In just 6 weeks we fixed the major operational problems left after a major project was implemented leaving the organisation effectively unable to function


The Client's Challenge

The client was a multi-utility Utility that had three months earlier installed a long-awaited Asset management, Geographic Information and Inventory management system. The problem was, despite one brand name consultancy spending 11 months documenting and ‘improving’ the processes; and another brand name firm installing the system—the solution did not enable the business to operate. Everyone was working around the system and consequently the processes were broken.


The end-to-end procure to pay process

This process was repeated for several other processes with similar results.


Imagine if you have waited five long years for “the system” that was going to solve all your problems and then, when it is installed, you find it has made things worse. Processes that used to work no longer work. And the “great white hope” of a system has become the “great white elephant.” How do you move forward, fast? You’ve a business to run.

The starting point was poor. Processes were broken, blame was widespread, trust was scarce and everyone was looking after themselves. Into this environment we were placed to resolve the “Procure-to-pay process”.

We were warned to “Wear protective clothing as there will be blood on the walls!”

Our approach was to lock 23 process participants into a room for a week to resolve the process problems so as to move forward.

We produced a simple ‘strawman’ of the overall process so that we could segment it for analysis purposes. So, after introductions, we discussed and amended the strawman. The scope of the ‘procure to pay’ process was thereby agreed, and already the participants were discussing the overall process, not their particular problems.

The scene had been set.

Next they broke into groups to document exactly how each segment of the process worked today in simple TOP “Flow map” format. All known exceptions and variations were documented by the groups so that we had a complete picture of the existing processes and their problems in a simple flow map format.

Day two was spent going through the current process maps step by step. The value of each step was challenged. “Why are we doing this?” “What is this process trying to achieve?” This was their opportunity to complain, to vent their frustration, and to offer their opinions.

This ‘safety valve’ step was essential for everyone to feel ‘heard’.

During this all-day review of the current process we discovered that some convoluted and operationally disruptive processes were based on false assumptions. Processes that on occasions stopped operations were found to be totally unnecessary. Whole processes were agreed to be discarded.

We also discovered that if the “Fast-track purchasing” process limit was raised from $500 to $1000 (with some extra controls), 89% of the purchases would be catered for allowing focus on the other 11% that represented 98% of the expenditure.

On day three the major changes agreed the previous day were summarized (and sometimes re-debated to obtain full agreement).

Then the groups reassembled to document the revised processes in TOP “Value Map” format. Here the value contribution of every step has to be identified and justified. This identified further steps that did not add any value and could be discarded.

So far no blood. No blame. But a massive amount of trust and understanding – especially as they realized that they all had a vital part to play in the delivery of an efficient and effective end-to-end process.

Day four discussed the new future state value maps. “Will this approach work?” “Is it feasible or does the design of the system, the organization’s policies or some other constraints prevent us improving the process in this way?” The new future state value maps were amended as necessary.

Then the groups identified the business changes required to deliver the new future states using the TOP Change Dependency model. This model helps to identify the interdependencies of changes so that you can trace the likely downstream impacts of, say, a process change on policies, procedures, job roles, information needs, etc. The size, scale and complexity of the required changes were also identified.

We now had a way forward.

On day four we also gave each participant an “Improvement evaluation sheet” where they could secretly score how happy they were with the results-to-date of the Lockdown. These sheets were collected at the end of the day and the results collated overnight.

Day five started with the evaluation scores—especially the “No’s”. “What were people still worried about?” “What did they think would not work?” In most cases their concerns were assuaged and in the other cases actions were agreed to either verify the validity of their concerns  (eg “Does that law actually prohibit this?”) or escalate the required decision to change core policies.

Then the identified changes were discussed to ensure all of the necessary changes were identified, as often key changes can be missed as the group generating the change plan is not aware of the need.

Finally, each group documented the benefits of their improvements, listing the benefits by type (customer, competitive, capability, productivity, financial and risk reduction).

The Results

An amicable cross-organization group then left knowing they had done a great job working together. They had generated 40 future state process maps, seven implementation plans and identified 107 benefits.

