The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is an automated light railway system that helps people transit around the bustling metropolis of London. Unlike the underground “tube” and the main rail network, the DLR is driverless. The trains shuttle about their duty, computer controlled and remotely monitored.
The fact that they are automated and driverless means that you can sit right at the front—and more than once I’ve seen a kid at the front pretending she or he is the driver. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some adults doing the same! Of course, the reality is that however much they pretend to control the train, however much they pretend to pull levers and look at dials, nothing they can do will affect the journey. The only way they could immediately affect the journey is to pull the emergency stop handle (which would be a very bad idea on a busy commuter train!).
As I watched someone playfully “pretending” to drive the DLR, it struck me that far too many projects (and organisations) are run this way. There is someone in charge—perhaps because they have been given the role, or perhaps by virtue of their level of seniority—and they spend time looking at reports, enquiring as to why things are “red” and “amber” and seeking to steer the project (or organisation) in a particular direction. The challenge is that organisations are not always “wired” to ensure that the “drivers” get the feedback that they need, when they need it—meaning they can’t make the corrective action that they need to make. They only see things when it is too late, their options are limited and so often they have to take drastic and sudden action. The only control open to them at this point is to pull the emergency brake.
One of the challenges we face when looking to build organisations that can remain viable in an ever-changing environment is the need for organisations to ‘appreciate’ (look for) and respond to feedback. The term ‘feedback’ is broad, and in practice it can take a whole variety of forms. We might immediately think of compliments or complaints as sources of feedback, and whilst this is true, there are many other sources beside. Some might be quantitative feedback signals and trends (“Product X has experienced a sustained drop in demand”) others might be qualitative (“Look at all these suggestions from customers that are in our mailbox!”). The challenge for organisations is knowing which areas to focus on—which elements of feedback to action, and which to disregard. A bigger challenge is to come up with a hypothesis as to why the trend has occurred and what needs to be done. Traversing this tricky road requires ongoing strategic business analysis, establishing what is happening in the external environment, and aligning potential opportunities against existing strategy (or in some cases considering a change of direction).
Partial Feedback: A Restaurant in Toronto
When it comes to analysing feedback—whether qualitative or quantitative—one particular challenge that should be kept in mind is the fact that partial feedback can be very misleading and can lead to costly mistakes. I was reminded of this recently when eating in a restaurant in Toronto, Canada (a very vibrant city that I hope to visit again soon!). One thing that varies a lot by culture and nation is the approach to tipping in restaurants. In the UK, tipping is normally considered optional, with 10% being usual for satisfactory service. I gather in the USA it is much higher, and in Canada I am told 15% – 20% is customary (although different people appear to have different views!).
As many of you know, I enthusiastically believe in the value that good quality Business Analysis can bring, and I love speaking, writing and presenting on this and many other topics! In a break from my normal ‘blog’ style, I have a very quick update for you.
Attending the conference is always one of the highlights of my year, as it provides a real melting pot of ideas. It’s a great place to meet other BAs and exchange knowledge. There are fantastic presentations from real-world practitioners, and there’s also the opportunity to relax and chat over a beer (or two) after the conference has closed. If you haven’t been before, I’d highly recommend taking a look.
The conference is being held in London, from 24 – 26 September. You can find full details of the conference here:
PS — if you can’t make it to London, I’m equally excited to say that I’ll also be presenting at the Building Business Capability conference in San Antonio, Texas, USA in November, where I’ll present the following sessions:
Even the most customer-focussed organisation is likely to get the occasional complaint. Even the best managed organisations occasionally make mistakes, and those firms that serve a high volume of customers typically have a full-time team that deals with issues that have escalated into a formal complaint.
Customer complaints can be a source of significant insight. In some cases, complaints point towards inefficiencies that have emerged in existing business processes. Perhaps a handover between departments is not working well as there is ambiguity over the roles of each team. Identifying this is valuable—it isn’t a one-off incident, and it is likely that many customers will receive poor service until it is resolved. It might also identify issues where training is required—perhaps a member of staff in a call centre did not record a vital piece of information that a customer gave them. This might be because the member of staff genuinely didn’t know the significance—and if they don’t receive this constructive feedback (and the relevant training) they will likely make the same mistake time and time again, leading to even more displeased customers.
Analysis of complaints can also help determine where customer expectations have changed (or are changing). In the past, it might have been considered perfectly acceptable for a courier firm to offer a delivery window of ‘8am to 6pm’. Yet if its competitors now offer 1 hour slots, this will change the tacit expectation in the market. This will filter through into the complaints that are received. Of course, the firm ought to have been looking at the external competitive environment anyway, but complaints sometimes highlight things that are outside of the radar.
When modelling processes and customer journeys, there is a tendency for organisations to focus on the ‘80/20’ rule and spend most of their time designing and refining the most commonly trodden routes through the process—sometimes known as the ‘happy path’. This ‘happy path’ typically assumes that the customer does everything at least broadly correctly, has the right information to hand and so forth—and focussing on the happy path enables us to ensure that the process is effective and efficient for a majority of cases.
Yet in our attempts to improve the ‘happy path’, we must not forget the alternative flows and exceptions that may occur. The business must make a decision about the types of demand that it wishes (or is compelled) to deal with, and it is crucial that the process is built to handle that level of variety. Just because something occurs infrequently doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. In fact, some very ‘infrequent’ events might represent real ‘moments of truth’ where we have the opportunity to impress or frustrate the customer.
In business, we often point at examples of “problems” and “problematic situations” as if they should be universally known and agreed upon. Certainly, if revenue is dropping, customers are leaving and there’s not enough money to pay staff wages then it’s likely that there would be fairly unanimous agreement that something has to be done and there are clearly a whole set of “problems”! Yet, most of the day to day situations we find ourselves in are far more subtle and nuanced, and defining and pinpointing issues can be much more challenging . Different stakeholders may interpret a situation very differently, viewing particular aspects of that situation more or less significantly than we do.
Two examples really brought this idea to life for me, and being from the UK, these are of course weather related (if you’ve never been to the UK, talking about weather is like a national sport!). During September last year, I attended the fantastic BA Summit Southern Africa in Cape Town. While I was there I was able to see some of the sights, and catch up with my friends and contacts at IIBA SA. Being a British person, I would start just about every conversation with small talk about the weather. I’d drone on and on (boring even myself) about how we have so much rain, and how it’s great to be somewhere so sunny…
I was floored when a friend of mine said (with complete respect and rapport) “If only we could find a way of swapping your rain for our sun”. They explained that Cape Town is suffering a severe water shortage, with a lack of rain in the winter, and a real chance that the reservoirs will simply run dry. Water rationing is now in place, with calculations being regularly updated over when “day zero” will be reached—the day that domestic taps are shut off. Wow. Clearly, and quite understandably, my friends in Cape Town have a very different perspective on rain, and I felt pretty insensitive when I realised what I’d said! That single experience led me to limit my water usage as much as I could. It also made me think differently about the amount of rain that we get in the UK.
Those of you that follow this blog will probably know I am somewhat of a self-confessed ‘BA Geek’. When I am not blogging, I am trying to find other ways to raise awareness of our profession, and to encourage organisations to make use of BA tools and techniques. I still find it genuinely odd that in some organisations, business analysis is not given the recognition that it deserves. It feels like as a discipline we are (metaphorically) in our awkward teenage years. We know that we have a huge amount to contribute, sometimes our ideas are new and challenge the norm, but we often feel misunderstood (and, if we’re completely honest, perhaps we don’t always communicate our worth in the most effective way). Perhaps it’s not a very elegant analogy, but I’m sure you get the point!
One particular interest of mine is studying project failures. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years delving into the detail of why governmental projects fail. “Why focus on the public sector?” I hear you ask! The main, practical, reason is that when a public sector project fails it tends to happen very publically—the information is made available for scrutiny. I am certain there are just as many project failures in the private sector—certainly I’ve worked on a few ‘stinky’ private sector projects over the years—but getting at the data is much, much harder. The irony is that there are excellent BAs in the public sector—some of them are my contacts and friends. Yet the failure reports and research suggest (to me at least) that BAs aren’t always engaged at the right time and in some cases might not be given the voice that they desire.
This led me and some of my fellow IIBA-UK volunteers to submit evidence to a Public Administration Select Committee inquiry back in 2014, an initiative I was particularly proud of as we managed to get cross-organisational agreement from IIBA UK, BCS and the BA Manager Forum. I have been part of committees that have made other representations to government too, hoping that a regular ‘drip feed’ of information will help raise awareness.
