Service Design for Government
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runners on starting blocks at a track to represent government performance

Top Three Government Performance Indicators Every Agency Should Measure

The business case for measuring government performance is a consistent focus area for agency leaders, as government agencies are constantly challenged to demonstrate that resources are achieving intended goals and delivering value. To successfully measure agency performance, organizations must establish clear objectives that align to these outcomes.

  • utility (fit for use)
  • warranty (fit for purpose)
  • service delivery (fit for experience)

 

Why Measuring Government Performance Is Important

Government programs exist to deliver specific outcomes in support of a function or mission. For agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, ongoing performance measurement is essential in demonstrating accountability of government resources towards achieving specific outcomes in health, education, disability, and memorial benefits for veterans and their families.

Agencies must continually demonstrate success in this era of unprecedented transparency; the media, watch-dog organizations, and citizens have direct insight into government performance. The public has immediate access through social media to voice complaints and to highlight experiences that were less than satisfactory. Additionally, the media is following “big government” closely and congressional interaction and testimony is being shared as part of the daily news.

As a result of this level of public oversight, leading agencies are reconsidering how they measure and communicate their value directly to customers. As such, government agencies must create a credible brand of being the best at what they do for the best value. Additionally, while it is important to know that the resources were used in accordance with the laws and regulations, it is also critically important to demonstrate that the resources are effective, efficient, and relevant to their intended customers.

Three Key Government Performance Indicators

Considering the current level of scrutiny surrounding governmental organizations, Technical Assent has partnered with numerous organizations to develop metrics platforms using key government performance indicators. In our work at the Department of Defense, we track closure of capability gaps identified on our project baseline in addition to usability. Our most recent efforts have been focused on Veterans Affairs, as VA is laser focused on producing outcomes for veterans, such as healthcare, benefits administration, and memorial services. As part of the VA transformation, however, it is equally important to improve the internal government-to-government (G2G) shared services that enable VA employees to support the mission outcomes.

To achieve the MyVA goal to Improve the Employee Experience, all VA services must mark progress, highlight areas for improvement, and demonstrate areas where the government goals and objectives of the organization are being met and exceeded. These capabilities allow VA’s leadership and stakeholders to make critical decisions that accelerate change and ensure that VA is effectively and efficiently serving American veterans and their families.

Government Performance Indicator 1: Utility

Whether a service has utility is determined by whether it solves a customer’s problem or removes a constraint. For the government, a service has utility if it is relevant to the customer need and aligned with the core mission.

Government Performance Indicator 2: Warranty

Beyond solving the customer’s problem, the value of a service is also measured on its usability. Attributes of warranty include availability, continuity, security, and capacity (enough to meet the demand). The customer defines these performance targets based on their desired quality and perceived risk. In a shared services environment, customers may pay different rates for access to different tiers of service.

Government Performance Indicator 3: Service Delivery

As the utility and warranty of services become commoditized, customer experience plays a bigger role in customers’ perceptions of value. To be clear, the “experience” in this context goes beyond the user experience (UX/UI) of your website (or, for that matter, any one technology channel). This “experience” is the sum of all interactions that a customer has with a provider across all delivery channels throughout the lifetime of that relationship. In a G2G shared service environment, customer experience acknowledges that unsatisfied customers will seek out other alternatives.

 
While all three service attributes contribute to customers’ perceptions of service quality, it is the service delivery that elevates an organization’s brand and demonstrates organizational value and credibility. Providing an authentic customer experience certainly impacts the “what” of a solution and focuses on “how” the service is being delivered as customers learn about, narrow, select, consume, and retire a service. Moreover, effective service delivery can answer the questions such as who are you and what do you do well?

How We Can Help

Technical Assent specializes in improving government performance by optimizing the customer experience. Our Service Optimization Framework generates service solutions in-line with the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) which are measured by their utility, warranty, and service delivery. As a CMMI-SVC organization, we have formalized this capability and successfully applied our approach to identify and model the correct performance measures, analyze the results, and make recommendations for improvements along with celebrating the successes.

picture of team collaboration

Five Tips for a Successful Transition to Self-Managed Teams

by Danielle N. Paula, Technical Assent consultant

Part Three of a three-part series

With 80% of Fortune 1000 companies reportedly now using self-managed teams in an Agile environment, you may be thinking that the traditional top-down, command-and-control organizational hierarchies may become extinct – and with good reason. There are several advantages to employing self-managed teams in an Agile environment over the traditional hierarchy structure including increased employee satisfaction, lower overhead costs, and increased stakeholder buy-in.

