One of the hardest things to do as a company of any size is to build in ways to continually improve your process that actually stick. As a digital agency, it’s incredibly important to get this right.
The intense rate of change in the digital space means that processes need to be iterated on constantly or they quickly become irrelevant. This is true for most industries today; technology is radically changing the landscape all the time, and companies need to keep up or risk falling behind.
The more your company grows, the harder process improvement becomes. Teams get bigger, processes become more entrenched, and change becomes more and more energy intensive.
What Didn’t Work
At Briteweb, we’ve tried lots of different approaches to improve our processes; we tested out quarterly all-hands workshops, monthly sessions, and traditional postmortems after we wrapped up a project. All of these were too slow for the high-paced environment that most businesses exist within today.
Workshops and Meetings
Quarterly workshops were generally useful for high-level thinking, but from that height the discussion is largely theoretical instead of actionable. Monthly meetings wore everybody out and didn’t fit in with our natural project flow. The timing always felt mid-stream, and there were too many projects to talk about, which just got confusing as we tripped from one example to the next.
In both cases, the list of suggestions for changes or updates was so large that it was overwhelming to think about actually implementing.
We tried various versions of the post-mortem approach, where an entire project team would gather for an hour (or more) to discuss what went well, what went wrong, and what could go better next time.
I still think the post-mortem has its place in the iteration process, but as a stand-alone solution, it’s ineffective for a number of reasons:
- Projects can last months, and the only thing that gets discussed is the sentiment from last few weeks
- Social dynamics can make it challenging to point out flaws in other people’s domain
- Postmortems can stretch out into multi-hour events, costing a lot and draining the energy of the team
- Postmortems can easily degrade into complaining sessions, finger-pointing, and client blaming (bonus insight: it’s not always the client’s fault!)
The biggest challenge with postmortems is that by the time you finish one project, multiple others are already midstream. That makes it challenging to implement new learning.
Continuous Process Improvement (CPI)
After a few years with little success, we concluded that the only way to make meaningful improvements to our processes was to embed iteration into our daily activities. By making the iterations bite-sized, it suddenly became reasonable to expect people to participate. Iterations happened in real-time, and connected directly to their daily experience.
We developed an approach we call Continual Process Improvement (CPI). It’s fairly simple in theory: people track ideas and feedback in real time to a specific place, and then a specific person on our team is responsible for processing and implementing them.
While the concept is dead simple, the real success of the CPI approach is in the details. Here’s how we nail this down:
- Process Templates: We have our processes documented, and we keep templates in Trello. As much as I love Trello, the medium is less important than having the steps mapped out in sequence with the right amount of detail. For us, this means including the phases, tasks, to-dos, role accountability, and the necessary time to complete tasks (if relevant). The CPI approach really doesn’t work if you don’t have your processes templated.
- Everybody on Board: Easier said than done. Everyone needs to buy in, and managers need to make sure their teams have the time and encouragement to identify CPIs. When you have a board like the one seen above, it’s easy to see who is contributing and who isn’t.
- Domain Responsibility: This is an extension of the last principle. Beyond having everyone on board, it’s critical that the innovation comes from the people doing the work. Managers may have insights too, but the actual people performing the tasks will have the best insights if they are properly engaged.
- A Dedicated Manager: On our team, it’s our Lead Producer (shout out to Kelly). Whoever it is, though, they need to own this process. That means making time in their schedule to monitor, filter, and implement the ideas that get generated. There is nothing more demoralizing to a team than asking for feedback and having no one act on it. I should note also that having a project manager with experience in process improvement principles is extremely helpful. You may want to consider additional training to add this skill to your PM’s toolkit if it’s missing.
- Organized Place to Store CPIs: As you can see in the screenshot above, each phase of our processes has its own list. Each improvement is a card, with a succinct title. Notes and details go inside in the description. The creator is attached to the card to begin with, and additional people are added by our Lead Producer if needed. We use labels to indicate various statuses for ideas (notice all the green!)
- Process The Improvements: It’s our Lead Producer’s job to go through the cards, understand them, and gather details on how they would be implemented. The dedicated manager of the CPI process needs to have a decent understanding of everything on the board in order to build the ideas back into our process templates.
- Implement the CPIs: Typically, changes are implemented in one of two ways. If the idea is an obvious improvement, our Lead Producer simply updates the related process template on Trello right away. If the idea needs discussion or clarification, a round-up with the project team is organized (or during post-mortem) to ideate solutions to issues identified.
Tip: If you get all these things in place and you’re still not generating improvements, there could be a culture problem – or, you might need to look at incentivizing innovation differently at your company. If there is any sense that people will be attacked for pointing out where things could improve, innovation will not happen.
With CPIs all in one place, we can reference them during our postmortems as needed. It also frees up our time together as a group to talk about big-picture observations about the project.
The Continual Process Improvement approach has worked really well for us. It’s made the seemingly impossible task of collecting and implementing feedback a manageable process. I am always excited to check out the CPI board, and see all the ideas and improvements my team is continuously making.
Hero image courtesy of Jeremy Thomas.
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