Critical process testing: Both expensive and cheap.

How do you perform critical process testing? Critical processes are sensitive to any failure, not just the major ones we tend to worry about most. When your products get out into the real world, they encounter a mix of simple, complex and very complex environments. Likewise, they are often used in a mix of simple, complex and highly integrated workflows.

“Any failure” is often an easily overlooked, simple little environmental thing. These little things didn’t cross someone’s mind early enough in the design, creation, production and testing processes. The simplest oversight or miscalculation about the nature of environments can easily derail a complex product.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

A rather disconcerting programming-related comment I’ve heard for decades is “Works on my machine”, otherwise known as “WOMM”. In context, the full comment might be “I tested the program and it works fine on my machine.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean anything. As Mike Tyson has said, “Everyone had a plan until I hit them.” Likewise, every program has been “tested” until it has been deployed.

A WOMM comment implies that the program wasn’t tested in an environment more complex than the one used to create it. In other words, testing wasn’t anywhere near as comprehensive as it should have been.

Don’t be so quick to think that your shop is immune to this simply because my example refers to software. A marketing process or sales process is just as likely to suffer from a lack of proper testing. This is the classic “Can’t see the forest for the trees” situation. Those creating your products are often focused too close to the product’s development to truly understand how it is normally and properly used in the field.

Management has a testing responsibility too

Not understanding how your products and services are used in the field is a disadvantage for your creative team. A frequent problem with all testing (not just critical process testing) is that it occurs too close to the environment used to develop the process. I’ve mentioned that I often proofread a written piece by reading it aloud. I do this because the use of a second media reveals obvious problems hidden by familiarity with a piece. Adding environments to your testing process is a similar tactic.

An instrumental part of your testing is making sure that the shifts in environment are properly covered. If your teams aren’t exposed to the reality of the environments where your products and services are used, it’s more difficult to take them seriously – much less know those environments even exist.

Making this happen is management’s responsibility. Allowing your creative team to spend the money and time to experience the real world environment where their products are used is huge. Taking a step beyond that to allow time for testing in real world scenarios and environments will pay huge dividends. These investments pay off in both product quality, and with the vision of your creative team being more in touch with your clients’ reality.

Whose responsibility is multi-environment critical process testing?

Your creative types (programmers, engineers, etc) may feel the duty of testing on a broad range of environments falls entirely to your quality control team. After all, your quality control team is usually tasked with a mix of testing new changes and testing for regressions (ie: new problems created in existing functionality) across many different environments.

That might seem the same job as developing in and for multiple environments, but it isn’t. When complex environments are involved, your programmers, engineers or other creative folks might often think their time is too valuable to spend creating and testing on a number of different environments. They have a point, but that doesn’t mean their development has to occur in the simplest environment possible. Left untreated, product creation will occur on the systems and tools closest and most familiar to the creative team. This leads to WOMM but also to designs that don’t reflect the reality of the environments where your creations are actually used.

The real world is far more complex any single programmer or engineer’s work environment. If you aren’t providing a range of ready to use work environments for them, the natural thing is for them to use the tools that are already available. This isn’t ideal for them or for your clients.

Think about and invest in your creative people and critical testing process: Expose them to reality.

When the norm is to get along, being a jerk really stands out

Cast Away
Creative Commons License photo credit: Gonzalo Baeza Hernández

Today’s guest post is focused on the web, software operations, deployment and geeky stuff like that, BUT…

BUT…if you filter the geekspeak out of it, it applies *directly* to just about every other team / process situation, in almost every workplace.

The core message: the difference between speed of recovery from a failure and time between failures, and what that means to your team, your business culture and your work processes.

The slideshow at the end is really great stuff. Again, don’t get too focused on the geeky part, because the underlying concepts are just as valuable to you, no matter what you do.

Thanks to Fraser Speirs for making note of it (in his case, in the iPad + education context). If you’re into the impact of iPad use or technology’s impact in education, Fraser is a great one to follow on Twitter.

