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Unlocking Value through Automation

By Kim Ondreck Carim, CFO, San Francisco Ballet

Kim Ondreck Carim, CFO, San Francisco Ballet

Understanding technology needs is a critical step in a new technology implementation and can be defined in many ways: needs of the users, needs of the customers, needs from the technology solution.  To achieve these understandings quickly and effectively, CFOs know to approach the automation not as a technology project but as a business process optimization.

In today’s rapidly evolving business climate, CFOs and CIOs clearly must collaborate to ensure the success of technology automation projects. However, prior to turning to the CIO’s team to partner on solution sourcing, a strategic CFO will make it her priority to identify the value to be created—or the potential added value to be unlocked—from the technology automation.

“The tools of a lean kaizen process improvement event offer a formula for process optimization that is quick and results-oriented”

This does not have to take a long time, be administratively onerous or require significant additional investment. The tools of a lean kaizen process improvement event offer a formula for process optimization that is quick and results-oriented. These tools can be used by any size of business. In as little as twelve hours, I have seen radical and implementable redesigns of processes that result in more value creation than previously imagined and suggest technology products not previously in the automation solution set.

Don’t worry if you are not a lean expert; the steps outlined here are easy to follow. What have I found to be the key role for a CFO in a lean process improvement event?  Define the desired outcomes of the optimized process and then get out of the conversation. And take your executive colleagues with you.  Employees are often reluctant to be honest about problems in a process when their boss (or their boss’s boss) is in the room.

Ask Those Who Do

Once the desired outcomes of the process optimization have been set, gather a representative sample of employees who carry out the process on a daily basis. Too many in the room will slow the process down. Too few in the room will lead to parts of the process being unmappable. Another non-negotiable? Each person must be free from work responsibilities for the full time—usually a day and a half—of the process improvement event.

Agree on Scope

Start by gaining consensus on the start and end points for the process under evaluation. This sounds basic, but is trickier than it seems and is also critical to the success of the event. Participants may want to talk about frustrations with job responsibilities that are very important to them, but not critical to the path of this particular process. Having them air these frustrations at the beginning of the event—and then concluding as part of a group consensus that those job responsibilities are outside the scope of the process being improved—ultimately yields more productive conversations.

Define Value

In lean thinking, a business process can be said to be adding value if it reduces process time for users, eliminates errors and the need for the correction of those errors, and provides some new information that is indispensable to the ultimate end user of the process. Ask participants: who are the customers of this business process and what creates added value for that customer? Don’t be surprised if certain employees in the room turn out to be customers of the work product of other employees in the room.

Map the Current Process

After these opening discussions, have participants create a step-by-step map of the current state of the business process together. Do this in enough detail that everyone can see where information flows backwards or sideways (bad) instead of forward (good). And don’t map what should happen; map what does happen. Often employees in one function do not fully comprehend why employees in another function operate the way they do. Being in the same room together sharing that information can be eye-opening. When this level of understanding occurs before a technology automation implementation, it can smooth the path to rapid adoption of necessary changes by creating empathy for those changes.

Brainstorm Process Improvements

Because participants have previously defined the value that the process should create, they are primed to come up with improvements to the current process that does exactly that. Employees who fully understand the value they are providing to other customers of the process are more likely to see better ways of delivering that value. Use a brainstorming methodology that not only gets these ideas out rapidly, but also visually maps areas of consensus among the ideas.

Create the Ideal Process

At this point in the event, participants are fired up to begin optimizing the old process because they can already visualize a better way.  Working as a team, deploy the identified areas of consensus around improvements to create a step-by-step map of what the process would look like if it were ideal for all involved while achieving the process’s desired outcomes in the smallest number of steps and in the fastest time, with no wasted efforts.

Assess Gaps

The optimized process should look very different from the current state process. Ask participants to compare the two maps and determine what actions it will take to get to the ideal state. These gaps hold the key to defining critical functionality of the right technology automation solution.

Create Metrics for the Optimized Process

In the last step, have participants collectively define the metrics that will serve as key indicators that the process has reached its optimized state. These metrics can be used throughout the technology automation implementation as proofpoints of success. Be sure to measure the baseline metrics now, before the technology implementation.

Employees who were deeply involved in the creation of the specifications for a new technology implementation through a lean kaizen process improvement event can become evangelists for the change, greatly increasing the probability of a successful adoption. By using lean tools and a focus on value creation to optimize a business process, CFOs can ensure that their companies will unleash the full power of technology automation.