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"Having information is painful and troublesome."

That surprising observation was made by computer science pioneer Calvin Mooers back in 1959. Why?

"If you have information you must first read it... then try to understand it. ...Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong. ...Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain... ."1

That is the challenge with process improvement and documentation. Even with a perfect process perfectly mapped, people will only follow it when it is easier to do so than not (to paraphrase another of Mooers' observations).

Four ways to increase adherence to a process are:

A Automate the process as much as possible.
B Build the process into the user interface.
C Compose end-user and role-player documentation to be user-friendly.
D Demonstrate value in following the procedure.

1. Quote from Calvin Mooers. Morville, Peter. Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become (Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Press), 2005.

Click a case study title below to jump to the case.

Nabisco: Automation to remove bottlenecks and promote adherence
  • Industry: food manufacturer
  • Topics: Office automation, building trust, specification management, HACCP, food safety
  • Software: MS Access, MS Office, VBA
HIDTA Task Force: Unconventional process documentation for intelligence support
  • Industry: law enforcement
  • Topics: project management, coordination, productivity

Nabisco: Automation to remove bottlenecks and promote adherence

Situation

Nabisco Refrigerated Foods, a division of Nabisco, made margarine, yogurt, and microwavable omelets. Before a change could be made to ingredients, packaging, and other aspects of a product, the managers of impacted departments had to review and approve the requested change.  These requests came from production facilities around the country as well as headquarters staff in two New Jersey cities. One designated person in the Quality Department, the Quality Coordinator, administered the process.  With that current employee's departure from the company, a six-month backlog of change requests built up.

I was hired to fix the problem and maintain the process.

Analysis

  • There was only token adherence to the process now because the process had simply collapsed.
  • Any solution would need to simultaneously address the six-month backlog even as new requests came in. There could be no time-out.
  • The greatest weakness in the process was that it had depended on one person doing a large number of tasks by hand.

My solution would therefore need to do five critical things:

  1. Identify and act on the most important requests first.
  2. Be fast.
  3. Be thorough in following through on review and approval.
  4. Encourage trust & adherence.
  5. Allow for quick knowledge transfer when necessary.

Solution

I was able to do all five things in large part by creating Q-Track, an MS Access/VBA application. Q-Track provided:

  • A database of all change requests, their priority score (an innovation of mine), and status.
  • Ability to identify when one requested change might conflict with another requested change.
  • Automated log entries for each step performed.
  • Automated reminders to reviewers (and me).
  • Automated edits and edit-tracking in the final version of specifications.
  • Generation of a weekly newsletter to the community of interest.

It was critical to restoring the process and building trust that I organize the entire backlog of requests, prioritize, and move each request forward as quickly as warranted.  I therefore developed Q-Track iteratively, building the next feature of QTrack as it was needed to move the backlog forward.

I prioritized requests by a combination of importance and urgency.  Importance was scored based on the reason for a request:  #1 was quality (weighted much higher than all else), #2 was cost savings, and #3 was "other" (such as marketing-related changes to packaging).  QTrack then scored requests by how old they were with higher scores going to older requests.  The total score let me focus my time and management's on the most important and urgent things.  It let me tell requesters where their request was ranked in the queue.  It also let me determine programmatically how often automatic reminders were sent to managers:  the higher the score, the more frequent the reminders.

Another innovation was to immediately identify any change request that might impact another change request.  For example, a change in a product's ingredients might be at odds with proposed new quality standards.  With a database this was simple to identify whereas it had been near impossible to do by a person simply reading and remembering the details of requests.

By showing stakeholders that change requests were being processed again and that there was value in following procedure (such as the conflict identification described earlier), trust in the procedure --- and therefore adherence --- was restored.  To maintain this trust, I eventually created a weekly newsletter to all stakeholders.  It reported by product category all approved changes of the previous week and the approval status of pending ones --- including the names of managers who were delaying completion of the review. It also described new requests so that conversations on pros and cons could start sooner rather than later.

As for knowledge transfer, the automated features reduced the Coordinator's hours per week by 66% and eliminated the complexity of the role. It could be quickly shifted to another employee, even on a part-time basis.

The Q-Track application was so successful that it was soon adopted by both the Planters/Lifesavers and Food Service divisions of Nabisco.

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HIDTA Task Force: Unconventional process documentation for intelligence support

hierarchy

Situation

The Northern New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force (HIDTA) was a joint federal, state, and local drug enforcement task force. It investigated and eliminated international heroin smuggling organizations operating through Newark's airport and seaport. I was contracted to train and oversee a staff of intelligence analysts as well as to provide intelligence support myself.

There were always six to eight major investigations going on at any time and several in the early stages. Due to the nature of their work, the investigators were usually out of the office. My challenge was to keep both my analysts and myself focused on delivering actionable intelligence to help move investigations forward.

Analysis

  • "Actionable intelligence" was our deliverable.
  • Most of the analysts were on six-month assignments through their military reservist units. Therefore, I was regularly faced with having to train new arrivals.
  • When investigators did return to the office, they needed to know immediately what the status of intelligence analysis was for their investigations. When they were not in the office, the analysts supporting them needed to remained focused on delivering timely results.
  • The analysts needed a simple method of knowing what to do next --- simple because they were already burdened with a tremendous amount of information.

Solution

I created a large wall chart: "The HIDTA Intelligence Cycle." It consisted of three concentric rings:

  • Inner ring:  Specific task of the intelligence analyst.  Each task had its own corresponding, short procedural manual and standards, so the chart and the documentation were synchronized.
  • Outer ring:  The subsequent activity of the investigator. This could be to organize a surveillance plan, subpoena particular types of documents, or seek telephone monitoring.
  • Middle ring:  The bridge between analyst task and investigator's ability.  These were the questions to be answered by the analyst task.  Those answers would enable the investigator to do the action necessary at that particular stage of the investigation.

By looking at the chart, an intelligence analyst knew what task they had to perform next and what its purpose was. They also saw how that task moved the investigation forward. When investigators returned to the office and wanted an update from their analyst, the chart provided a common reference in discussions of progress, next steps and bottlenecks.

Shown below is an abstract of this chart which, due to its confidentiality (not to mention my fading memory), I cannot represent in detail.

For this and my other work for the Task Force, I received awards from the Task Force and from the US Customs Service (now Immigration & Customs Enforcement), shown on my "About" page.

HIDTA_cycle