February 2, 2021

In corporate processes, is it better to be lean or agile?

Valentina Coco Website Profile Picture
Valentina Coco
min read

When we want to deploy process improvement and design thinking approaches to internal corporate processes, the best is to have both, and I will tell you why and how it can be achieved.

It’s hardly news that If you work in finance, at any point in time, there is a need to remove duplication of work, streamline work, remove ‘loops’ and steps without any added values.

Let me tell you a story:

When we proposed an optimization workshop of any type, teams were immediately motivated, management supportive. We brought in experts from other parts of the organization, ran pilots. LEAN methodologies, and classic (or ‘old school’) project management were and still are the go to solution. In my experience, a very powerful one is visual value stream mapping. Drawing the whole process on a board, or a wall and realizing that there are so many steps and back and forth loops, that take up a whole room to draw (true story), is eye opening. Quantifying how many steps can be removed, without compromising on the needed accuracy, provides an immediate reward and motivate the team to keep going.

Right after the workshops, manager will review the yearly priorities, enthusiastic analyst will start programming new tools (power BI, Excel, or any other tech used). There will be a pilot, more fine tuning, and we will declare the project a success.

After a year, if the process was intended to be more than a ‘token’ improvement, the project manager will run a survey on workload and employee satisfaction, expecting improvements.

Yet, every time I went through this, the answers showed minimal progress. Non value added reporting, duplication of effort, errors and need for cross checking due to unclear inputs are always on top of the list. Did LEAN methodology fail?

I didn't think so, but I also couldn’t explain it. Lack of management support? Even in extremely LEAN companies, finance seemed to be on its own planet. Lack of process engineering knowledge in finance people? Maybe, but product or brand managers aren’t known for being engineers, and their department were streamlined.

When I started studying and applying agile methodologies like Design Sprints, Lightning Decision Jams, and even more abstract design thinking, I realized that in my cases, we never focused on the users and stakeholder needs. No matter if the process optimization was either led bottom up or cascaded from the top. We would always frame the problem and GO.

A few months later, the ultimate stakeholder (for bottom up projects) or the users (for the top down ones) found some of their needs unmet, and the process started to ramify again.  

What agile can bring in these cases is a clear methodology to merge the needs of the 2 groups that financial processes optimization need to serve. The Stakeholders, who will be paying for it and will expect information they need, when they need, and right the first time around (plus ideally flexible to adjust for various audiences) and then actual users working in finance.

Think of a design sprint. Before doing the actual sprint, the project team will engage in user interviews, on what is working, what not and the key problem framing. If a consensus is not reached, any conflict can be decided by a lightning decision jam. All we need is one and half hour, remote collaboration tool, the decision maker and a team. The outcome is guaranteed to be 1 or 2 options to explore. Based on this, the actual sprint can be organized, either in person or virtually. It can be a 2 to 5 days event, depending on how much the problem needs defining at this stage, and if we want to try some fast prototyping and some end user (finance stakeholders) tests. Once the WHAT is defined, the team can move to LEAN or other project management techniques, to make sure that it’s implemented without waste, and the process is documented.

Sure, this process takes longer than the traditional one. Running user research, LDJ (lightning decision jams) and a sprint can take an extra 2 weeks and can be fairly intensive. Yet, if you have ever participated in one, you will know that the process itself is very efficient. Timeboxed. Focused on the outcome and engaging. How much is the time/cost of re-running process optimizations every other year because it just doesn't stick? Surely more than two weeks.

The starting point is having curiosity, getting out of the finance silos and barricades, reach out to our ‘users’ as true product and business owners (finance processes are our product and business).

Want to learn more or give it try it? Let’s talk.

Valentina Coco Website Profile Picture
Valentina Coco
inclusive leader

I'm a connector, leader, change-maker, mother and coach. My experience of going through many burnouts motivated me to find solutions to improve the culture in the workplace and achieve more.

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