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Don’t forget the ‘Means & Method’

Great ingredients do not necessarily make a great cake

The television baking competition; ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ intrigues me. I didn’t realise there was so much science, method and management involved in baking. For example, who knew chocolate has to be melted in a certain way or it loses it shine? I certainly didn’t!

The reason why I am so interested is because it nicely demonstrates that ‘means and methods’ really do make a significant difference to the results we achieve – probably as much as the quality of the ingredients in many cases. Means and methods have value.

I know when reflected upon this is common sense but as the song goes “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”.

When I think about the management development training I have received over the years, it’s apparent that it concentrated on managing people, equipment and other assets/resources and had very little focus on the ‘how’, the means and methods by which these inputs are transformed into results. Working with many other managers I believe I am not alone in thinking this.

I have a theory about this

As managers we are driven to focus upon those things that have value according to the P&L. At one end of the performance equation these are the results we achieve and at the other are the costly ‘assets’ deployed; typically people, equipment, raw materials and working capital.

Unfortunately, the spark in the middle that determines the quality of the outcome, is often disregarded – it doesn’t have any value in its own right.

The reality of having to continually deliver excellent performance every day, means and methods (i.e. processes) are, in my view, as much an asset as the people and equipment.

If, like me, you believe this to be true, doesn’t it then follow that processes deserve our management attention too?

What makes a good process manager?

Fundamentally, I would suggest that beyond encouraging people to adopt and improve upon best known practice methods in their work (as discussed in my previous blog), process managers understand the need to manage and continually improve the application of those methods to ensure they do not deteriorate over time.

What is the point trying to improve if you cannot consistently maintain the gains?

One way in which you might recognise a good process manager is from their approach to monitoring and reviewing activities, as they concentrate on both how the work is done and the results achieved.

This seemingly subtle difference drives them to:

  • Create more effective early warning systems for abnormal operating conditions that threaten performance, enabling potential problems to be nipped in the bud before real damage is done.
  • Challenge themselves to remove the potential for error, by ensuring everything is in place to enable operators to do their very best work e.g. the right tools, useful and up to date procedures, effective training etc.
  • Encourage everyone involved, at every level, to learn about the methods employed and their effect upon results. By its very nature this leads to the identification of opportunities for improvement.

In essence, they create structured management systems that are proactive and focus upon problem prevention.

In contrast when results are the only consideration, our approach is typically chaotic and event driven. This leads to a situation where one can really only stand by and assess the aftermath of a problem in the hope of finding containment and corrective action. It’s too late, the horse has bolted.

Open to all

The concept of a process being as asset is primarily a way of thinking and so is universally applicable and open to all. Function and role are not constraining factors.

I have witnessed a spectrum of great examples from a Managing Director reviewing the application of Health and Safety systems, to a Finance Manager tracking the process of month end collation at individual department level, to a self-managed team of operators checking each other’s work against standard procedures.

And of course, it even applies to baking!

Which is why the next time I am left to watch over a Victoria Sandwich sponge whilst in the oven, I shall remind myself to employ this thinking rather than being distracted by the TV. Even though I thought I had done an excellent job of trimming off the burnt bits, it was still very noticeable. Sadly once delivered, an outcome cannot be changed!