Techniques for Tapping Procedures

Oh heck. It has been one of those fortnights and somehow my usual blog-writing commutes got gobbled up by work and conversation. But my next post is due and I really have no excuse for taking a break, so apologies if it is not up to my usual standard (whatever that might be!).

Last post we looked at process mapping and how that fits into the wonderful world of procedures. I was very careful though to look more at the mechanistics of this, the cogs and tripwires of getting a flow chart down on paper. Today we are going back a step, to that place I previously refused to go. Back to how you elicit procedures, flow charts and the activity steps themselves from the owners of the activity. Once again I will assume that you are writing a procedure for someone else, but of course some (definitely not all!) of these techniques would be useful in developing one for yourself.

There are probably plenty of techniques that one could use for this purpose, but there are four I have chosen for today. They seem fairly logical to me but on first view look quite random: get something down ASAP, activity dependency mapping, the 5 Whys and the power of the mmm-hmmm. They come across a bit like Dumbledore’s words at Harry Potter’s first night at Hogwarts don’t they? “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” Well let’s try to make a bit more sense of them anyway.

So, ‘getting something down’. I’m sure a better name would help. Let’s call this, the theory of exponential development, or the theory of increasing returns. The benefits of documenting flow charts – in fact documenting almost any kind of corporate knowledge – essentially stem back to their ability to capture know-how in a way that everyone can understand and can objectively review. Therefore the sooner you get ANYTHING down on paper the better! I’m not saying that it is necessary to rush to finalise the perfect procedure – quite the opposite. I’m saying that the longer you talk in conceptual terms the longer you cannot be certain that other people understand you and are talking about the same thing.

I suppose the technique really is about preparing for an elicitation session. I would do this in four stages. Firstly, take the activity that has been selected for documentation and think logically through what steps you intuitively think might need to be taken. If you have absolutely no knowledge of the subject area, these steps might be very high level, but they will still be useful. Secondly, and if you can make a bit of time beforehand, do some reading. It should not be too hard to track down relevant legislation, company policy, corporate report, and you would be amazed how much easier it makes it to make sense of a procedure when you know the broader context. Thirdly, write down where you get to. Finally, if the proper procedure elicitation session has many participants, definitely try to check your first thoughts with an appropriate subject matter expert before you drop yourself into the deep end.

The thing is, for people who do not map processes or develop procedures on a regular basis, procedures and flow charts themselves are conceptual. They seem to be intangibles that float around in wafting circles around our heads. The sooner you have something – anything – down on paper as a straw man, horse or armadillo, the sooner you give people a tangible thing to red pen all over or point at. (Just make sure you let them know at the beginning that this is your intent.) And it also worth being clear that yes you do actually let the participants see your leaky attempts to capture their business. It is much easier for people to talk about inserting a box between X and Y, or replacing Y altogether, than having to start from scratch.

Ok, next one. Activity (process) dependency mapping. When you are working with people, it becomes apparent very quickly that our brains work in different ways, and while some people like to stay in the detail, others need more context. For people in the latter category (like me!), they will struggle to discuss a particular procedure without having an understanding of where its scope begins and ends and how it fits into the bigger picture. Therefore, activity dependency mapping is just beautiful. I’ll stick in an example after this paragraph (but be warned that it probably doesn’t meet accepted notation standards!). It essentially is a diagram that shows how different activities interact with other activities. It is really just a higher level flow chart / process map in its own right anyway and in reality there isn’t anything too clever about it. What is particularly neat though is it also helps people who stay in the detail, as it is a useful way of keeping them and the broader group focussed on the right procedure rather than accidentally straying elsewhere.

Process Dependency Model

Alright, we’re flying through this today! On to the 5 Whys. Isn’t that a great name? How often do you come across a technique whose name also provides the guidance for how to use it? It is as simple as this. If someone says, “after we do X, we do Y”, your response is “why?”. And guess what, there are no brains involved here. Whatever their response, you say “why?” five whole times, and the idea is that by the time you’ve caused them that much pain, the real reason will have come out. I guess you could keep on going for longer than five times but – as any parent of a pre-school child will tell you – the person you are asking may by that point want to strangle you.

Do we need an example? Probably. Hmmmm, what can we have fun with? Let’s go back to Wally Sweetstuff. Pretend that he has just come into check on what is happening in your fruit chew store and he has noticed that when people purchase a selection of loose fruit chews, your sales staff put them in a large paper bag and cellotape it shut. The biggest problem from his perspective – costs and efficiencies aside – is that when the bag is sealed up like this, the Ultimate Indulgences branding is no longer visible. Let’s see how this conversation goes.

Wally: I noticed that your staff put the loose lollies in a large paper bag and then cellotape it closed. Why?
You: So the lollies don’t fall out.
Wally: Why?
You: Because lollies have fallen out of the paper bags in the past and people have complained.
Wally: Why?
You: Because the bags we use don’t self-seal.
Wally: Why?
You: Because I haven’t found a better way packaging the loose lollies.
Wally: Why?
You: Because, well, I guess I haven’t spent time looking at alternatives!

Obviously there are lots of routes that this conversation could have gone down, and it might have helped Wally to refine what aspect of each response he was questioning with his “why”, but you get the drift. The cellotaping step is currently happening just because it convenient, not because it has been decided that it is the best way.

Lucky last today, is the technique that I am calling “the power of the mmm-hmmm”. I suppose you could also call this a critical part of active listening, or just plain old-fashioned listening. It is very straightforward. When someone is talking about a step in the procedure, or in fact anything relevant to the procedure, if they pause when they are mid way through, you say “mmm-hmmm”. In fact it is more than that. If someone is talking about a step in the procedure, or in fact anything relevant to the procedure, and then stop, but you are listening very carefully and think they might conceivably have something else to add, you say “mmm-hmmm”. In a one-on-one discussion, it is an invaluable way to elicit more information that you otherwise would – just by letting people know that (1) you are listening, (2) you are actually interested in what they have to say, and (3) you are not about to cut them off because you prefer the sound of your own voice rather than theirs.

There are some qualifications to this, but I think the intent behind this technique is important in many settings. It is up to you to know when someone is going off on a complete tangent and is not talking anywhere near the procedure you need to uncover. It is up to you to know where you have spent enough time listening and the session actually needs to end. And it is up to you to know where you are discussing the procedure in a large group and someone else should be allowed to jump in and add valuable input. However, you will find that when you can say a meek “mmm-hmmm” (or whatever other nominal noise you feel comfortable with) and show people that you’re listening, a whole lot of useful information comes your way.

So that’s it for today folks. A random – but I think fairly thorough – list of those techniques that will aid you well in a journey of procedural discovery. I bet you cannot wait to go and use them!

What do you think?

Have you used any of these approaches in your work (not necessarily in process mapping)? And do you have any success stories or pitfalls to share?

What do you think?