While you may have read previous articles about organizations successfully employing self-managed teams, it’s important to note that their success doesn’t happen overnight. There are several hurdles that can stand in your way, not only in making the transition, but also in ensuring that teams are successful once the transition is made. To be successful, you need to be willing to lay the proper foundation and be ready to actively engage throughout the transition and after. Whether you are just starting the transition or are already part of a self-managed team, here are five tips to help set your teams up for success.

1. Make Sure You Are Reorganizing for the Right Reasons

It’s not an uncommon occurrence for a CEO to determine that the company needs to reorganize into self-managed teams without understanding the real motivations behind it. There are lots of studies, anecdotes, and statistics which promote the benefits of self-managed teams like faster time to market, increased profits, and lower overhead. While this may be true, leaders need to set realistic, measurable goals before engaging in a reorganization. You’ll also need to make sure you revisit and reassess these goals often to ensure your teams are always properly aligned.

2. Communicate Early and Often

Ensure that management is involved from the get go. Start talking about the transition and take steps to set expectations. Leave yourself time between announcing the shift to its actual implementation. This will open the door to employee questions and answers, which greatly eases uncertainty (especially among managers who may find themselves taking on different roles in this new structure). If you’ve already made the transition, commit to regular open communication with employees including timely updates of the organization’s goals and visions. It’s extremely important for employees to understand organizational and project goals, as well as the context around it. Create an open-door policy with leaders so that employees can ask clarifying questions and share any frustrations related to working in a self-managed team. This will not only let employees create better work products but also let them know that it is natural to have growing pains. The open communication can also facilitate opportunities for improvements.

3.  Hire a Professional Agile Re-Org Consultant

If you have never been through an organizational transition or feel the need for expert advice to ease the transition, hiring an expert can be invaluable.. It’s inherently natural for employees to fear change. Professional Agile consultants are used to creating and working with self-managed teams. They can help show you and your employees that change isn’t so scary. A consultant can meet with leaders to delve into the “why” and “how” behind the move to self-managed teams. They’ll also be able to facilitate group exercises, focus groups, Q&A sessions, and help draft communications providing a path forward that works for your organization.

4. Use 360-Degree Feedback to Garner Employee Buy-In

Engage all employees in the reorganization process by holding focus groups or discussion panels to help influence the way the teams are created. Also solicit feedback from employees about what they like about their current positions. Ask if it make sense for the teams to be project based, goal based, or even functionally based. Evaluate if there are areas in the organization that lack expertise or support and build them up with the reorganization process. Encourage team members to provide open and honest, constructive feedback to their team members regularly to improve collaboration and work products. Gathering input from employees shows that they are valuable assets to the organization.

Engaging employees in the reorganization process and trusting them to make decisions that would directly impact the organization, communicates that they are valued by the organization. When employees feel valued, they will reciprocate by contributing more to the organization (ex., best work and ideas).

Opower, which I talked about in <Part Two> of this series, used this 360-Degree Feedback approach in a team self-selection process. Originally, they assumed that each team would be assigned one front-end and one back-end developer to carry out the work. When they initially had issues getting the right number of people with the right skills on each team, they asked employees for feedback. Specifically, they asked: “Why did you choose the team you’re on now?” Through this approach, they found that their developers were more interested in growing their knowledge set and learning full-stack development instead of sticking with just front-end or just back-end development. This feedback provided much needed insight into why employees picked their team which ultimately helped further structure the projects teams to meet both the employee and company goals. Furthermore, it increased the employees’ overall satisfaction with the process and the team they ended up with.

5. Educate Employees on Self-Management

There is often a transition period where employees will doubt that they are truly not reporting to a manager and are responsible for their own work. Some employees may have difficulty transitioning from a task-directed environment to the self-managed environment. This applies to all employees no matter their seniority or position within the company. Managers may find themselves in a new role where they are no longer micro-managing the employees and must learn to give up control and trust that they hired smart, talented people to carry out the job that will provide the intended results. Previously task-directed employees will need to now work within a team to define what and how work is done to meet the company goals and objectives. They will also need to make sure they can manage their work priorities on their own without a manager specifically laying it out for them.