The subject of this post? It comes from the slideshow.

PS: The Jeep video has a number of lessons of its own. I’ll talk about that later this week.

Changes and Clipboards

While the world wrings its hands over the tax implications of LeBron James’ move to Miami, the rest of us didn’t even look up.

We’re working hard to create (or advance the progress of) our next big thing.

Meanwhile, the economy stumbles forward in some ways, races in others, and limps in still others. Change, both for the better and the worse.

Now is the time to take a look at all the processes in your business and see what can be eliminated (presumably not service, unless people don’t want it), what can be fine-tuned and what needs to be added.

Put a fine chamois on that

Even here at business process improvement’s global headquarters (or something like that), I can find things that need to be systemized or further refined.

For example, I noticed that some of the things I do didn’t have enough of a feedback loop in them. Sure, I ask but I really hadn’t formalized it into a system that *anyone* could use (even me before coffee). As a result, I’ve added a feedback loop in after every coaching session.

I realize that I needed to automate some additional parts of my follow up timeline by creating some tools to talk to QuickBooks and produce email, letters and a checklist of stuff for me to do based on recent sales, expirations of a period of time since a last sale (such as a coaching session), and so on.

Naturally, this is being pushed to my Google Calendar, so I get appropriately nagged by smartphone, iTouch and/or Things.

But you’re a lone eagle

Why did I do all that for a one dude office? Because things (lower case) get forgotten or fall between the cracks, no matter how big or small a business is. Putting these tools in place makes sure that I touch all the bases after hitting that home run.

Why is that important? Because it’s easy for the massively polished sales forces of organizations like Chet Holmes’ (who produces really good sales training materials) and George S. May (etc) to slip in under the radar and try to swipe a client from me. Or 10.

The same thing can happen to you. It’s easy to attract a local small business’ business until you goof up and drop the ball.

Clipboards

When I walk into a business and see 2 dozen yellow pads on clipboards hanging from a matrix of nails on the wall, I know there are balls being dropped.

I know it because those clipboards don’t scream at people who walk by and say “Dude, you haven’t called the customer on this page and told them that their order was delayed because it was damaged during shipment.”

Automated process management systems, even simple ones that “talk” to QuickBooks, can do that. At the very least, if you prefer a human touch (recommended), they will remind you and your staff to follow up (and tell you why). Better that you call before it was due and share the bad news now vs. sharing it 2 weeks after the promised delivery date.

That’s one way that the young whippersnapper (who is 52 and freshly laid off) gets in the door on you because they are more attentive, more timely and they follow up when it makes sense.

Kudos to them if they are on the ball rather than you. They’re hungry.

As long as they don’t forget as their business matures and the client list grows, you’re fighting a tough battle to supplant them.

Meanwhile, you’re fighting all those battles and dealing with inefficient business processes, it makes it that much harder to you (and/or your team, if you have one) to create that next big thing that’s going to be your Hank, LeBron, Junior or Martha.

Speaking of that big thing

You *are* working on or trying to advance your next big thing, right? You aren’t waiting for the economy to “turn”, I hope. Your next big thing is part of what produces that turn. If you’re too busy playing customer service Whack-a-Mole with a wall of clipboards, the time to create that next big thing is hard to find.

Is there something that needs some work? Put your Mark hat on. What could use a little chamois (or even a Sham-wow) to polish it up a bit?

How do you welcome them?

We’ve all been there.

You mosey (at least I do) into a doctor’s office for the first time and the experience is practically identical to almost every other first visit to almost every other doctor’s office.

You get handed a clipboard of paper forms to fill out, as if they don’t know you from Adam. Yet you have an appointment, so they already know your name and at least some (if not all) of your contact info.

The forms usually require that you repeat yourself, filling out the same contact, insurance and referral info over and over again because the office’s intake process that hasn’t been examined for efficiency, functionality or intelligence. In many cases, the forms are copies of copies of copies as if no one has a clue where the original is.