“But why bother with this?”, some of you may ask. Good question indeed! My driving motivations are:
Save Money:I believe that good quality business analysis in the public sector (as in any sectors) will save money. In fact, looking at some government failure reports it could save a lot of money. This is compelling in the private sector too… but the optimist in me likes to think that public sector savings could lead to more hospital beds, more public services, in a time when increasingly decision makers are having to “do more with less”. And creating better public services excites me a lot more than “creating shareholder value”.
Set a Standard:I truly believe that once a national government adopts a BA standard, the level of awareness will be raised by default. Things will be better for all Much as all major government projects must use a particular project management methodology, how awesome would it be if they had to adopt a flexible, tailored business analysis methodology (overseen by a skilled senior BA)? And it’s highly likely that the private sector would follow…
A Letter to an MP…
I was thinking about these goals as I sat in front of my PC screen in that quiet, reflective time between Christmas and New Year. In conducting some research, I discovered that my Member of Parliament (Stephen Morgan MP) is a member of the Public Accounts Committee. The very committee that is responsible (along with the National Audit Office) for providing scrutiny on government decisions and projects…
Process analysis and process modelling are two commonly used and interrelated business analysis techniques. There can be significant benefit in understanding how a particular business process works, improving it to ensure that it is aligned with the needs of the customer and other stakeholders, whilst ensuring that resources are being used efficiently and effectively. Good processes contribute towards a consistent customer experience—they ensure that the organisation can deliver a reliable and predictable service every time. An effective process will typically minimise the number of subjective decisions that need to be made ‘on the fly’ by staff, and ensures that staff are empowered with the tools that they need to do the job.
Yet, it doesn’t automatically follow that changing a process will improve it. I am sure we have all seen process improvement initiatives that didn’t achieve their desired outcomes. We may have even seen initiatives that made things worse! As businesses analysts, we have a significant part to play in helping to avoid these failures.
Understand Variety in Demand
There are many angles which should be considered when aiming to improve a process, but one that is often overlooked is variety of demand. A process, at its essence, will need to respond to a trigger (a business event), then perform a series of actions to create an outcome. One of strengths of formalising processes is the ability to standardise—yet this can (ironically) become an organisation’s Achilles’ heel. Standardisation that accommodates the types of customer demand that you want or need to serve is great; anything else risks being perceived as rigid and bureaucratic.
This probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s take an example. I recently received an e-mail from the company that supplies the electricity and gas to my house, asking me to take meter readings and input them online. Nothing unusual there, except when I input the electricity meter reading, it wouldn’t accept it. After a bit of digging I realised that the reading was exactly the same as the reading I input six months ago. The meter’s dials had not moved at all in that period. Some further investigation led me to conclude the meter is completely dead, and had been for some time.
I recently presented a webinar, hosted by IIBA®, focussing on the importance of systems thinking. The webinar is entitled Systems Thinking: A Crucial BA Skill in an Uncertain World and I’m pleased to say that the recording is available to watch below. The recording is around an hour long, so grab a coffee, sit back and enjoy. I hope that you find the webinar interesting!
It has often been said that we live in an increasingly volatile, complex and ambiguous world. The external business environment is complex and fast-moving, yet often our stakeholders are blindsided by ‘silver-bullet’ solutions that assume a neat linear relationship between cause and effect.
In reality, things are rarely neat and linear. More often we’ll find that situations are devilishly difficult, requiring us to understand and engage with a whole range of messy interconnected issues and perspectives.
In this practical presentation, Adrian Reed discusses the importance of systems thinking in business analysis. During the presentation you will hear:
What systems thinking ‘is’, why it matters, and the conditions in which it can be relevant in an analysis environment
A range of practical techniques from the world of systems thinking that have direct applicability in the BA world
How systems thinking and systems practice, when embraced by a range of complementary practitioners and stakeholders, can help an organisation ‘learn’
As business analysts and practitioners of strategic change, we probably all find ourselves ‘parachuted’ into new organisational situations from time to time. Whether we are working with a new client, business unit, team or department, there is a need to get up to speed with the domain and the culture quickly. In these situations it’s important to learn as much as we can about the organisational situation—whether that’s through document analysis, ad-hoc conversations or other more formal analysis techniques. Yet understanding organisational culture can be much harder, but it is crucial that we try to do so.
A thorough understanding of culture can only really be achieved through spending time in the organisational environment, but there are sometimes signs that can be useful indicators of cultural norms. It is almost like our stakeholders leave a trail of clues for us to follow. And that might even start by looking at the office plants…