This is the second in a series of five weekly blogs providing practical advice and tips on undertaking a Process Improvement project in a law firm. Last week, we covered how to successfully define the objectives and scope of a project. This week we cover how to assess the current state of a process.
In order to understand and assess how the process currently operates, initially I would recommend creating end-to-end process maps. These can be created by completing the following steps.
Break the process up into logical sub-processes
So the old adage goes: “How do you eat an Elephant?” Answer: “One bite at a time”.
A number of Process Improvement initiatives fail to be successfully completed or, even, started because the project team are put off by the sheer scale of the task ahead of them. I’ve seen project teams take anywhere up to 18 months to map a series of processes. I’ve also seen my team complete a whole set of end-to-end process map covering an entire service line in a matter of days.
By breaking the process up into sensible “bite-size” chunks, one can make the process much more manageable. In order to do this, it’s important to get the experts who operate the process involved so that the sub-processes are based on realistic process ‘break-points’.
Gather information on how the process operates (Interviews or Workshops)
Whilst procedural manual and work instructions (in either formal or informal format) may already exist, my experience of working with law firms would lead me to surmise that the one true source of knowledge on how a process ACTUALLY works is within the head of the individual actively involved in the process.
Therefore, for any project to be successful the experts (i.e. the lawyers and support staff that do the work) must be involved and you must find a way of translating the (often disparate sources of) knowledge from people’s heads into a joined-up, coherent end-to-end process.
There are practically only two ways of doing this:
1. Conduct one-to-one interviews with individuals involved in each process; or
2. Facilitate a workshop with all individuals involved in the process.
Each of these approaches has pros and cons (which in the interests of brevity, I will go into at a later point).
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to conduct these interviews or workshops successfully. The skills involved in successfully conducting process interviews or workshops are developed over time and come with experience. However, I can provide some practical tips to help keep you on track.
Ultimately, the challenge for the individual conducting this stage of the project is to elicit from the experts how the process actually operates. It is beneficial to use “open questions” such as “Could you explain how this contract is drafted?” Whilst there is no such thing as a wrong answer (or irrelevant response) to this question, it is up to the interviewer to keep the interview on track and keep it moving forward efficiently. In law firms in particular, time is money!
If you have decided to carry out workshops rather than one-to-one interviews (usually in the interests of speed), I would recommend you have some support (i.e. more than one person involved in facilitating the session). It helps to have one person lead the session and one person capture the description of the process as it comes either in notes or directly into process maps on flipcharts. The latter approach helps to seek immediate feedback and validation as to whether you have accurately interpreted the description.
Whilst workshops are extremely efficient and good ways of flushing out differences in opinion, they can take some careful managing and confidence to facilitate them well. That’s not a reason to shy away from them though.
Create process maps to illustrate how the process currently operates
Having carried out process interviews or workshops, you then need to practically document what you’ve heard. There are a myriad of tools and I.T. systems out there to help including specific Business Process Management tools (more on them later too). I favour simplicity over complexity. In my opinion, Microsoft Visio is a very cost-effective Process Mapping tool (with license costs of around £200). However, some people even use Microsoft Excel or Powerpoint to create process maps (which can be laborious compared to Visio).
Ultimately, the tool is less important than the quality of the content.
Decision time. What will your process maps focus on?
Depending on what you are trying to achieve (which you will have defined following the tips in Part 1 – defining objectives and scope), you have a choice over what you decide to focus on within the process map. The options are:
• “Focus on the work” – i.e. create the process map focusing on a particular piece of work flowing through the process e.g. a particular contract or transaction.
• “Focus on the worker” – i.e. create the process map focusing on the activities of the individuals involved in the process e.g. a lawyer, a paralegal, a client.
Both of these approaches have their time and place. For example, you may wish to use the former if you are trying to improve the throughput of work through the system and the latter if you wish to reduce the time that goes on the clock.
The key thing is to be consistent. Pick one and stick with it all the way through a set of process maps. I am still surprised by how many people (even experienced ‘process experts’) still fail to do this. The consequences of this are unclear and confusing map making it very difficult to then use them to communicate the current state to stakeholders or to support the crucial next stage of analysis and benchmark.
As a final tip, I would recommend using cross-functional (or “swim-lane”) flowcharts (particularly if you are “focusing on the worker”) so that you can clearly and easily see all of the various interactions and interconnections between different people, roles, departments or organisations. If done correctly, the process map will clearly show inefficiencies, bottle-necks, duplication of effort and area for improvement.
A means to an end?
It is important to remember that the value of this stage of the project is not just in the creation of the process map(s). In the same way as writing a business plan or mission statement, the value comes in the reflective process of creating it. Some organisations refer to process maps as “learning to see maps” suggesting that the purpose of the approach is to gain some insights about how things actually work.
Get data…. Relevant data.
Up to this point, I have focused on Process Maps as the key means of “assessing the current state”. Whilst they are undoubtedly a valuable tool to complete this stage, they are not enough in isolation. You will want to get a multi-dimensional view of how the current process operates and to do that, you need more than a two-dimensional illustration of the steps within it.
In order to get the other dimensions of insight into the current process, you will need some data. Typical relevant data include:
• Volume (capacity and demand)
• Cost (£ “actual-cost” and time-cost)
• Fee income (£)
• Speed (cycle-time)
• Number of variants / exceptions
• Error rates (Amount of rework or % of right-first-time)
• Process effectiveness (% of value-added activity within a process)
Note: The reliability (and more importantly the relevance) of time-recording within the Practice Management System will vary from service-line to service-line and firm to firm.
“Not everything that can be counted counts and everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”
The quote above, often attributed to Einstein, points out the fact that as humans we sometimes measure things that don’t matter and can’t always monitor the things that really matter.
In my opinion, this phenomenon holds true for law firms. Rather than add to the highly public debate about “billing by the hour” and a preoccupation with billable-hours and utilisation, the more practical point from this post is that, given the people-orientated nature of legal work, it can be very difficult to access the data that really “counts” from secondary data-sources within law firms. It is much easier to do in manufacturing, technology or even retail businesses.
It is, however, so vital that one must try to obtain data (even if it is indicative) from primary data sources or from real-world sampling exercises. In short, if it doesn’t exist, you’ll have to create it.
I hope that this second instalment has been useful. The key messages from this blog are:
• “Assessing the current state” is another vital stage in a Legal Process Improvement project. If you don’t know where you’re starting from, it’s hard to know how and where you need to improve
• This is relatively the most straight-forward stage of the approach, but there are a number of stumbling blocks that you’ll want to avoid (flagged in this post)
• The key outputs from this stage should be learnings and new insights (as well as some quality process maps)
• Remember, that this stage is still just a foundation step in the overall project. If you get to the end of this stage and go no further, you are potentially missing some big benefits
Why not check out the other posts in this series: