What did NTEN member Keisha Carr learn in 2018? Step one of process improvement: document it. Image: Creative Commons; geralt.
December 19, 2018

My 2018 tech lesson: how to make process improvement stick

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Throughout 2018, I was part of what I thought would be a simple technology shift. A mere location switch for some files, I was told. Surely this project would be quick and easy, right? It was neither.

This “simple” change turned into months of discussions that often had nothing to do with the capabilities or design of the technology being used. That was when I learned that a request for technology change is sometimes, in actuality, a process improvement project in disguise.

Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Every tool is intractably tied to the people who have to use it and the process that it facilitates. The newest, fastest, most intuitive technology won’t help your nonprofit if no one knows how to leverage it. Success is a combination of people, process, and technology working together.

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.
– Bill Gates

Here are some tips I learned this year to bring process and people into your technology projects:

1. Document the process

This may seem painfully obvious, but sometimes the key to process improvement is really process alignment. People may have vastly different ideas about what the current process is and will then end up having different ideas about what the technology will do. By writing down the process on the front end, you can ensure the technology will do what it needs—and is intended—to do. You can point to the workflow and ask, “Who does this? A person? Technology?” Plus, it is much easier to adjust a handwritten flowchart than it is to redo code.

2. Make the process easy

If you want employees to use technology, but the process is complicated, they will seek out workarounds that undermine the effectiveness of the technology. These workarounds can then add complexity to the process.

3. Follow up after launch

It’s easy to complete an internal training that introduces the new process and/or technology and assume that everyone leaves the room with an in-depth understanding. Surely, if you have explained the benefits and included an interactive component, everyone will now adopt the desired behavior, right?

Well, it’s not always the case. When your coworker goes back to their desk and has to use the new process without you standing nearby to help, the process may feel unfamiliar. This is the moment that will make or break a person’s personal adoption—and this is the moment when you need to be available.

Check in with others to see if any questions have come up. Be prepared with written instructions that can be accessed any time. Plan how you will track adoption of your new process. Tracking instances that are misaligned can pinpoint where the process is still not working.

4. Prepare for future employees

Your technology change may turn into a full-blown process improvement project with weeks of staff meetings, emails, and training. At that point, you have done a lot of work to get everyone to agree on what the process is and that everyone will follow it. But what happens when new employees join your organization? Designing and sharing a toolkit of written instructions or recorded videos for new staff can help fill these gaps—and as a bonus, they are great resources for staff who may need refreshers after training.

5. Review the process regularly

Part of ensuring that the process lasts over time is ensuring that it remains relevant. Periodic review can support a culture of continuous process improvement and also provide an opportunity to reflect. If people aren’t following the process, conduct root-cause analysis to understand why. Maybe there’s a need for training. Maybe the process is no longer effective. Maybe turnover has left a gap. Adding the rigidity of automation to a murky process can result in workarounds, frustration, delays and a loss of credibility.

My main takeaway for 2018: technology will not be optimized without you knowing the process and preparing your staff. People plus process plus technology equals success.

Keisha Carr
Keisha Carr is the Systems Support Associate for the Bainum Family Foundation, which for 50 years has worked to improve the quality and availability of resources for children living in poverty in the Washington, D.C. area. In her HR/Operations dual role, she helps staff optimize their use of technology to advance their individual work and the Foundation’s overall mission. In her spare time, she loves to win board games—always aiming to annihilate her competitors—and enjoy a good happy hour. Ideally both at the same time.