Process Improvement

Making the Most of Your Team’s Knowledge

By Margit Jochmann

Have you ever found yourself in a meeting where everyone present dives right into discussing the subject matter at hand, without introducing the new folks in the room?  Or, have been part of a project team where some members are clearly experts in a field, but for others you are not quite sure how they relate to the mission at hand?  Then you, or your team, may be missing out on some of the valuable knowledge available at your fingertips or may take longer to find the solution needed.

TeamworkTeams are typically comprised of a diverse set of team members, with different expertise, skills and specialized domains. For example, a project team developing a new IT automation platform may include staff with project management background, various engineering disciplines, business representatives, user representatives, etc.  – all together representing a wealth of knowledge available to the team to effectively design and deliver a solution. However, making use of this knowledge pool and its benefits requires knowing who knows what and who is good at what.

So, How Do You Tap Into Your Team’s Knowledge?

The underlying mechanism:  In 1985[1], Wegner introduced a concept that is an important mechanism to understand in this context – “transactive memory.” He discovered that people in close relationships are much better and faster at remembering certain information and solving certain tasks than two people that do not know each other – due to a division of labor and specialization taking place over time.  This happens because we are aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we are good at understanding the abilities of others.  Hang around a workmate long enough and you begin to realize that while you are terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or how long a kilometer is relative to a mile, they are great at it.  You begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering “that stuff” to them, treating them like a notepad or encyclopedia.Brainpower

Shared remembering:  In a transactive memory system, we share the work of remembering, which makes us collectively smarter and expands our ability to understand the world around us.  Each person in a team doesn’t need to remember everything the team needs to know, remembering who knows what and how to access that information is what matters.  Thus, a transactive memory system can provide teams with more and better knowledge than any individual could access on his or her own.

Teams Benefitting Most

Hand?Teams engaging in knowledge work particularly benefit from transactive memory, especially for tasks:

  • Requiring innovation
  • Involving diverse sets of knowledge
  • Requiring efficient coordination between team members

… all features typical for many project teams.

Transactive memory may not be helpful for all kinds of teams or work though, for example, when little specialization is required.

Developing a Strong Transactive Memory System

Communication and interaction.  Team members learn about each other’s expertise through sharing knowledge and seeking information from others.

  • How to share:  Opportunities for “who did what” type conversations and getting to know each other can range from water cooler encounters to targeted team-building sessions.  At a minimum, take a few minutes to introduce each other when new team members join. 
  • What to share:  Consider different kinds of knowledge beneficial for sharing.  This can include “hard” aspects such as education, certifications, specialized domains etc., as well as “softer” aspects such as personal strengths or preferences.

Joint training on the task supports the development of transactive memory.  The interactions taking place during joint training allow for learning about team members’ skills or the lack of knowledge in certain areas and help to assess the accuracy and reliability of this information.Memory

Sharing relevant documentation.  While face-to-face interaction is most effective, transactive memory can also be fostered without interaction, for example, by sharing documentation on task-relevant information regarding team members’ knowledge, skills, and domains of expertise.

Contributing to Team Success

A strong transactive memory system within a team contributes to its success, both at a task and (inter)personal level, through providing:

  • Quick access to large amounts of knowledge
  • Increased specialization – division of responsibility on different kinds of knowledge allows team members to broaden their own knowledge in a specific area, thus allowing for more innovation
  • Improved decision making processes
  • Increased satisfaction and sense of identification within the team, for example, by better alignment between task assignments and qualifications
  • Increased coordination and efficiency – the shared understanding regarding interpersonal relations and different expertise domains, enables members to better predict and anticipate how others would behave, leading to well-coordinated and efficient interactions

So, Are You Making the Most of Your Team’s Knowledge?  Do You Know Who Your Knowledge Experts Are?


[1] Introduced by Wegner, Giuliano, and Hertel (1985) and Wegner (1986)

The “Four Be’s” of Effective Organizational Communication

By Beth Zimmerman

Regardless of an organization’s focus or size, communication is often identified as an area for organizational improvement. Why, when sharing information is easier in many ways than it has ever been, does communicating effectively remain such a common organizational challenge?

Photo courtesy of comnetwork.org

Photo courtesy of comnetwork.org

In many ways, it’s not surprising. Communication preferences vary across individuals; some prefer written information, whereas others may prefer talking. Interests may also vary; what one employee wants to know about might differ from what matters to another person. And then there is the matter of consistency; since managers have different communication styles and approaches, information flow can vary significantly across departments and locations where employees work.

Despite these variations in communication preferences and practices, there is a straightforward path to improved organizational communication. This approach is based on four foundational principles I call the “Four Be’s”: be reliable, be honest, be timely, and be interactive.