Early the next week the first week’s outputs were tidied up and pulled together into a presentation of what had been found, what was proposed, what was involved in delivering the improvements and the likely benefits.

On the Tuesday the whole group reassembled to go through the presentation, agree which elements they personally would present and then had a ‘rehearsal’ at presenting their section. Amendments to the presentation to fit the presenter’s preferred wording and sequence were made.

The next day the group assembled for a final time to present to the executive team. The executive team saw their staff who had been antagonistic to the point of near violence 10 days ago, presenting and supporting each other on the 33 recommendations.

The imprimatur to implement was immediate.

Then, using the TOP Change Planning process, nominated members of the group took their (now structured) list of workshop-generated change activities and started planning their implementation. Weekly each group reassembled to discuss how each ‘change project’ was going. Some projects involved systems changes but others did not. However, some policy and accountability changes were hard to get implemented. But the team ‘owned’ the changes and improvements and they were not going to let these impediments slow them down.

As the facilitators we provided ‘air cover’ to prevent politics intervening and helped to negotiate the ‘hard to understand’ recommended changes to long established practices. Piece by piece the changes were implemented. The system changes were made. The operational processes started working again but this time without unnecessary constraints, processes or policies.

“Blood on the wall” had become a flood of improvements.

Keys To Success

Firstly rules of behaviour were established on day-1. No blame, no insults, no accusations, no interruptions. We policed these rules vigorously.

The focus was immediately shifted from “Who did what?” and “Who was to blame?” to “What are we trying to achieve?” and “How does this process actually work (and why)?” Cross-department accusations become irrelevant, as the process itself was the central focus.

The groups were cross functional and included the ‘subject matter experts’ to maximize the current state understanding and avoid time being wasted investigating unknowns or assumptions.

The tools and techniques used were simple but proven. The staff were shown how to use them and immediately applied them to their processes.


  • “Flow maps” are simple, box-only maps of how the processes work today in ‘swim-lanes’ of who does each step.
  • “Value maps” take this mapping to the next level of detail where the contribution and value of each process step is defined.
  • “Change identification” process uses the TOP Change Dependency Model™ that enables the 15 different types of change to be identified. This immediately ensures a high level of completeness even when done fast with little opportunity to discover additional information.
  • “Benefits identification” process uses the TOP Benefits Funnel™ to enable the teams to quickly identify the customer, competitive, capability, productivity, financial and risk reduction benefits.

Each a simple tool that the staff could immediately learn, adopt and use effectively.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” Leonardo da Vinci.

There were no distractions, no chance for politicking during the process as the team was physically isolated from their peers and pressure groups.

The team relished the improvements that made their life easier. One participant who had “defended to the death” a process that was found to be worthless, personally took on its abolition.

The implementation projects were progressively delivered over the subsequent eight months as the staff, on a part-time basis only, progressively executed their change plans.

The organization commissioned four more ‘lockdowns’ to address the other four major process problems that had been caused or exacerbated by the implementation of the new system.

Using the same approach aggressively opposed staff worked together to define practical improvements that resolved all of the initially identified problems.

Obdurate sections of the organization were overwhelmed by the tenacity and commitment of the implementing staff.

And the organization started to work again. Unnecessary policies, processes, checks and balances were eliminated, system amendments were made to facilitate the changes and the staff got on with their work relieved of their worries.

Why does it work so well?

“Simplicity is the outcome of technical subtlety. It is the goal, not the starting point.” Maurice Saatchi.

This project dealt with an urgent, practical problem—fast—using:

  • Clear, easy to understand and use, simple tools. To solve complex operational problems you don’t need complexity or computerization.
  • An end-to-end process focus. You need to understand ‘why’ you are doing a process before you can focus on ‘how’ you do the process. The staff also understood for the first time how each of them had to play their part for the whole process to succeed.
  • Staff ownership. While we challenged, debated and called out inconsistencies, the staff themselves owned the decisions, the outcomes and the recommendations. Nothing was going to get in their way with the implementation.
  • Speed. The organization did not have four months to fix these problems, they needed a resolution now! Within 15 days the recommendations were being implemented and the improvements were being seen in practice.

Topics: Project Success, Business Simplification, Utility, PowerWater