Did the pandemic impact your grant payments? Are employees moving paper from location to location to get checks out? Are they working extra-long hours? Does it take more time to get checks out? What feedback is your organization getting from grantees and vendors about paper checks?
One organization looked into their busy season and decided to proactively take action to help employees and the community thrive. Here is their story:
Streamline Through Effective, Paperless, Electronic Payments Case Study.
In this, my twentieth year in business, I thank so many for being part of my community. By collaborating with wise and dynamic people and organizations, I have had the privilege of assisting hundreds of organizations in solving their operational pain points. Working together, we have shaped organizational cultures for the better and have equipped organizations to fulfill their mission and serve their constituents effectively. Thank you.
In today’s blog, I am reflecting on that journey and sharing a few important learnings.
Twenty years ago this month, I was at a crossroads. I was burned out from a project director role and an accounting manager role and was out of work due to job elimination. Job elimination took me by surprise. Exhaustion did not. After catching up on my sleep and rebuilding my energy for a month, I naively decided I would do “consulting.” I had no idea what that meant, nor did I have a plan for how to succeed on that path. Yet I jumped in and promptly began both a new career and a new organization. That was the start of my real learnings about how to be successful in any career.
We all have skills in multiple areas, and how we choose to invest those skills is a personal decision. In my case, I was thankful for my previous experience with Cargill Inc. and American Express (later American Express Financial Advisors), both Forbes Top 100 companies. As I started my consulting journey, I was asked in interviews with potential clients, “What do you do?” I regularly replied, “Anything you need.”
The school of hard knocks soon taught me that when I tried to do everything, some things went well and others did not. If I lacked passion or relevant experience for a given consulting role, I became stressed, unfulfilled and disappointed that I failed to produce strong results for the client. In contrast, when I was both passionate about the task at hand and good at it, I was happy and my clients were pleased to recommend me to others because of the measurable improvements they experienced.
Skill is important. Yet passion is a priceless intangible. Passion fills a person with energy and drive—it’s the spark that engages others. Passion makes a person believable.
My early consulting forays taught me that my passion was achieving process improvement results. I came to believe that the only people who can improve how work is done are the employees who do those steps. I also observed that most employees do not yet have the process improvement skills they need to approach their work in the most effective and efficient manner. Few employees are familiar enough with the science behind quality management, lean operations, and human-centered design to attain process improvement results. ProSci, a change-management organization, published a survey saying that the majority of process improvement projects fail, with lack of skill being a primary reason. Embracing my role as a process improvement trainer and coach has fueled my business and services for many years. And I thank my first client, John Ahlfs, for taking a chance on me 20 years ago and launching me on my journey.
When I am talking to teams from around the country about how they can recapture time and deliver better results to their community, I get excited. And teams that engage me get inspired. They believe.
I periodically get asked to provide career guidance, which I do whenever possible. My time-tested career advice is to follow your passion, because being excited about what you do is the surest way to achieve success.
When I decided to go into consulting, I thought people would automatically listen to me. I was the expert, right? But after watching my advice go sideways several times, I learned there was more to my service to others than teaching about what I knew.
I found a book on consultative consulting, which suggested listening before providing insights. This made perfect sense, because how can a consultant help anyone without understanding where the organization or its employees are coming from? Even a person who is paid to give advice must earn the right to give it.
That is when I started really listening well to my prospects, clients, friends, and family. Once I learned to ask the right questions and listen attentively to the answers, I was able to provide a meaningful, well-rounded perspective. Understanding others’ views, drivers, and goals now has become second nature to me and has become an essential element of my success.
Initially I was going to show everyone just how to get consulting done. I thought I was smart and skilled and could simply prescribe the changes that needed to be made. I missed so much while I acted under that do-it-myself mindset. I missed how others saw things. I missed wrinkles and texture about situations. I missed building relationships with the people who would help me.
Since that time, I have built a community that supports my business. I have vendors who have been with me most of these 20 years, learning about my business and providing exactly what was needed again and again. I have had employees who have learned my company’s values and have applied them so well. I am also lucky enough to have supporters who provide wise counsel, share important information, and speak well of my work to potential clients. I believe I have earned their trust by listening to their needs and being committed to their success. And I have clients who trusted me to listen and meet their needs. These same clients are consistently available to provide a reference and a view into their work with my team.
I have learned that it takes a community to make a business or career successful. I am so thankful to you and others who have trusted and helped me during the past twenty years. Here’s to the next decade!
Is your office in remote mode? So many teams are now working from home as we collectively battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote work can reduce personal and community health risk. Yet it can be unhealthy for your organization. Remote work can be slower and less accurate, impacting your organization and your community. A key question in this transition is: With this big change of unknown duration, how will your team continue to serve your community in a seamless way?
