Can you really have your cake and eat it too?

I had the good fortune to recently spend time with 80 IT services business owners at a peer group meeting.  These are sharp business people that are all striving to run great businesses.  All businesses are hard to run, there are unique and difficult challenges in every business and industry.  Some are harder than others and the IT services business is one of them.  To compound all of the “normal” business challenges (sales, profitability, cash flow, staffing, meetings expectations, etc), in the IT services industry, the core products and services that are delivered are in constant flux and are notoriously unstable.  Success in this industry comes from creating reliability and predictability around technology despite the challenges.

As our groups met over the course of the week, the topic around how to build and maintain this reliability and predictability, both in their service to their clients as well as inside their own business, was a running theme.  In my experience running an IT services business for 25 years, the key to this journey (there is no destination, just waypoints) is a concept I took from one of my favorite books, The Phoenix Project, to “Standardize Recurring Work”.  What this means is to take all the repeated task, create a process around how to perform them, train everyone on them, and organize the work to utilize them.  Simple, right?

Like most things, it is simple in concept yet difficult to execute.  In my work with IT service providers, I see frustration and lack of progress around this concept.  There are two key areas which I observe get in the way of people making progress.  The first is they make the initial process design its own activity and too difficult.  The second is that they don’t manage their workflow to effectively (and in many cases not at all) use the process each and every time (see another of my favorite books, The Checklist Manifesto).

So here is my recommendation around making progress on this concept.  Identify recurring tasks as part of the basic management process (both internally on business activities and in service delivery to clients).  Have the most qualified person perform the activity at the next opportunity and create an outline as they go.  This does add a little time to the task, but the benefits greatly outweigh the investment.  It typically takes 2 or 3 times through the process to refine it enough for general consumption.  Organize these processes into a simple system that everyone has access to and understanding.  Now comes the discipline and culture part, manage the work so that the processes are used each and every time they are performed.  Even the most experienced people need to use and follow the process EVERY TIME.

There is one more piece.  Things change, parts are missed, and inevitably the process needs to be tweaked.  The key to keeping processes alive and a part of the culture is to constantly be updating them.  I call this iteration (thanks Stuart).  By constantly adjusting these processes to changes and/or reworking issues that arise, these processes will continue to mature and stay current.

If an organization is able to implement, organize, and manage this concept, a few things happen.

  • The work is able to be performed by less capable resources which reduces demand on the more capable people who are usually constraints to the work flow.
  • The work is better able to be managed and spread out in a more proactive and orderly fashion.
  • The work quality improves because it is always done the same way each and every time.

All of this leads to an organization that has fewer reactive issues, can leverage lower cost resources, AND create better results.  Talk about having your cake and eating it too.