Making Process Planning Cool Again
Processes are, if not under attack, then falling out of fashion among a certain type of business cognoscenti. Planning is out. “Planning to learn” is in. Little bets, experimentation, just start, iteration, rapid prototyping, lean — these are the cool kids. Process is the dork in the corner wearing mom-jeans and an unironic Christmas sweater.
But while it may not be cool to talk about process, I suspect I don’t have to convince HBR readers of its merits — how else to explain a post on a project management process racking up hundreds of comments? Still, the world is in need of more processes — and more process evangelists.
Steve St. Angelo is the Chief Quality Officer for Toyota North America. I caught up with him recently, and with Zack Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of the St. Bernard Project, a non-profit building homes in post-Katrina New Orleans (yes, seven years later, they are still rebuilding down there). Rosenberg’s organization has been using Toyota’s process chops to produce more houses, more efficiently. St. Angelo is as straightforward and steady as your best factory foreman; Rosenberg is a spinning top of enthusiasm. Together, they’re putting roofs over people’s heads.
Here’s how it works. Through theToyota Production System Support Center (TSSC), a nonprofit within the auto company, Toyota shares its TPS methods with all kinds of organizations — including donating their expertise to other nonprofits. “So what?” you might say, “TPS is old news.” And Toyota has had recall and quality issues recently. And many of the companies that implemented the TPS principles have found them difficult — at best — to implement. So what makes this different?
First, TSSC is choosey. They don’t start working with an organization if the executive team is skittish — at all — about adopting TPS methods wholeheartedly. Like any good process junkies, they know a half-adopted process is as bad, if not worse, than none at all. Second, they invest for the long term. It’s not just about changing the process — it’s about changing the culture. Too many processes are implemented superficially, which is why they don’t work. “This is not a silver bullet,” as St. Angelo cautioned me. To make it work, you need to be “obsessed.” And it’s not without challenges — Rosenberg talked about how when they first started implementing TPS, with its focus on surfacing problems quickly, the organizational culture became negative. The focus on “continuous improvement” left employees feeling like whatever they were accomplishing was never good enough. As soon as one problem was solved, one inefficiency identified, it was on to the next. So Rosenberg adapted — he started talking more about “constructive dissatisfaction,” and celebrating small wins.
Another TSSC principle: The companies and nonprofits working with TSSC aren’t allowed to lay anyone off. Anyone. The theory: if workers realize their jobs are safe, they’re much more likely to adopt more efficient processes. Too often in business-speak, “We need to get more efficient” translates to “We need to fire some of you.” No wonder people cleave to inefficiency — they want to defend their jobs. Take that fear away, and it’s much easier to get stuff done.
They start with the biggest roadblocks, first. “We go in and ask them, ‘What’s your largest problem?'” he said, “And we start there.” That’s how TSSC helped the St. Bernard Project reduce the time it took to build a house by 50%. It’s how they helped the Food Bank for New York City reduce the wait at one soup kitchen from 85 minutes to 18 minutes. And it’s how they decreased ER waiting times — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs — at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.
That’s what I love about a good process: It builds homes. It feeds the hungry. It heals the sick.
But what does Toyota get out of this, aside from that feel-good factor, and some (ahem) fawning media coverage? St. Angelo says they use it as talent development for more junior employees. By teaching TPS to others, they learn it better themselves. They see where the pain points are; they learn how to manage people, build trust, get buy-in, iron out the wrinkles, adapt. And, for a generation who wants more meaningful work, it’s not a bad retention strategy.
Finally, as my conversation with St. Angelo was winding down, I just had to ask the question I’ve been secretly burning to ask this entire time: How the heck do you deal with airport security lines? As one process junkie to another — don’t they just make you unbelievably frustrated?
St. Angelo stops, looks at me. Pauses. Thinks. Then immediately starts brainstorming how he might rejigger the screening system, revamp the queuing process, and manage the flow of grey plastic bins that receive our shoes, watches, computers, and baggies full of 3-oz liquids. This guy is good.
But a good process — that’s even better.