Consider holding training sessions with employees to teach them self-managed work best practices. This will give them the power of knowledge and necessary tools to be successful in the new self-managed structure.

Conclusion

Remember that change is not easy and successful self-managed teams are not created overnight. It will take hard work, dedication, and a lot of time to even implement a change let alone ensure it runs efficiently and effectively. Though it can be time consuming, if done correctly, your organization can get back that time and more due to the benefits of self-managed teams like increased efficiency, higher employee satisfaction, and better quality work products. Also know that while you may have some bumps, you are joining many other organizations that have already made the transition and found it greatly successful for not only the organization, but also their employees, and customers.

This article is Part Three of a three-part series.

Part One: Do We Really Need Managers? Making the Case for Self-Managed Teams

Part Two: Are Self-Managed Teams Right for Your Organization?

two people working on design project

Are Self-Managed Teams Right for Your Organization?

by Danielle N. Paula, Technical Assent consultant

Part Two of a three-part series

Last week, we covered the differences between traditionally managed organizations and organizations using self-managed teams. Now, let’s dive deeper into some of the specific benefits of running self-managed teams, as well as some of the disadvantages.

Benefits of Self-Managed Teams

Benefit 1: Increased Employee Satisfaction

Employees who work on self-managed teams report a higher level of job satisfaction than those in task-directed, top-down management models. Self-managed teams promote ownership and direct involvement. In Chuck Blakeman’s TED Talk “The Emerging Work World in the Participation Age” he discusses why self-managed teams improve employee satisfaction:

“…[people] won’t put up with just having a job, stripped of its humanity. They actually want work, not a job, because work is meaningful. A job only pays the bills. In the participation age, people will work because they can make meaning at work, not just money. Self-managed teams [are] one great way to do that.”

Benefit 2: Higher Productivity and Lower Overhead Costs

A Cornell University case study on the economic costs and benefits of self-managed teams found that self-managed teams were able to complete work in 60-70% less time than working in a traditional hierarchy. The study also found significant cost savings on indirect management oversight costs of up to 75%. These types of savings can be applied directly back into the business to fuel its growth. The savings could be used to employ more teams, provide better salaries and benefits, or invested into the expansion of new and innovative products or markets.

Benefit 3: Direct Information Touch Points

Working in self-managed teams in a flat structure encourages the dissemination of information directly from the business leaders to the team. Leaders often speak directly to teams about the organization’s goals and objectives and encourage questions and feedback. Messages that must go through several chains of command are often inflated, deflated, or mischaracterized, ultimately leading to misinformation. Implementing this type of direct communication can decrease the risk of spreading misinformation and reduces the time it takes to travel to employees. Direct communication also provides better contextual clues for the employee. This supports clearer understanding which leads to more informed decision making.

Benefit 4: Stakeholder Buy-In

Self-managed teams focus on turning employees into stakeholders and managers into leaders. Making this conscious transition strengthens employees’ connection to the mission of the organization. For example, at the recent Business Agility Conference, O2 Agility shared their experiment of using the self-selection process to reorganize their self-managed teams at Opower. Employees were asked to assign themselves to the project they wanted to work on most. Not only were all the teams easily formed in one afternoon with all of the skills necessary for execution, but they also found that 40% of participants chose their team because it was what was best for the company, not what was best for themselves. In addition, 88% of participants reported they were satisfied with the team they ended up on and no one said they were dissatisfied.

Benefit 5: Empowerment to Make Decisions

When employees are empowered to make decisions, it can have a direct effect on the organization’s bottom line. In self-managed teams, employees are trusted to use their judgement instead of pushing information up and down a chain of command for approvals. By eliminating the necessity for elevating issues through several management channels, solutions can be implemented more efficiently and effectively.

Fast turnaround can be particularly important in customer service departments. You’ve probably had at least one frustrating call with a customer service call center, where a complaint had to go through several levels of management before a resolution was found. The speed at which a dispute is resolved can directly impact the customer’s perception of the organization and lead to the loss of expansion of its customer base.