Be Reliable

Ensuring that communication occurs regularly and predictably is a core practice for building organizational trust. In selecting approaches to enhance information flow across their organizations – such as by holding a quarterly staff meeting or sharing a weekly newsletter – leaders should carefully consider the ability to reliably deliver on the promise. Otherwise, announcing a new initiative that is not executed as expected or sustained for a meaningful period of time will only serve to undermine the environment of trust that improved communication is intended to enhance. Being reliable also includes following through and reporting back on previously discussed items where future actions or developments were planned.

Be Honest

Honest communication is key to organizational transparency. Even if communications are occurring regularly, if they don’t address employees’ interests or address what’s really on their minds, they can feel empty or even breed mistrust. Sometimes the burning issue is something that remains in an uncertain state or a topic that leadership cannot yet fully discuss. In this situation, staff members are likely to appreciate their leaders’ acknowledgement of the issue, even if they don’t know all the answers. An honest statement about what is known, with a plan for sharing further information when available, will go far toward establishing transparency as an organizational value.

Be Timely

Another way to ensure that organizational communications are relevant and meaningful is to strive for timeliness. A broad interpretation of timeliness reveals opportunities to communicate along the organization’s ongoing timeline:

  • Before: What advance notice or preparation can you provide to staff so that they will be well positioned to meet upcoming demands and take advantage of key opportunities?
  • During: What is occurring that may prompt employee questions or require further clarification?
  • After: What milestones have recently been accomplished that can be celebrated, learned from, or built on for further success?

Organizations typically have room to enhance communications at each of these phases, but the “during” phase can be particularly challenging when something is underway that is unclear or possibly worrisome to staff. In these cases, remarking on known information in a timely manner is better than saying nothing until every answer is known, but rumors have long since spread across the organization.

Be Interactive

Ensuring that an organization consistently shares relevant information in a timely and transparent manner is fundamental to strong organizational communication. But pushing information only gets an organization so far. To create real engagement, communication should be a two-way, ongoing conversation. In-person interactions are a very powerful and critical supplement to emails; one in-person interaction with a leader can enhance the power of all other types of communications for an employee. Internal social business platforms offer another approach for fostering information-sharing and connections among an organization’s busy and often dispersed members.

The “Four Be’s” offer a solid foundation for improved organizational communication. Stay tuned for more blog posts that will describe strategies for putting these principles into action.

HealthCare.gov’s Lifeline: Effective Program Management

By Omoefe Abugo

When Congress asks the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit a government agency or program, it generally investigates areas of fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement and areas thought to be in need of broad reform. When the GAO looked at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid’s (CMS) management of HealthCare.gov, it found several factors that contributed to its painful and delayed launch. The GAO found the CMS-led initiative to be a high-risk program for many reasons, among them being: unclear guidance, lack of quality assurance plans and inadequate accountability functions. Our experience with complex organizations has enabled us to help program offices avoid such issues and adopt effective program management and balance crucial program factors.

When faced with a large-scale initiative, there will always be complex challenges and unforeseen problems to solve. When CMS set out to design, develop and launch the complex environment and suite of components known as HealthCare.gov, various issues arose that impeded a successful launch. According to the GAO’s Report to Congressional Requesters, these issues led to major unaddressed performance gaps, millions of dollars in cost overruns and a seriously flawed rollout of the HealthCare.gov website on Oct. 1, 2013.

Program Effectiveness

Photo courtesy of rt.com

Photo courtesy of rt.com

There were several problems that plagued CMS’ launch of the healthcare program, but the failure to adopt established program management (PM) best practices proved to be the weakest link of the HealthCare.gov initiative. The GAO report and testimony by GAO officials point to failure to adhere to effective planning and oversight practices, despite the challenges and level of risk required for effective oversight.  These failures led to scope creep, over-obligation of funding to contracts, and a decision to launchwithout verification that the site met its performance requirements.

In managing a program as complex as Healthcare.gov, CMS leadership should have placed greater emphasis on the human element of program management across its many components and over 60 contracts to ensure that the workforce and stakeholders remained informed and aligned for the transformation ahead.

Certainly, for an initiative of this size, the program office must lead from a clearly defined and communicated set of objectives. Evans’ Game-Changing Program Management approach uses these implemented objectives to drive day-to-day efforts in ensuring program effectiveness:

  • Clear organizational goals for program management
  • PM standards that are aligned with the organization’s process maturity
  • Improved organizational effectiveness and efficiency
  • Increased stakeholder and customer satisfaction
  • An audit-ready program office
  • A value-added and balanced quality assurance function
  • Metrics that realistically track program performance

Balancing Factors

The Project Management Triangle (PMT), also known as the Triple Constraint, tells program managers that every project is balanced on three supporting beams: schedule, cost and quality. Basically, if you want something done well and fast, the price will rise.