Teams that move to remote work find key risks.
o Paper piles of work are no longer visible, resulting in stalled or forgotten work.
o In-person double checks and communication may not happen, resulting in errors and embarrassment.
o Quickly made process adjustments to fit remote operations create the risk of errors and missed steps.
o Back-and-forth online communications may slow work down, consuming already tight capacity.
Remote work is an opportunity to redesign your processes to regain capacity, maintain quality, keep up speed, and preserve your reputation. Some organizations are using proven process transformation tools to achieve these goals. For example, as a result of our process transformation work, one foundation recaptured time while delivering error-free results for three years. This group became an effective cross-organization team, performing better and accomplishing more in a consistently high-quality manner.
Is this what you are looking for?
If your team is going remote, connect with process improvement coach Lee Kuntz about a live, online checkup for your key processes. We use our proven process transformation coaching, training, and tools to help you mitigate risk and deliver upon your organization’s commitments. Checking up on small processes can be done in a couple hours.
Contact Lee to discuss how your team can create a seamless transition to remote processes while maintaining and growing great results.
Have you improved your work process, tweaking how work is done or fixing broken steps? Most agree process improvement is good. Yet many staff members are too busy fighting fires to think about how to do their work. They get stuck in the rut of doing things as they’ve always been done. The answer to this miserable dilemma? Moving from the small tweaks associated with traditional process improvement to radical process transformation.
A starting point in thinking about process improvement is understanding what the term even means. In a recent online search, I found ten different definitions for ‘process improvement.’ Many people see process improvement as adding, deleting, or modifying work steps to change how work is done.
The problem with this commonly held definition is that the focus is on tweaks to change to work steps rather than improving outcomes. For example, suppose I want to move from balancing between sources with an adding machine to using an Excel spreadsheet. This improvement seems like a positive change. When I pitch this to my boss, I focus on how the process will change. My boss asks how much time the change will take to implement. That use of resources gives her pause, as she knows our big workload. Most likely, she will say we don’t have time to make changes right now. We need to stay the course and take on the next emergency. We can do the improvement later, when things get better.
Since I did not identify the positive impact of my proposed enhancement, my boss didn’t see its value compared to the other big priorities crashing through her door. Too often, defining process improvement as tweaking how work is done causes this important tool to be ignored.
Process improvement can truly produce more favorable outcomes than had been realized before. Without it, employees can become locked in a vicious cycle in which underlying process flaws are not corrected. As in the example below of an improperly prepared check, both customers and staff can become frustrated by processes that don’t work as they should.
If the cycle consists of complaint-pull-fix without also investing time in fixing the issue for all customers, similar problems are likely to occur in the future. That means staff will work longer and longer hours responding to emergencies, getting further and further away from the good work they want to do. Eventually staff may burn out and leave, placing a greater burden on remaining employees to do the work.
I have experienced this vicious cycle in my own life. Early in my career, I accepted a job in an area that claimed to promote great work-life balance. My superiors promised there would be overtime only at year-end. Once I was there, I found that by overtime, they meant seven days a week for six weeks! I barely saw my young children for a month and a half. When I commented about the excessive overtime, the staff said it was always that way, and to just “suck it up” because it would not change. I questioned the culture and the paradigm, and I wondered if things would ever get better. That unpleasant situation has inspired me for the rest of my career.
To correct agonizing situations such as the one I survived, I rename, rephrase, and reposition process improvement in my training by sharing the story of process transformation.
Process transformation is the use of proven process improvement tools to maximize what the organization has now to achieve an improved outcome.
Process transformation solves pain points organizations experience so they can work toward efficient, effective, and high-quality outcomes for their customers. Organizations have achieved the following outcomes from this approach.
There are three important points in this definition of process transformation.
1. Proven tools. A recent survey by change management specialist Prosci indicated that the majority of process improvement projects fail, primarily due to lack of proven tools, experience, and support. The good news is that there are tools and training that offset this risk. The key is to leverage the tools and training that work with your industry and situation. For example, quality management tools require rigorous training on statistical analysis and are great for manufacturing organizations. However, statistical analysis principles have little use in a service organization. A better tool for a philanthropic or charitable organization would be one that helps employees identify wasted steps.
2. Maximize what the organization has now. Employers manage more than work steps or process to achieve the outcomes they need. They leverage business policies, roles and responsibilities, technology, work steps, and other elements to create desired outcomes. Some of these components are helpful and efficient, while others end up undercutting objectives. For example, the policy of a foundation I am coaching might require that grants be paid within two weeks after being approved. If the competition can pay a grant within three days, I ask my client to identify and maximize everything they have now to achieve faster turnaround.