As an example, Dave Carroll, a Canadian singer/songwriter, found that after taking a flight on United Airlines that his beloved guitar was broken in transit. United Airlines shuffled his claims requests around for more than six months without providing a resolution. In response, Dave took to YouTube and recorded a trilogy of songs: “United Breaks Guitars”, “United Breaks Guitars 2”, and “United Breaks Guitars 3”.

These three videos combined have over 19 million views on YouTube. Dave Carroll even has a page on his website dedicated to the issue. United eventually contacted Dave and offered to pay him to take down the videos. Imagine the outcome if the United service representative was empowered to resolve the issue when the incident was first reported.

Disadvantages of Self-Managed Teams

While there are lots of benefits to self-managed teams, they are not without their disadvantages. Here are a few.

Disadvantage 1: Employees must be Self-Motivated

The number one assumption an organization must make when adopting self-managed teams is that all employees can and are self-motivated and want to be self-managed. This means that the employee must have the drive and discipline to take on the necessary work without much direction. These types of employees are self-starters that can be trusted to accomplish organization and team goals without much supervision. They need to be comfortable with not having a clearly defined SOP or way forward to complete a task often developing the solution themselves.

While there are plenty of people that have these qualities, there are also plenty without. Organizations will need to carefully evaluate the people they hire to ensure they have these qualities. Additionally, team members should be encouraged to provide 360 feedback on each other’s performance to identify if team members are disengaged or not adequately supporting the team.

Disadvantage 2: Groupthink

Being self-managed can sometimes lead to “groupthink” where team members are at risk of going along with the majority instead of conducting thorough evaluations of proposed plans and solutions. Teams can combat this by encouraging team members to ask “Why?” SEMCO, a successful Brazilian manufacturing company, encourages their employees to fearlessly ask “why?” SEMCO believes that encouraging employees to ask “why?” encourages them to think thoroughly and creatively which leads to the best results for the organization as a whole.

Disadvantage 3: Not Suitable for Large Teams

Self-managed teams work best when they are small. The generally accepted team size usually falls between four and 13 people. Teams don’t work well when there are too many people. This increases bureaucracy and slows down the decision processes. Think about meetings or working groups you’ve participated in, in the past. Did you make well-analyzed decisions more quickly when there were five people or 30 people? The more team members you have the more communication paths are opened. If your organization requires larger teams to come together to make decisions, you may need managerial input to direct and manage the decision process or risk that the large self-managed teams will slow down the process and decrease productivity.

Conclusion

Removing managers and creating self-managed teams within an organization can be a great way to increase employee engagement and increase the organization’s efficiency. While there are disadvantages to this type of organization structure, with the right implementation, the benefits far outweigh them.

Next week, I’ll be covering some tips for making the transition to self-managed teams.

Part One: Do We Really Need Managers? Making the Case for Self-Managed Teams.

human-centered design team working

Do We Really Need Managers? Making the Case for Self-Managed Teams

by Danielle N. Paula, Technical Assent consultant

Organizations don’t need managers and employees don’t want them. This a bold statement, but it’s the way of everyday business at a number high-performing Fortune 1000 companies and was also covered in depth at the recent Business Agility 2017 conference.

The main problem with managers is that having so many levels of management can be extremely inefficient due to the several communication layers and general overhead purpose these managers serve. It’s not only inefficient, it could also be driving away top talent. One well known Gallup Poll found that over 50% of respondents who were seeking new employment positions, left because of their current managers.

Now, there are a few immediate ways to address this issue: (1) continuously train managers to become more efficient and more engaged with their subordinates or (2) get rid of them. In this article, we’ll exploring Option 2.

Multiple layers of management are found in hierarchical organizations. These organizations use a top-down, command-and-control style of management with the C-level suite executives at the top, worker-bees at the bottom, and a lot of layers in between (the management). Some hierarchical organizations organize themselves that way because it’s the default; it’s what everyone is used to. Others may follow McGregor’s Theory X that employees are lazy, don’t want to work, and need a manager hovering over them to ensure work gets completed.

Here at Technical Assent, we employ a relatively flat structure organized around self-managed teams. We operate under the assumption that employees are self-motivated, want to make valuable contributions, and can self-manage their tasks and deliverables to better achieve organizational goals. We are not alone. In a survey of Fortune 1000 companies, 80% reported they are, or plan to, move to self-managed teams.