The process almost always seems to make you feel as if your time is worth nothing – and in fact, as if theirs isn’t worth all that much either.

Intake Process?

That’s what they call what happens to you when you enter a doctor’s office – you go through their “intake process”. Maybe if they called it “New Patient Welcome”, it might become a more patient-friendly, efficient, intelligent process that becomes a(nother) competitive edge for them.

It isn’t just about the doctors though.

You’ll find a similar situation when being “welcomed” to many service businesses. In those cases, the business hasn’t gone to the trouble to transform their “first impression process” from the lowest common denominator to “welcoming, efficient (cheaper, more accurate, time-saving) and intelligent”.

As a result, new customers experience the same process as a customer who has been coming there for 20 years. Not necessarily a positive thing.

What really stands out is the process at a business that has studied what they do, why they do it and made (often minor) changes to streamline the process.

You may have seen some of those. Some offices, usually those of orthodontists or chiropractors, offer a completely different front office patient experience. The reason is that the “practice management” industry is better at getting into their offices than those of other specialties. The best practice management firms excel in making the processes of medical/dental practices more welcoming, efficient, intelligent and yes, profitable.

Most doctors and dentists (and their office managers) could learn a thing or twenty simply by making a friend of a local chiro or orthodontist and sitting in their office, observing what happens when a new patient comes in.

Yes, I said a doctor’s office could learn from a chiropractor’s office. Get over the AMA vs. chiro religious argument for a moment, please.

Don’t be the LCD

Most intakes are at the lowest common denominator. If you are going to stand out, you have to do things differently better and *constantly* be on the lookout for ways to improve. Not just the care/service you deliver, but how you deliver it.

While I realize that there are some legal hoops to leap through (HIPAA, for example), when I am referred from one doctor to the next and the originating doctor’s office actually makes an appointment for me, we’ve already crossed a line.

Upon referral, there is zero good reason (including HIPAA, unless you’re lazy) that I should have to sit down and fill out forms that contain contact, emergency, insurance and holy cow, which doctor’s office referred me (remember, they made the appointment for me). Likewise, I shouldn’t have to write that info multiple times on different pieces of paper.

That leaves me open to making mistakes, introducing errors from my horrid penmanship, while creating unnecessary work of your staff, since they’ll have to interpret my hieroglyphics and enter the info into the office computer (once again introducing opportunity for errors).

I’m not talking about putting the Fed’s Universal Health Care Data Chip in my head. I’m talking about streamlining processes and creating efficiency – and yes, within the bounds of the law.

Waste

As you might have guessed, I had this joyous experience recently.

After the initial paperwork lovefest, I was pleased to see a tablet pc used to get a “reservation” started for day surgery (nothing serious, relax folks), but disappointed to find that the doctor had been nailed for $30K for the tablet system. Despite that price tag, it still didn’t communicate directly with the hospital that was so close to his office, I could peg the day surgery front door with a baseball from his parking lot.

Doc sounded confident that process of integrating with hospital systems was underway and I hope he’s right. At the time, it seemed like a waste to fill out a form on a tablet pc and then print it out and walk it across the street where someone else will likely scan it and/or re-type the info yet another time.

Can you say increased health care costs? Yes, I thought you could.

Be Welcoming

While few probably have sympathy for the medical industry because of the “class warfare training” we get from the media, this isn’t just about the medical business.

Can you remember the last time you walked through your business’ intake process and experienced what your patients (clients) deal with? Even if you change oil in 19 minutes or less, you still have an intake process.

I’ve found businesses doing things because of the ways things had to happen back in the days of mimeograph machines, or because of the limitations of 1990s-era fax quality.

Why are we even talking about such things? Neither should be a barrier to improving processes today.

How To Fix It

Your goals: Get your work done efficiently and intelligently. Send me home in a frame of mind that has me unable to stop talking to my friends and family about something as mundane (yet “Wow”) as a doctor’s office visit.