3. Improved outcomes. To ensure that the desired results are achieved, process transformation identifies the needed outcomes before the improvement work begins. To illustrate, a team may decide they need to recapture and reinvest half the time they are now spending to issue grants. This may amount to one hour per grant, for a total of 500 to 1,500 work hours. Once leaders understand the payback from their investment in process transformation, they support the investment. Learn more about this concept in my companion blog post: Achieve Process Improvement Results: Start at the End.
Process transformation requires an investment of both time and resources to be successful. When leaders and staff members learn about tools that will help them work smarter rather than harder, they find that their investment pays off. The graph below shows immediate results achieved when process transformation tools were used in four recent projects:
We have been coaching and training teams in process improvement and transformation for more than two decades. A recent study of our clients indicated that their returns overwhelmingly offset their investment. Typically, we have found that the first year’s results more than cover the costs of the training and staff time investment, with future years’ savings being “gravy.” Imagine sharing with your organization’s leadership or board that your team can take on more without additional staff because the team has recaptured and repositioned 1,000 to 2,000 work hours.
Now back to my story. After being told to “suck it up,” I was determined I would never again work that much overtime. Therefore, I sought and gained leadership approval to conduct a process transformation project. I committed to leadership that I would shorten the year-end work time for everyone. To do so, I partnered with my team using proven improvement/transformation tools to maximize everything we already had. As a result, we cut the steps to complete our year-end reporting in half. In the next year-end cycle, the team worked only one weekend rather than the six weekends we had with the old process.
If your team works overwhelming hours, reacts to constant emergencies, or is not maximizing expensive software, process transformation may be the answer to your problems. With an initial investment, your team can solve its pain points, recapture time, and deliver better and faster outcomes to your customers.
Learn more by leveraging our free website assessment tools to diagnose your pain point, or contact Lee Kuntz to talk about your needs. Organizations have found hundreds—even thousands—of work hours to reinvest in serving their customers. You can, too
Accounting and finance departments routinely get tasked with accounts payable responsibilities. And we work hard to get payments out timely and accurately. Yet are we doing all we can to work efficiently and effectively? Or are there delays, duplicate payments, rounds of rework, or late payments?
Lee Kuntz is facilitating a session at the next Nonprofit Financial Group of the Twin Cities meeting to surface accounts payable best practices. In this September 26, 2019 session, attendees will hear the latest on how nonprofits are transforming their accounts payable process into a sleek, painless operation while recapturing hundreds even thousands of hours of time.
Attendees at this no cost meeting will hear the results of Lee Kuntz’s 2019 survey of nonprofit accounts payable tool and payment method best practices. Also seasoned accounts payable staff will share their experience in streamlining their processes. These leaders have successfully recaptured work time and enhanced accounts payable outcomes.
What would your nonprofit do with 1,000 hours of work time back?
The learning objectives for this session are:
• Learn the latest technology tools and payment methods
• Learn to measure process efficiency and effectiveness
• Learn the process transformation steps to recapture time, get responsibilities in the right place and better control expenses
• Learn how nonprofits are getting support for new accounts payable system investments
Register for this no cost session at: Registration: Transform Accounts Payable!
Lee Kuntz, process improvement speaker, trainer, coach, and strategist, has helped numerous nonprofits to successfully create capacity and deliver better and faster results to their community. Lee believes employees are the right people to improve how work is done. When they have skills-and-will in continuous process improvement, they can achieve impressive results.
Clients Lee has trained and coached have recaptured thousands of hours of work time from their back office and have reinvested the time saved into the community. These organizations
Have you been part of a process improvement project that required an investment of hours upon hours over months or even years? Was a process improvement effort stopped because the team could not agree upon which improvement ideas to implement? Or an improvement initiative that made things worse instead of better?
With results like these, no wonder leaders hesitate to authorize process improvement initiatives. Yet some leaders are achieving impressive results from redesigning processes. They cut the work time to serve their customers in half, recapturing and repurposing thousands of hours. At the same time, they deliver better outcomes to their communities, boards, and partners.
These diametrically opposed outcomes beg the question: What creates the big difference in results?
The difference in results stems, in part, from the varying working definitions of process improvement. One website defines process improvement as “a systematic approach that can be used to make incremental and breakthrough improvements in processes.” While this approach sounds promising, it falls short of bringing transformational change.
