Among the greatest challenges in successfully helping clients is the process of quickly learning how they operate and where they believe their problems lay, (even if they are wrong). My late father was fond of saying, “It pretty hard to sell a solution to the man who doesn’t know he has a problem yet.” He was right.

My feeling is that everyone has their own tribal story about how their little part of the world operates and will be more that happy to share if only asked. It may not be accurate, it may not even be true, but it’s their story. As a guide leading people on the way to process improvement, I believe these stories when combined frame the real issues facing the organization. I listen. Usually the truth is in there…somewhere.

In the old management textbooks, they called this idea, “Management by wandering around”, although that really doesn’t capture it well enough. It’s not enough to simple stroll randomly and asking people questions. It needs focus. The Japanese have a phrase for this process of learning what’s really going on. They call it “Gemba Genchi Genbutsu” or very roughly translated “go and see the place where things are happening”. It is actually one of the most enjoyable parts of working with clients. More on that in future post.

Before I can start getting to the fun part of a new project, there is a critical first step that can’t be ignored. What is the client’s perceived scope for the work?

When meeting with new business clients, I ask them to go to where their perceptions tell them the key issues are. I gather enough initial information from them to quantify my own perception of what they believe and then repeat it back to them, sometimes several times until we can agree. Then we right it down and affirm it a final time. Only when we are all in agreement, can I go back to the Gemba.

Note that this does not mean that the scope is permanently set in stone. Ideas change; refinements occur; circumstances arise. All of these situations can change the initial scope. Guess what! That’s continuous improvement. We just need waypoints so we know where we’ve been before we set the next new direction. It is worth pointing out that what is achieved in scope definition is similar in many ways to the “user story” from Agile methodology, the “current condition” in Improvement Katas, and the “current state” in Value Stream Mapping. This will also be a topic for a future post.

Until then enjoy and have a great day.

Article by Chris Redgrave

Chief Improvement Officer (and owner) of IMPROVE!

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