Though the number of Fortune 1000 companies supporting self-managed teams is large, in the overall spectrum of businesses and organizations, this is not the norm. For example, the largest employer in the U.S., the U.S. Federal Government, still uses a top-down management approach. Additionally, even for companies supporting self-managed teams, the level of implementation varies widely. Some companies may only use self-managed teams for their developers and then assign a manager to oversee several of those small self-managed teams. Others, like SEMCO, don’t set schedules for the manufacturing plant line workers, instead allowing workers to set their own hours.

How Self-Managed Teams Work

Self-managed teams take ownership of the projects and tasks necessary to achieve an agreed upon goal shifting accountability from the manager to the employee. The “when, where, and how” are determined by the self-managed team, not by a manager. Team members are responsible for creating solutions to self-identified problems. They are given the trust and authority to implement necessary solutions to achieve organizational goals without approval from a manager.

This approach simplifies the work process and employees make decisions that directly affect business outcomes. It doesn’t force employees into a mold, which in turn opens the door to more collaboration and creativity.

Instead of relying on specialized functional silos, teams are cross-functional. Team members support each other by allowing each member’s expertise to shine. This increased feeling of being a valued participant encourages empowerment and ownership in their work products, which is not usually seen in top-down structures and can directly impact the success of the business.

This isn’t to say that self-managed teams are always entirely responsible for determining what the goals of the organization are. There is almost always a leader that the employees support (not report to) that is responsible for setting and communicating the strategic and tactical goals of the company. The team members are then given the responsibility and authority to creatively execute and deliver the results, not individual tasks.

When It Makes Sense to Shift to Self-Managed Teams

While many companies are making the switch, self-managed teams may not work for every type of organization, so it is important to understand its advantages and disadvantages before making the leap. I’ll be covering this in further detail in next week’s article. (This article is Part One of a three-part series.)

TECHNICAL ASSENT APPRAISES AT CMMI LEVEL 3 FOR SERVICES 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 15, 2017

Washington, D.C. — Technical Assent, a leading provider of Experience Design, Solution Implementation, and Service Management solutions, announced today that it has been appraised at Level 3 of the CMMI Institute’s Capability Maturity Model Integration for Services (CMMI-SVC)®. The appraisal was performed independently by Williamsburg Process Solutions LLC.

CMMI is a capability improvement framework that provides organizations with the essential elements of effective processes that ultimately improve their performance. Organizations at maturity Level 3 demonstrate processes that are well characterized and understood, and are described in standards, procedures, tools, and methods. The organization’s set of standard processes is established and improved over time.

Technical Assent’s CEO, John DiLuna, noted:

“Program Managers have always relied on us to provide high quality results to their mission and business challenges. With the CMMI-SVC certification, we can provide increased confidence that Technical Assent’s solutions will be delivered consistently and efficiently especially during periods of transition and change”

As government agencies strive to become more service-oriented, government’s customers increasingly demand services that are relevant and deliver better outcomes. Technical Assent uses the practices of human-centered design and principles of CMMI-SVC to focus agencies on what matters most to their customers and reliably deliver those results.

About Technical Assent

Headquartered in Arlington, VA, Technical Assent is a leading provider of Experience Design, Solution Implementation, and Service Management solutions for government agencies. At Technical Assent, we believe government begins at the bottom — with the people it serves. That’s why we explore the customer experience first and use that knowledge to improve systems, processes and service across the organization. Technical Assent, LLC is a Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB). Click here to learn more about Technical Assent’s Service Delivery capabilities.

About CMMI® Institute

CMMI Institute (CMMIInstitute.com) is the global leader in the advancement of best practices in people, process, and technology. The Institute provides the tools and support for organizations to benchmark their capabilities and build maturity by comparing their operations to best practices and identifying performance gaps. For over 25 years, thousands of high-performing organizations in a variety of industries, including aerospace, finance, health services, software, defense, transportation, and telecommunications, have earned a CMMI maturity level rating and proved they are capable business partners and suppliers.

