self-Improvement Translate to Project Improvement?, Part 1 I talk about self improvement guidelines that can easily be applied to projects that improve a business and their project teams.  Yet, there is a deeper goal to embarking on improvement initiatives.  We want to change the way we live, or the way we do business, because we are hoping for a better result, whether that is a smaller pant size or more customers.  To do this we have to look at process change, where processes are all of the things we do every day, to produce the results we have today.

When you look at what we do every day a huge percentage of those activities are habits.  You don’t have to think too hard about them, you are in the habit of doing what you do the same way, each day, all week.  That is why learning a new job is so hard.  Nothing is a habit yet, so it takes a lot of personal resources to develop all of the habits around that new job.

So, if you want different results than you usually get, you need to do three things:

  1. Recognize what habits result in the current outcomes.
  2. Determine what habits will result in the outcomes you desire.
  3. Replace the old habits with new ones.

The first step, recognizing current habits, is a fairly straight forward process.  First you identify the end result.  Next you trace back through each step the tasks that go into producing that result until you reach the external input.  This process can be done at a high level with each system and person impacted identified.  This process has the added benefit of identifying any stakeholders that may have been missed in the project planning process.  Once the high level analysis has been completed drill into any processes that need to be understood in detail.

As an example, I will use a very simple problem that a friend of mine had at his office.

At my friends office they take checks and money orders for rent payments every month.  As the accountant he would sometimes try to look up payments made by money order that had been entered into the system and not be able to find them.

After researching the issue and speaking with his co-workers he determined that this was because there were a number of different employees who enter money orders into the system and that each one would choose different parts of the money order number to enter.   To fix this he needed to break the habits of every employee that enters money orders and get them to all consistantly enter the portion of the number he wanted to see.

The second step is not as straight forward.  It is not always easy to know what habits you need to develop to get the outcome you desire.  There are a lot of ideas about the best way to accomplish a goal.  For instance, there is a lot of very fierce debate on what to eat and how to exercise if your goal is to lose weight.   There is no one way to do anything, so some innovation to find something that works for your business may be necessary.

In the instance of the money order entry problem, my friend decided on having everyone enter the last five digits of the money order number if the number was longer than five digits.  Easy enough right?  Except that no one could seem to remember to do this consistently.

Breaking these habits and replacing them with the new ones you have decided on is not easy.  Habits, whether they are personal ones or established company business processes, (including the ones we use to manage projects) make life easy.  They are an adaptive response that helps us accomplish all the things we need to do each day.  Most of our habits depend on cues in our environment.  When we go to walk out of our front door, the entry way or coat closet cues us to put on our shoes.  When we stumble out of bed in the morning, head downstairs, and enter the kitchen we are cued to start coffee or brew tea.  For some of us it is the established route of driving by a Starbucks that cues us to stop and get our coffee.

One way we can break old habits and replace them with new ones is to change the cues that effect that person’s regular process.  The first way to add a cue is to change any written process documentation, either formal or informal that a person uses to do their job.  This is especially important if the task is not done frequently.

Cues can also be added by creating a step that causes a person’s attention to be focused momentarily on the task that has changed.   In the case of the money orders, I suggested that since the employee is using a highlighter to mark the check as entered, he could have the employee highlight the numbers of the money order they enter instead.  This would mark the document as having been entered and also show which numbers made it into the system.  Since this step is not part of the current process it should cue the employee to think about what they need to highlight and then remember that it should be the last five digits of the payment number.  This may or may not work for this group, and it is always good to ask the opinion of the group impacted, but you get the idea.

Other examples of cues could be an edit on an entry field that can give a user a warning if they enter something unexpected, sending a user an e-mail when a process has finished alerting them that their action is required, or having alerts appear on a dashboard.

So, I hope that this post has been helpful for thinking about process change during projects.  I’d love to hear about any experiences you may have had around managing change in projects.

Image Credit – Christophe Vorlet

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