Developing mechanisms and turning them into culture

Have you ever been in a situation where you discovered a problem, found the root cause after some investigation, determined corrective actions, and fixed the issue – only to see the same or a similar problem creep up again a few weeks later?

What happened? You fixed the problem, but you didn’t make the learning and fix a part of your operations moving forward. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the next issue at hand and thus not turning the fix or change into sustained improvement.

Create a mechanism

The way to make a change sustained is to create a mechanism.

Mechanisms can be many things: an updated process description, a recurring reminder on your calendar, a check-in meeting cadence with set agenda topics, or a scheduled report that you review on a regular basis.

The important common quality of all of those is that they remind you to think about the previous problem, its fix, and future prevention on a regular basis. Each of those mechanisms ingrains the learning into your operational processes and memory. They make it stick.

For example, if you want to make sure that system changes that impact multiple teams are reliably communicated to everyone, you cannot just send out an email to all groups and tell them to please do so in the future. That email will stick in their memory for about a week – if you are lucky. Instead, if you have a recurring meeting with that stakeholder group, you should make it a standing agenda item for those meetings to check for any planned changes that need to be communicated. That way, you transformed the one-off issue, fix, and learning into a repeatable process. You change the operations – and eventually the thinking – of the team.

If you want something to stick, you must develop a mechanism for it.

From mechanisms to culture

While a mechanism will help you achieve the desired outcome, it is not where you want to end up.

Mechanisms ensure that things get done the right way. However, they are also crutches for doing the right thing. Mechanisms require you to handhold and micromanage a specific behavior because it is not yet the natural behavior of the group.

You really want to achieve that the behavior becomes natural for the group and doesn’t need constant reminder through the mechanism. You want to achieve culture change.

Culture doesn’t change because you tell it to – culture changes through repetition, role modeling, and shared expectations. However, mechanisms can help you change the culture as they provide repetition (muscle memory) and remind everyone that a certain behavior is important (expectation setting). Over time mechanisms can evolve into culture.

A word of caution: think carefully about what your organizational priorities are and what you want to focus on. If everything becomes a mechanism, nothing matters at all. I’ve been in organizations where we had so many mechanisms that everyone lost track. In the end, none of them mattered, and their utility evaporated.

If you never make it to culture change, if you don’t change thinking, if you don’t role model the right behavior, you will spend a lot of time and energy to make sure the right things happen (aka micro-management).

Culture is the end goal. Mechanisms only compensate for culture.


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A path to continuous process improvement

Every process can be improved! Every process!

It does take energy and time to inspect a process. You might need to overcome inertia (“that’s how we do it”). But it will pay off in the long run!!

It’s important to remind ourselves that process improvement is not a one-time thing; instead, it requires continuous reflection and ongoing critical assessment.

There are many different models, frameworks, and visualizations on process improvement. You can even earn martial-arts-themed belts in some (loving and practicing martial arts myself, I always found that silly, but that’s just me). The key point for all of them is never to stop critically looking at your processes and systems and to ask yourself how you can improve them constantly. What can you do to make the experience better for your customers? How can you simplify the workflow to make it easier for yourself? How can you make the overall system more efficient to reduce total operational costs?

If you want to get started on simplifying your processes, I would (strongly) recommend doing the following:

  1. Start with documentation! – You don’t need to make this a scary huge project that you hope to never get to. Instead, just write down what you do, as you do it. Often you will have something to copy from to further lower the barrier – an email that you sent to the team, meeting notes, a brainstorming document, or your own mindmap. Take that content as the starting point for your documentation. Bonus points if you put your documentation somewhere, where people can find it. Simple documentation beats no documentation every single time!
  2. Audit and reflect critically – Look at what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Ask yourself if all steps are necessary, or if some of them could be changed and simplified. Ask yourself if the customer experience is the greatest it could be. Think of customers as everyone that interacts with the process – true customers, your partners, and supporting resources. Step back and remove yourself from the process and your emotional attachment to it and take a hard look at what doesn’t make sense. Ask your customers what they think you should do differently, ask them what they like and don’t like about the process. In agile, we call this “doing a retro”.
  3. Tweak and test – Try a new process improvement and see how it works. Is it better than what you had before? If so, keep it and keep going. If not, revert back. Try lots of different things and observe how they fare in comparison. Make small tests before you make a big change for everyone. Keep what works, discard what doesn’t. If you want to be fancy and show off, call it “experimentation”.
  4. Update your documentation – Don’t forget this step! In step 1), you spent the time and energy to document what you had before. As you make changes to your SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), also update your documentation to keep it fresh. Few things suck more than out of date documentation.
  5. Simplicity drives adoption – And here is my master rule for all processes: Keep it simple! The simpler, the better. The simpler, the more likely it is that your process will get adopted and followed consistently over time.

Things can always be improved. We might not have gotten it perfectly right the first time, circumstances might have changed (e.g. resourcing constraints), capabilities might have changed (e.g. technology advancements), or certain aspects of what you did before might just not be necessary anymore.

Everything can be improved. I’ve yet to encounter a perfect process or system. Take the time to reflect on what processes you can improve or help to be improved!


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Working smarter: Process optimization

Question: What do you do when the work piles up and demands keep growing? How do the tough get going when the going gets tough?

Answer: You make things easier and think about creative ways to do things differently.

We’ve all seen this plenty since COVID hit us: we needed to do more with less time. Multiple projects, frequent (necessary) changes, juggling priorities at work and home, days that don’t seem to have enough hours to get everything under control and done.

Up to some time, we can compensate by working harder, but that only scales so far. After that, we need to think about how we can change what we do, how we can work differently. The old “work smarter, not harder” has been bastardized too often, so I’m hesitating to mention it, but fundamentally it hits the point.

Where this becomes challenging is when we are already overworked and don’t think we have time to pause and revisit how we are doing things. We have to! Only by investing in root causes and solving them will we get ourselves out of a potentially vicious cycle in the future.

Of course, it’s better to avoid that conundrum from the beginning. That’s where continuous process improvement comes in. The basic idea is that no process is perfect, and no process should remain static. Instead, we should always make it a point to observe (Identify) how we are doing things, developing hypothesis for how we could make things easier (Plan), and then try out those changes (Execute) and observe the impact (Review). This should never change – there is no perfect process. Ever. Even if we found the perfect process, circumstances would change and make it suboptimal over time.

It’s critical to review how we are doing things regularly and to search for ways to do things more simply.

Pro tip: often we are blind to inefficiencies and waste in our own processes as we are so used to them. In that case, it’s useful to either ask an outsider about their opinions (bonus points if you ask the customers of your process!) or to do a simple process mapping and ask yourself critically what the true purpose and value of every single step is. Often you will find that a step was introduced to meet a past requirement or constraint that doesn’t exist anymore.

If you want to get the best insight on where your process needs improvement – ask your customers!

When we identify such opportunities, we need to ensure to carve out the time to invest in those improvements.

Carve out the time to improve your processes. Invest in your future. Compounding interests will pay you back big time.

Btw, the official name for this is Continuous Process Improvement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continual_improvement_process).


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Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.