 

customer experience improvement program

Bouncing Back from a Failing Grade in Customer Experience

As kids head back to school this fall, many will hear a familiar lecture reminding them of that last report card before summer and encouraging them to start off this school year on the right foot, creating good habits from Day 1. Nextgov’s Frank Konkel had a similar message for government in his recent interview with Forrester’s Rick Parrish. Forrester Research’s 2016 Customer Experience (CX) Index indicates that federal government agencies were collectively rated has having the worst customer experiences compared with 300+ consumer brands that included underperforming cable TV providers, internet service providers, and airlines. Furthermore, these poor ratings occurred despite the White House’s emphasis on improving customer experience over the past five years.

But the message is not all bleak – Konkel also noted a few bright spots, notably where agencies have demonstrated marked improvements in their CX Index demonstrating “money and resources currently being spent at those organizations is shifting customer perceptions.”

So, as we head back to school, we offer three habits that to focus on to improve customer experience grades in government throughout the year ahead.

Building Good CX Habits

Follow the Outcomes.  The business case for customer experience is about improving the performance of government services. High performing services — whether provided by government or commercially — are measured on how well they help their customers achieve a desired outcome. Just like we scoff at automating bad processes that deliver the wrong output faster, customer experience is another means towards the end of delivering a better customer outcome. Agencies need first be aware of what outcomes their customers are trying to achieve before they build the service to assist them.

Customer Satisfaction Customer Experience.  As Parrish notes, that while many agencies conduct traditional customer satisfaction surveys, they need to better track their customer behavior. Measuring only satisfaction at certain touch points (e.g., directing them to the correct phone number, correcting a problem in an online form, or responding to a phone call within the estimated response window) is insufficient because it does not inform the service provider whether their action contributed to the outcome. Understanding the decisions that customers make throughout their journey, whether to continue or abandon the service, is the key to better performance.  We need to create services where customers continually opt-in to the next step of the journey. This happens when services solve real problems, provide a customer experience that is consistent with American values, and meet customers’ expectations for aspects such as ease of use, availability, reliability, and security.

The Incentives for Better Government Just Aren’t There. One commenter to Konkel’s article noted that government is not incentivized to change because it lacks competition for its services; Government has a monopoly. Essentially this implies that customers have little choice of whether or not to do business with the government. After all, where else can you go for services like food stamps, airport security, or a subsidized home loan? Though this may be a dominant perception within and about government, it is also the most ripe for disruption.  Just as with commercial services, customers perceive a cost of using government services, even when they are being offered for “free”.

Am I sacrificing my privacy by giving up this information?

Who is really going to notice if I don’t pay my taxes?

This isn’t worth it, we will just get by without

It won’t harm anyone if I bypass this security measure

I had to take time off work to stand in this line to vote

These are all examples of customer sentiments measuring the opportunity cost of their alternatives and trying to figure out if its worth it.  When government understands its customers and the value of those other opportunities, it will clearly see the need to deliver a competitive customer experience.

Our team at Technical Assent works with government Program Managers to develop these habits from the start – building services that drive customer outcomes and position government services as the preferred alternative. We have found over and over again that government agencies who focus on their customers first, deliver higher performing services at better value for the taxpayer.

customer experience has a cascading impact like a water droplet in a pond

Part II – How our simple meeting hack succeeded in refreshing executive leaders’ focus on customers

When we left this story a few weeks ago, our protagonist, the senior IT manager, and her team were reviewing a portfolio of IT projects.  Their objective was to recommend, in light of mandatory budget cuts, which projects should be funded and which should be deferred.  She had recognized that the conversation about these projects was overly focused on the impact to the IT organization and the impact to the customer was not being considered. The solution we helped her form was quite simple: hack the existing portfolio dashboard to explicitly identify the customer and describe the mission impact to that customer.

In the time between status meetings, the IT manager spoke to or visited all of the impacted customers. During these meetings, she listened to the mission and business requirements and did not focus on any specific piece of broken equipment.  As anticipated, the results surprised her – some customers’ issues truly impacted their ability to carry out their objective.  Others were similarly impacted, but had identified redundant capability or alternatives that provided a temporary solution. Based on the customer outreach effort, this collective insight could now be factored into the IT portfolio decision.

A week later, the IT manager held her weekly status meeting with the executive leaders of the IT organization, this time using the improved dashboard prototype and sharing the customer insights.  First, the IT manager described the recommended changes to the dashboard and her logic for restructuring it. Before she even dove into the projects themselves, the switch to customer focus had turned to “on” for the most senior executive in the room. By seeing the impact described in the language of his customers, he was immediately reminded of why these decisions mattered.

