March 26, 2020
Enterprise Program Leadership

Business Process Improv

In normal economic cycles, it has been observed and documented that when assessing business processes, many opportunities for improvement are often ignored during economic expansions.  Business is good, people are busy, and pain points are overlooked as organizations continue to fight to grow top-line revenues.

However, when business conditions change, the waters recede, and the proverbial tree stumps are exposed, it quickly becomes apparent where process and technological challenges are most dire.  These always existed, but they are now widely exposed for all to see.  Being ready to quickly address the tree stumps that pose the greatest risk to navigating the business during the low water periods, and doing so in a fiscally sound manner, is the difference between those who thrive and those who fail to survive.

But, what we’ve experienced over the last several days during the COVID-19 pandemic is anything but a normal economic cycle.

I’ve taken my dog to the veterinarian many times, and I know the routine rather well.  I enter the large waiting room and parade to the back check-in desk while all the other dogs bark at us.  From there, I find a seat while trying to keep my dog from getting tangled up with another dog’s leash while they sniff each other out.  After a brief wait, we get called into a room where the veterinary technician checks out the dog before the veterinarian comes to administer vaccines and other care.  I then head back to the desk to check out and pay for services rendered, before navigating back through the barking parade.

However, the trip I took to the veterinarian during the first official week of social distancing was anything but routine.  As I approached the front door, I was greeted by a sign that read, “BE ADVISED: You must call the office upon arrival and wait in your car.  We will call you back when it is your turn to be seen.  You will not be permitted into the building.  Payment will be taken over the phone.  Your dog will be returned to you when the visit is complete.”

So, I did as instructed.  Quite honestly, this process went rather smoothly.  They even adjusted quickly when I realized I forgot to drop off the fecal sample that was smelling up my car.  Thirty minutes later, I was on my way back home with my dog.

This is what I like to call “business process improv.”

This business didn’t have the natural swing of an economic cycle to determine how to adjust business processes to remain viable and serve their clients.  In the face of a global pandemic, they had to quickly improvise.  I’m sure they didn’t account for every scenario.  I’m sure I threw a wrench in their process when I came back with a fecal sample after I had already paid over the phone.  Not to worry.  They improvised and continued on their way.

Later in the day, I was on a work call where we were discussing some of the rapidly changing events that were taking place at some of our clients.  I heard about one of our health care clients facing a similar situation as my experience at the veterinarian.  They also quickly improvised their patient waiting and cleaning protocols.

The same has been seen with numerous local restaurants and micro-breweries that quickly shifted to carryout services despite offering no such service previously.  Many other businesses that were deemed to be essential had to do the same.  Some have been more successful than others.

This all led me to ask myself, “What makes one business better at improvising than another?”

About 10 years ago, I enrolled in a year-long improv training program at Chicago’s Second City.  As I thought about some of the tactics I was taught that are the foundation of good improv acting, I realized there were a few similarities to good business process improvisers:

1. Accept information.
In improv, this is commonly known as the “Yes, and.” The point is to take the information you’re given, work with it, and build upon it.  Business process improv is similar. In these times, you take the information you’re given, you go to work with it, and you make the best of it.  Saying no or refusing what is being given isn’t going to go very far.

2. If this is true, what else must be true?
In improv, this is a way of expanding the scene and getting creative based on information that hasn’t been explicitly provided but must be plausible based on what limited information is known. Business process improvisers are quick to connect dots, problem-solve, and reach quick conclusions based on the limited information they have been able to acquire.  This allows them to continually satisfy their customers and stay ahead of their competition.

3. Focus on relationships.
In improv, there is plenty of goodness that can come from exploring the relationships that exist between characters. However, if the relationships are too complex, it is hard for the audience to follow.  Business process improvisers leverage what they understand about the relationships between parties in their process to improvise quickly and effectively.  They know their customers, they know their employees, and they understand the dynamics of the relationship between each of them.  However, when the relationships or the interfaces between any becomes too complex, it is prone to breakdown.  The ability to improvise depends on clear points of interaction between parties.

As any improv actor can attest, improv is not something that just anyone can do.  It requires practice and focus.  It can’t be done alone.  It requires a team that also practices and employs the right means.  Business process improv is similar.  It isn’t a switch that can just be turned on.  It requires practice and continuous preparation.  It often requires feedback and coaching.

Our mission at Kenway Consulting is “To Help and Be Helped.” In these uncertain times, we empathize with the stress that can manifest given all of the unknowns that exist.  That is why we must be even more resolute in our mission.

Whether you’re faced with an urgent need to improvise your business processes, or you’re surveying the tree stumps as the waters recede, we’re here and ready to help.  These less-than-normal times require less-than-normal responses to the variety of challenges that will be thrown our way.

How Can We Help?