When asked to evaluate a workflow I typically start with the two key methods, observations and expert interviews. The knowledge I gain will give me the information to make my analysis visual which will aid the experts to better evaluate and communicate their workflow.
How observations and interviews make better workflows
Just like with the scientific method you start with an observation, ask a question to create a hypothesis, and develop an experiment. You need to observe your workflow or process so you can start to discover breakdowns. Then you can ask why the breakdown is occurring, create a solution (hypothesis), design an experiment, and test it.
In this article, I will focus mostly on observation and how your experts, the people involved in the actual workflow, confirm and question your observations and the observations of their teammates.
This will allow your team to see mistakes and logic leaps they never knew existed as well as:
- Eliminate steps in their workflow
- Break information silos
- Create training exercises
- Restructure when people work in a pipeline (scheduling)
- Create new ideas for improvement (workshops)
Depending on your situation, and the workflow you are investigating, you may start with either observation or expert interviews. For example, I was asked to investigate the customer navigation and interactions of a local micro brewpub. Here I started with observations by watching and sketching out people’s movements throughout the pub. In another instance, I was asked to examine a research pipeline in order to figure out where and when to place the team members at certain tasks in the pipeline to make it more resourceful. Since there were multiple people involved and the process took weeks to complete I opted for expert interviews where they told me about each step in their workflow in their own words.
Getting started with observations
The tools you’ll need to start an observation are simple.
- Pencil and paper
- Camera (your phone’s camera will work great)
- Your eyes
Sketching out ideas is much faster than trying to take notes on your laptop. Don’t split your mental resources by tiring to transform everything digitally yet. Draw and label key elements, in the case of the brewpub where the customer interacts with any aspect of the pub. This is also called a touchpoint.
Observations are great because you will start to notice trends and patterns as an outside observer that staff overlook because the breakdown has become integrated into the process. In the case of the microbrew, I was able to discover the best table in the house, it was because the table’s location was closest to the bar and furthest from the line commotion.
This was a secondary discovery from observing customer navigation through the brewery. Also, other basic integrated mistakes were made obvious, like the beer menu board was too far away from where the line formed and people were taking too long to make up their minds as to what beer they wanted.
However, there were further complicating factors to this as well. The customer would typically want to talk to the bartender and ask questions about the beers because they were unique. Combining the two breakdowns resulted in customers spending up to 4 minutes or more deciding what to order once they got them to the front of the line.
This would create long lines behind the bar that would weave in and out of the tables where other customers were sitting. It was also the only area you could pay for gift merchandise and I observed customers abandoning their purchases because they didn’t want to wait in line just to buy a t-shirt.
Expert interviews are great for gathering information about a workflow or process when you do not have the ability to observe what’s going on for yourself. They also should always be used after observations to confirm what you saw with the experts.
In the case of the laboratory pipeline, the process took several weeks to complete and some of the steps were performed in clean areas where I couldn’t go. So I sat down with the scientific manager and she talked me through the process.
The tools you need for an expert interview are:
- Pen and paper (or a whiteboard and marker)
- A camera to take a picture of the whiteboard
- An expert or two
- Your ears
When listening to your experts’ descriptions make sure to repeat back to them any steps that sounded unclear to you. Often the expert will realize they made a knowledge assumption and will fill in the missing details. A knowledge assumption is when the experts unintentionally skip over details because they have such in-depth knowledge of the process and assumes you do too.
These assumptions will also be discovered between experts once you have your process map finished and present it back to the experts.
Much like observations try to sketch out key elements, especially if they are mentioned over and over again. Creating icons of the key elements will be a quick visual queue so you don’t have to keep writing the same word or phrase multiple times, it will also be used when you make your process map.
Make it visual
Visualization makes it easier for experts to interact with complex ideas, and convey important evidence not observable in other ways.
Make your observations and expert interviews into a visual process map. Using your sketches of key elements and short descriptive words or phrases build your map step by step. Several applications are great for building these maps. I’ve used PowerPoint, google slides, and Miro to name a few. They provide simple shapes, controls, and an easy learning curve to turn your sketches into a clean informative map that will provide the needed visual context that will help the team of experts better understand and align their workflow.
The visual map will
- Makes processes clear
- Helps align ideas to share the same vision
- Uncovers other outcomes
- Opens the mind to different possibilities
Confirming with the experts
Now that your process map is complete, it’s time to present it to your experts. As they look over the map take notes of any corrections they may have so you can update the map. Listen for any disagreements on any steps and list those as breakdowns. These breakdowns are often the source of information silos or knowledge assumptions because it’s the first time anyone has seen the step visually and was able to discuss it as a team.
Keep your ear open to phrases like, “why are we doing that way”, and “Oh, so that’s what you mean when you said that”. There are indicators that your process map is working and the team is aligning and optimizing their workflow processes.
In the brewpub, we were able to find unobserved breakdowns like people carrying hot trays of food through heavily congested areas because of the long lines that could result in a very costly accident for the pub if anyone had tripped. Also, merchandise abandonment because of the long lines.
Other key observations were:
- The navigation sign at the entrance created a bottleneck at times and confused foot traffic.
- Beer selection sign visible but difficult to read from the entrance.
- Up to 4 minute waits in beer line with intersecting foot traffic from the food window.
- During busy times beer line would cut through the seating area.
The process map for the laboratory pipeline discovered redundant steps, helped develop better training exercises, and let the manager more effectively place team members in steps where they were most efficient.
Quick fixes and projects
A final product from the map is the corrections and breakdowns you captured during the confirmation step with the team. Make updates to the map and list any breakdowns and the step they occurred under. Finally, categorize the breakdowns into “quick fixes” and projects.
Quick fixes are problems that can be fixed immediately and projects are breakdowns that will require further discussion towards a solution. Workshop style meetings are great for these projects because they can save a lot of time and discussion and get to an actionable solution in hours instead of days.
Using these two key methods of observation and expert interviews and transforming that into a process map. Provides the visual context that allows for fast adjustments and quick interpretation of individual steps in any workflow. Essentially your map does the talking and lets the team focus on getting aligned.