“the executive officers from each of our customers are going to come over here and hug you for this”

Keep in mind, this team generally considers themselves to be customer-oriented. However, like many of us when we are faced with a challenge, their natural inclination was to create fixes rather than step back and re-frame the challenge around their customers’ needs. This had been the phantom-like problem plaguing the IT manager and her team in their initial round of meetings.

Implied in the executive’s response is that the dashboard itself is now something he would proudly share with his customers. This immediate reaction towards transparency was not something we had anticipated in this experiment, but it is a great outcome. It promotes an honest relationship with their customers and enables the IT manager’s team to further clarify and validate these impact statements with the customers. Furthermore, sharing the dashboard sends a strong message to the customer that their mission support team understands their challenges, understands their equities, and has to make some tough decisions for the good of the service.

The resolution to this situation has been generally positive; in light of some tough mission decisions, the IT manager and her team was able to position the issues transparently and make recommendations that have a measurable impact to the mission outcomes that her customers care about.  It is important to remember that the original context of these conversations were about making difficult recommendations to the CIO about which projects to fund and which to defer.

Putting the decisions in customer terms can make the actual decision-making much harder, but weighing the mission impact to the customer as a key driver of the decision enables leaders to enter into the decision with their eyes open to the consequence of their decisions.

In the end, our simple change in this situation has sparked a change in the right direction allowing this service-oriented team to integrate customer impact and customer insight into decision-making. It also set the initial groundwork for more open and transparent conversations in the future.

customer experience has a cascading impact like a water droplet in a pond

This Simple Meeting Hack Helps a Problem-Solving Team Refocus on Their Customers

The big impact of a small change

At Technical Assent, we constantly emphasize the model of a service-oriented organization. One of the big reasons we focus on being “service oriented” is because these organizations are better attuned to the needs of their customers and aware of the value they deliver each day. With all of the pressures of running a program day-to-day, we tend to get lost trying to put out the daily fires and often lose sight of our work in the context of what’s in the best interest of our customers. This paradox is amplified when an urgent technical problem emerges and the responsible support team must quickly shift gears to address it. Fortunately, we have a simple hack that can really help the leadership team redirect meeting conversations and get the support team rightly focused on the customer.

Yesterday was a perfect example of this. I had the opportunity to talk to a senior IT manager who is part of a leadership team working through some tough issues in their project portfolio. As a result of funding cuts over the last few years, they have regularly reduced the level of service they provide as available funds have been redistributed to higher priority projects. Facing another round of cuts, her team is evaluating a portfolio of projects and making recommendations to several internal service providers and, ultimately, the chief information officer (CIO), about what should be funded and what will have to be deferred. To facilitate the conversation, the IT manager’s team developed a basic dashboard that outlines each project individually and provides leadership with a status and an impact. Very simply, the dashboard looks something like this.

We have all seen something like this projected on a conference room screen, right?  It looks innocuous enough – a simple project description, followed by a red, yellow, green status indicator, and finally, the What’s In It for Me (WIIFM) impact statement.

When the IT manager presented this at the weekly status meeting, she found that the dashboard was driving the wrong conversation among the leadership team. Based on the information provided, the leaders in the room dove right into the merits of different trade-offs in schedule and discussion about which upgrades provided the fastest technology. The IT manager left the meeting frustrated because the focus seemed to be misplaced. Everything was weighed against the impact to the IT organization instead of against the impact on the IT organization’s real customers, who are the crewmembers operating ships performing public safety missions along the Pacific coast. As she explained…

“For example, the impact of the XYZ server not being implemented is not just an increased implementation timeline. It actually has an operational impact to a number of ships who are operating in our area of responsibility right now. Without these upgrades they are not able to check the weather, receive intelligence briefs, or communicate with other partners.”

Could you hack the meeting?

Faced with this scenario, how does one IT manager use her influence to change the tone of the conversation and focus on the service impact to the end customer?

I see this kind of dilemma often with our clients at Technical Assent, so I suggested a simple experiment. The first step was to hack the existing dashboard to be more explicit about who the customer is and how they are impacted by each project. Our minimally viable product (MVP) of the new dashboard looks something like this.

