Chronicles of a waste engineer

While change can take many forms, it doesn’t have to be a “big-ticket” item to make a real difference to performance. It is more important to make the improvements manageable and take a staged approach that also celebrates success along the way. By Liesa Hurn.

While many of us are embracing 2022 with gusto, and resisting the urge to look back on the past two years plagued by the pandemic, we all know two things are inevitable: change and transformation.
We’re operating in an environment that’s rapidly evolving and at a pace that’s never been seen before. We are challenged to think more laterally, reminded to stay relevant, keep flexible and be nimble to meet the ever-demanding needs of staff, customers, shareholders and suppliers.
To be competitive, profitable and successful, I believe businesses must assess the efficiency of all areas of their operations. It’s here that change management comes into its own, discovering and collecting organisational “waste” so that stagnant and ineffective systems and processes can be removed or refreshed.
Here are my top six tips for reducing waste in your organisation and improving performance:
1. Be in it for the long haul
 In my 30+ years’ experience, I’ve learned it pays to pause, reflect, and regroup, as well as resist the urge to jump right in and cut corners. Avoid adopting a ‘pick and mix’ approach by pulling one lever and then switching to try another. Sure, you might see a lift in performance, but short-term fixes may only deliver a small spike over a brief timeframe. This approach isn’t sustainable and will likely slow you down as you get caught “in the weeds”.
I recommend a staged approach: a strategic changemaker gets to the nub of the problem, devises a solution, plans and embeds incremental improvements that can be applied to all areas of the business concurrently over time. Doing this leads to smarter inputs and greater outcomes.
In the long term, you’ll speed up the rate of continuous improvement that can be realised and achieved.
2. Don’t underestimate a hidden gem
Often the least visible and, let’s face it, less exciting forms of change associated with reducing waste are incremental and operational. These relate to process or system improvements which can happen at a divisional level and over longer periods of time.
Improvement begins with a deep understanding of what, why and how something is happening and identifying improvements with less cost, effort, and time, while the delivery happens incrementally – sometimes in parallel. As these initiatives are often classified as ‘below the line’ or BAU project deliverables, the impact of this change is usually misunderstood, underestimated or goes unnoticed.
Sometimes waste can be disguised as “just how things are done”: repetition of tasks, duplication of effort across departments, manual or time-consuming processes, and tasks susceptible to human error are common forms of waste.
When done well, significant improvements can be made that add value and increase a business’s bottom line. These are hidden gems that, once buffed and polished, play a huge role in optimising and enhancing an organisation’s performance and lead to:
•    Improved customer and employee experience.
•    Reduced customer churn.
•    New customer growth.
•    Less effort and duplication.
•    Increased productivity.
•    Effective and efficient processes and systems.
Taking on a new area of responsibility leading a team tasked with marketing a high-profile organisation, I observed how they worked together and with others across the business to develop and deliver initiatives. I saw a clear lack of structure and strategic planning unaddressed by all members of the team.
Bringing a fresh perspective, I was able to recognise hidden gems and opportunities for a management overhaul. Revamping their operations, together we established roles and responsibilities, tasks and key channels, practical processes and reporting, twice weekly stand-ups and proactive internal communications. In two short weeks we decreased duplication of effort, increased productivity, and improved their quality of work.

3. It’s a collective effort
Make it everyone’s business to understand, identify and embrace incremental and operational change. From front-line staff to back-office workers, team leads to managers and executives, every team member can make a difference. My advice is:
•    Build into team members’ KPIs ‘waste elimination metrics’ based on improved business performance.
•    Set up squads of subject matter experts from across the business dedicated to spotting waste and removing it by prioritising what will make the biggest difference.
•    Reward people for their efforts so there’s ongoing commitment to making gains stick and focusing on continuous improvement.

4. Nothing ventured nothing gained
I was once tasked to introduce an acquisition campaign because the business wanted to attract more customers.  I asked about conversion and retention rates from previous campaigns and learned that, on average, 40 percent of onboarded customers left within the first 90 days.
This was considered normal despite the costs, effort, resources and time required by customers and staff to do business together.
Asking the right questions and measuring and analysing trends, I discovered the root cause of the problem: customer payment details were being incorrectly captured in the system at point of sale.
With no controls in place to flag incorrect entries, the human error went unnoticed. This resulted in a chain reaction across the business, placing extra and unnecessary effort, time and cost on other departments to recover and retain the customer. Having identified the problem, additional training and quality controls were put in place with front line staff.
The upside? A better customer experience, reduced churn, growth, less effort, duplication and waste, improved processes and systems and an increase in revenue.

5. Keep your eyes peeled for blind spots
On another occasion, an organisation engaged me to build a high-performing team following a restructure and to educate stakeholders about the important role this team played in helping them achieve their business goals.  
I met with internal stakeholders to understand what their current perceptions and future needs were from this team. All factors pointed to waste; inconsistent engagement, non-standardisation of processes, duplication of effort, and no controls; resulting in reduced productivity.
It was evident there was confusion across the business about how things get done, and a need to build the credibility and trust in the new team’s ability to recommend the best outcome and deliver the right result. Stakeholders wanted to see ‘what good looked like’ outside of just seeing a new team.
Without taking the time to speak with stakeholders and ask questions, I would have missed this blind spot that could have set a new team up to fail.

6. Out with the old, in with the new
More recently, I worked with a company which used several Excel spreadsheets, Google and Word documents to record, track, forecast and report on organisational performance. It required numerous manual entries, repetition, and duplication of effort. The organisation continued to use it because this system had been in place for some time and was familiar to its team.
Weekly and monthly tasks were time consuming and prone to human error. There was duplication of effort and cross-over of information between documents.
The business was growing and fast. They knew they needed to make a change. Being new and bringing a different skillset, I was able to help find an off the shelf automated solution that delivered the right result. In doing so, time, effort and cost would be at least halved, resulting in the team having more time to focus on the things that matter most.
Organisational change provides a promise of innovation, improvement, and impact. While change can take many forms, it doesn’t have to be a “big-ticket” item to make a real difference to performance. More important, is making the improvements manageable and taking a staged approach that also celebrates success along the way.
In my experience, a key consideration is how everyone in the organisation can contribute. Make it clear how their roles will be enriched with the removal of waste, and they’ll be more open to change.
Utilise a holistic approach and look for quick wins (the low hanging fruit), mid-term gains, and long-term success to work towards. Ask yourself what, why, and how, to truly understand the change at hand.
Finally, pause and take a step back, keep your eyes peeled for opportunities, and don’t be afraid of removing the waste. As they say, out with the old, and in with the new.  

Liesa Hurn is a change management specialist and executive director at Anthem.

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