A process redesign project that focuses only on improving how work is done will not significantly improve outcomes despite taking many hours of staff time. For example, one team shared that they worked on an improvement project for eighteen months. They met for two hours every month and talked about a host of cutting-edge ideas. Yet the team could not come together behind any idea they were willing to try. After they had invested more than 400 work hours generating ideas without implementing any of them, people started dropping out of the project. Then the CEO identified a new initiative and the team switched its focus to that priority.
I view process improvement more holistically. I see it as a tool to improve outcomes in a broader sense. It can be leveraged to enhance quality, customer experience, accuracy, compliance, or any other key process outcome. When leaders start by identifying the specific outcome(s) that must be improved, they make it possible to achieve impactful process improvement results.
Recently, a chief operations/administration officer (COO) became aware that her organization was incurring significant late-payment penalties. Phone calls about the late payments from both internal managers and external partners were eating up her team’s time, and the organization’s financial resources were being squandered on paying the penalties.
The COO talked with her team about what she saw and then initiated a process redesign project with the specific goal of getting payments out on time. She leveraged my team’s process improvement training and mentoring to help the team better understand what was actually happening. Once her team saw that they could solve the pain they were experiencing, they eagerly stepped forward to be on the redesign team. This team used their new process improvement knowledge to reduce the payment process from 110 steps to 60 steps. Now they are implementing these new ideas and have shortened the time to get payments out. They will no longer be plagued with collection phone calls and can reinvest their time in helping the organization fulfill its key objectives.
Achieving process improvement results starts with identifying the needed outcome(s) first. After all, would you start a road trip without picking a destination? With no destination, you may end up in Alaska, rather than California. Or on the side of the road, out of provisions for the journey. Only through setting a clear destination can your team succeed in achieving the improvement they need.
As a coach and a trainer, I have opportunities to influence leaders as they seek to achieve process improvement results. Therefore, I first ask which outcomes need to be improved.
When leaders focus on improving specific process outcomes, they foster employee engagement and leadership support. Starting with a particularly painful outcome is a great first step. For example, a director of donor relations received calls from three donors who said they received someone else’s gift acknowledgement letter. After awkward apologies were made and the letters were corrected, the director called me to learn how she could quickly address this situation so it would never happen again. I coached her and the team through a four-hour rapid process improvement event. I encouraged the group to kept one essential outcome in mind: Gift acknowledgements must be sent out to the correct donor every time.
Being clear about the goal helped galvanize the team to take action and be laser-focused in their redesign work. This focus shortened the time needed for the improvement work, as there were no side trips that consumed valuable team time and energy.
When your team needs to attain a given process outcome and is missing the mark, think process improvement. Whether your issue is an unhappy customer, overwhelmed employees, or a board demanding answers, start by identifying the specific outcomes needed. Communicating with employees about the missed mark and committing to resolve it can begin your journey to achieve impressive results.
Some organizations have built their process management skills and routinely fix inadequate outcomes successfully and quickly. You can, too. Contact me, Lee Kuntz, to talk through how your team can undertake rapid improvement that achieves process improvement results and promotes organizational success. Achieve Process Improvement Results: Start at the End
Is your organization planning and budgeting for next year? Are you tired of fighting the same pain points year after year, such as overwhelming workloads, demands for better or faster results, or challenges to maximize costly technology? At the recent Twin Cities Nonprofit Financial Group meeting, I shared three steps to solve these pain points this year.
The Secret: Invest in Continuous Process Improvement
Organizations that help and serve others are recapturing hundreds—even thousands—of hours of capacity. They are serving their customers, community, board, funders, and donors in half the time. They are retaining employees.
Their secret? Investing in continuous process improvement to get big, immediate results with a small investment.
Recently we surveyed our client’s continuous process improvement results. Our customers achieved a 1.5- to 3-times return on their investment during the first year after implementation. This return came in the form of recaptured time and error-free results. These organizations continued to experience recaptured time and positive feedback from customers year after year.
Three critical approaches bring organizations big, immediate results with a small investment in continuous process improvement.
1. Get trained on proven tools
2. Get coaching to use the tools successfully
3. Maximize everything the organization has now
Because continuous process improvement teams maximize the tools and resources they have now, there is little additional investment. Also, the team achieves results fast when they choose their best and easiest to implement ideas. For example, one leader implemented the team’s improvement ideas the next day.
Invest in Building Process Improvement Muscle
Leaders are bringing the story of continuous process improvement to their organizations’ annual planning discussions. Yet a common question is: What does the initial investment consist of?
As shown in Figure 1, the initial investment in continuous process improvement includes two components: employee time and out of pocket costs for training and coaching. An employee will spend between 5 to 40 hours annually doing successful process improvement. The cost of the training and coaching depends upon the amount, level, and number of days needed. Contact me to learn more about training options.