The changes to the spreadsheet are simple; our hypothesis is that by presenting new information to the executive leaders – Customer and Impact to the Customer – the tone of the conversation will change. At first, when presenting information in a new way, we expect there to be some disagreement among the executive leaders about who the real customer is and the source of the mission impact data. Then, we predict that as the executive leaders begin wrestling with the real issues at hand, they will start asking for data that further validates the customer impact. This will force the IT manager and her team to dig deeper – to communicate directly with their customers, to validate the mission impact to the organization, and to recommend alternatives.

We predict that after the first conversation with executive leaders, the shift in focus will take root and will drive the next status meeting. The IT manager’s team will then be focused on describing the outcome that their customers need, and not on a specific technology solution. The more service-oriented team will continue to integrate the customer impact into each of the executive leadership conversations, facilitate decisions about providing a certain level of capability based on the impact to customers, and defend their positions using customer narratives and stories.

But the proof is in the pudding, right?  We will test our hypothesis over the next few meetings with executive leaders, track the discussion, note what questions are asked, and observe how responses are framed in order to see if our simple change is indeed causing a trend in the right direction.

Of course, this is just one way for teams to change the tone of meetings to have a focus on becoming more customer-driven. What are some other recommended starting points that you have seen and have worked well in your organization?

providing results in relevant time

Stop talking about ‘Real Time’; ‘Relevant Time’ is what matters

Everyone wants real-time information, real-time updates, the latest and greatest.  Alerts! Give me alerts!  But you don’t need real-time, and neither does your business (probably).  You need Relevant Time.

Relevant Time is the width of your decision-making cycle – the amount of time between when you make decisions about the same thing (your OODA Loop for any military readers).

If you re-balance your investment portfolio quarterly, relevant time for you in this context is 90 days; you don’t need stock price updates any more often than that.  If you’re in the market for a new house, hopefully your real estate agent told you that new listings hit on Thursdays, so relevant time here is a week.  If you only want to read and write emails once a day, you don’t need alerts – you probably don’t even need to set up the Mail app on your iPhone.  The unpleasant secret: even real time is just very minute relevant time.

Thinking about Relevant Time helps keep you focused on whatever is important to you (vs. the merely urgent), can keep information overload at bay, can save your business money by making sure you don’t over-engineer technology and reporting, and generally helps you make better use of the one thing you can’t get more of.

Fun data point: Google search hits for ‘real time’ vs. ‘relevant time’: 318 million to 1 million.

Disney is a leader of customer experience

Crowds vs. Price: Lean Economics for Disney Tickets

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published an article about The Walt Disney Company considering a change to demand-based ticket pricing for Disneyland and Disney World. Rather than eventually out-pricing middle class families by continuing to raise overall prices, this change could help alleviate the resorts’ unmagical overcrowding through lower priced tickets during off-peak days.

According to author Ben Fritz, Disney will be surveying previous visitors this week to gauge their reactions to different variable-pricing options.  Though I have not visited either resort in the past few years and will not be among the surveyed, I find the situation intriguing.

Chris Bobbitt, Technical Assent Vice President, commented that this is a good example of Lean management and economics working in tandem.  Disney is an organization that understands its capacity to deliver the experience that it wants, what it costs to do that, what the limits are, and trying to manage demand around that capacity.

Beyond the basic survey questions, I would be curious to know how the behavior of visitors changes on the slow days, or how people might use the park differently, such as use of restaurants and rides.  Further, it would be interesting to see the profiles of the types of people who would take advantage of demand-based pricing.  Are they people who live within driving distance of the resort?  People who don’t have school-aged children?  People who pull kids out of school for an annual trip to California or Florida?

There have been several high-profile cases in the news lately of backlash against service businesses that have use demand-based pricing (e.g., Uber) and one important consideration is those who have access to the service on a pricing model other than pure supply-demand pricing (e.g., senior tickets at the movies, educator discounts).

From a personal perspective as one of the many who does not live within day-trip distance of one of the resorts, going to Disneyland or Disney World involves the choice of dealing with the infuriating crowds during times when my children are not in school or pulling my children out of school during non-peak times.  A more affordable ticket is certainly more incentive to make the latter decision and in consideration of this, I think it would be fantastic if this child-oriented company would provide a special service on non-peak days such as education events, science experiments at the parks, or homework hour with Mickey.

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