Photo courtesy of healthcare.gov

Photo courtesy of healthcare.gov

If a program manager wants something done well and for a low price, it will take longer to achieve favorable results. The main point: you can only pick two of the three sides of the PMT. For a program to achieve the objectives mentioned above, one must define which constraints it will operate around. Otherwise, less favorable tradeoffs will be made.  Unfortunately for CMS, the quality of the project failed and cost accountability evaporated. The deadline for the website became more important than the website’s ability to handle influxes of millions of users. Wanting it fast began to overcome wanting it right. Confusion about who had the authority to approve contractor requests and expend funds crippled CMS’ ability to implement an effective accountability system. According to the GAO’s Report, this led to more than $200 million in piled fees, and no improvements in HealthCare.gov’s effectiveness.

During a high-visibility, high-stress project like HealthCare.gov, it is crucial for the program office to leverage a balanced quality assurance function that helps to assess its process strengths and weaknesses. Instead of establishing a dependable quality assurance function, project roles and requirements were often unknown and unclear. What did this mean for CMS? Every action it took involved great risk. Unfortunately, CMS failed to put measures in place to alleviate these dangers, such as:

  • Clarified roles and responsibilities
  • Established best practices
  • Governance approvals
  • Accountability functions

In Retrospect

As HealthCare.gov’s lifecycle matured, it should have been able to demand more of its contractors and workforce and expect optimized performance and results. However, little to no risk management challenged the program office’s ability to properly facilitate each step of the institutionalization of HealthCare.gov. The program managers could not right-size their use of program standards to make HealthCare.gov more effective because the standards were unclear and unknown.

Communication always tends to be the fall guy when a project fails or performs inadequately, but in this situation, it would be unfair to blame poor communication. If CMS’ program office had implemented strict program management best practices, set rigorous performance expectations and established flexible, adaptive objectives at each level of HealthCare.gov’s process maturity, perhaps we would have seen a more successful, efficient launch.

If you would like more information on our Game-Changing Program Management approach, please contact us at 703-663-2480 or at info@evansincorporated.com.

We welcome comments and discussion on this blog below!

Are you a process Geek?

By Emad Elias, PMP

Do you find yourself wanting to dive into analysis techniques like the five whys of root cause analysis or asking a client to clearly define a problem before moving to the solution? Or perhaps you want to facilitate a group in getting to a robust and streamlined To Be process.  Many of us think that using the appropriate process improvement methodology can solve most business problems.  The challenge, however, is that most executives do not want to think about that level of detail.  They are indeed interested and willing to invest in ‘getting the process right’ though.

So what’s a process professional to do? The answer is making the connection between delighting customers to influence business outcomes while driving the organization’s performance.   The graphic below shows how process professionals can leverage their knowledge of strategy and process by approaching executives along a fairly clear path.  All executives have customers.  All customers can affect business outcomes.  Further, all business outcomes can affect corporate performance.  The ‘stuff’ in the middle is process.  In other words, process improvement is the means to the end.

Staying focused on customers and business outcomes is not a new formula for an executive.  Executives are well aware that they must achieve certain goals and that customers must be pleased with their products and/or services.  What an executive might not be aware of is that process improvement can eliminate much of the uncertainty of ‘How’ to achieve their goals.  If they believe this will improve performance across their enterprise, then you will have achieved success as a process professional.

A few guidelines that will help in your quest:

1. Language: While many of us are enamored with our terms and acronyms, many people are not.  Learning to use words and phrases that communicate that best practices can be improved in a targeted way using a change management plan to proactively solicit and act upon feedback is a major component in a winning formula. Avoid words such as As Is or To Be model, swim lanes, inputs, outputs, entry and exit criteria, etc.  Using words such as improvement to quality, performance, or outcomes through use of process will help

2. Glue: Process improvement usually applies in some kind of operational environment.  But similar to the way that IT has become a strategic partner in many organizations, process improvement is also quite strategic.  Every organization is interested in efficiency, lowered costs, and happy employees.  If nothing else, process improvement not only helps to do these things but helps to standardize the way business is done.  This leads to more often meeting expectations and even exceeding them both for employees and end customers which again, is part of the winning formula.

3. Metrics: Process professionals know that metrics can be powerful in making decisions.  What may not be intuitive though is the important work to define a baseline for the metrics.  This is not only important for the organization, it’s also important for the process professional to be able to characterize their success.  Certainly, fewer steps and shorter durations to get work done, lowered costs, and improved cycle times are all suggested metrics.  But customer satisfaction, quantification of throughput of products or services, predictability, increased lead times to delivery, variances from plan, as well as metrics tied directly to business outcomes are also important.

    In summary, as process professionals, all of us can tend to get ‘geeky’ about our work, i.e., we may use terminology or jargon that is not well understood by executives or managers, or we may try to propose solutions to problems before we clearly understand all the stakeholders and their needs.  As simple as it sounds, the key to solving the equation may be making an intuitive and clear connection between the delivering remarkable customer service and the business outcomes executives want to achieve.  We can this connection then to influence the ‘glue’ (process models, frameworks, improvement, etc.) you will insert to fit the pieces together and drive performance of the organization to boost your numbers.