Find Funding and Support
Civic, public, financial, and healthcare organizations fund their initial investment to kick off their continuous process improvement work in three ways.
Train to Retain. Some leaders include training in their annual budget so they can retain employees. A study conducted for Minnesota’s West Central Initiative found organizations that provide employees with training had a 50 percent lower turnover rate than those that did not. Read more at: West Central Initiative Study Summary. Budgeting for CPI training is a great way to begin your team’s continuous process improvement journey.
Use Discretionary Funds. Most organizations have some discretionary funds. One community action council identified enough money to in their discretionary budget to fund continuous process improvement training for 12 employees. Afterwards, the employees immediately implemented the improvement ideas they developed during the training.
Watch the Budget. Look for times when there is budget available. I get those calls about a month before the organization’s fiscal year-end. “I have some remaining budget to spend before the end of the year. Come now, Lee!”
Plan to Solve Pain Points in the Coming Year
When an organization and the staff are tired of fighting the same pain points year after year, it is time for continuous process improvement. Organizations have recaptured thousands of work hours while delivering better and faster results to their customers, their community, and their board. You can, too! Contact me, Lee Kuntz, to learn more about how your organization can plan to solve pain points and thrive.
Discover the tools service and business leaders adopt to manage and improve their processes and achieve greater success. Watch video >>
Susan sat in an operations meeting, listening to the discussion of this week’s customer complaints. This time a customer complained that he did not see his request in the online portal as expected. Last time it was about a missing transaction confirmation.
The subject line of the meeting invite was “Process Improvement.” However, Susan wondered: What is process improvement? And what does it have to do with addressing customer complaints?
What Is a Process?
To understand process improvement and what it can achieve, first we need to understand the basics.
A process is a series of work steps done to achieve a specific outcome. For example, each morning you strive to make your favorite cup of coffee. You have steps you do every day to create that tasty cup. These steps may be:
1. Measure water.
2. Pour water into coffee maker.
3. Turn on coffee maker.
4. Set brew time.
5. Place coffee cup under coffee maker spout.
6. Insert the coffee pod into the maker.
7. When coffee maker sounds, remove your cup.
8. Add just the right amount of the right creamer.
Outcome: Your favorite cup of coffee.
Whether it is making that favorite cup of coffee, creating requests in the online portal, or delivering transaction confirmations, the process consists of the steps taken to perform the work and the outcomes they produce.
What Is Process Improvement?
Process improvement is changing the steps of a process to improve the outcome. For example, back to that cup of coffee. Have you had a cup of coffee at a restaurant that was better than yours?
You may go home and try a different approach to get that better cup of coffee: adjust the brew time, use colder water, or use less water. You keep adjusting various steps until you get the desired results. Tweaking the coffee-making process in order to get a better outcome is process improvement.
Returning to Susan’ situation, the “Process Improvement” meeting is an opportunity for the team to improve how work is done to eliminate customer complaints.
What are the best process improvement steps to achieve the results you need? Check out my companion blog to learn about approaches that improve outcomes. 4 Process Improvement Approaches: Which One Works Best?
In summary, what is process improvement? When done well, it solves pain points seen at work each day. Process improvement can eliminate customer complaints, create capacity, solve thorny issues, and create a return on a major investment in a new system. When done well, process improvement changes how work is done and can help you achieve the results you need.
When you need to change outcomes of your processes for your complex service organization, contact me. We can talk through the outcome you need and how process improvement can get you there. Others have successfully redesigned their processes to improve outcomes. You can too.
I am constantly beating my head against a brick wall! Our continuous improvement team delivers training, leaders listen, shaking their heads yes, and leave excited. When they go apply what they learned, they can’t seem to connect the dots – like we’re speaking a language they don’t understand. Perhaps Martian gibberish…
They contact us when the wheels fall off rather than for help with proactive improvement. This is NOT what I signed up for. I thought I was going to make a difference. But now it appears my job is on the line! HELP!
Hopeless in Boulder, CO
Gosh, sounds like you’re walking on a tight rope 50 feet in the air at a circus.
This is where continuous improvement leaders land when they aren’t receiving the needed support.
It’s time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your continuous improvement program.
First question to assess your program: Do you have documented results that continuous improvement has generated? Hours saved? Errors decreased? Customers served faster?
Evidence Gets Support.
We teach our teams to outline results before and after the continuous improvement project. We have a template I can share with you.
Asking and answering key questions will help identify your program’s opportunities.
This approach generates a customized program to gain the support and turn your team into heroes.
There is hope. We have helped many continuous improvement leaders off the tight rope. They have successfully gained support and do the work they deserve. You can achieve this success too.