The Best Way to Improve Performance

The best way?

It’s not always easy to decide.

Even Gordo Cooper, Air Force pilot and Project Mercury astronaut, grappled with his choice before finally giving a sound bite to the press: 

“Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Well, uh, you’re lookin’ at ‘im” — Gordo Cooper, The Right Stuff

I can relate to Gordo. In my line of work, I often get asked  “What’s the best way to improve performance?” I have answered that question differently over the span of my career. In this post, my first as Director of Industry Marketing at Appian, I reflect on the different improvement approaches and tools I have seen, and share which ones I think have the right stuff.

In Pursuit of Quality

Early in my career, I embraced Six Sigma as a tool to remove product and service defects and drive costs out of the business. Reducing variation and error makes all the sense in the world when building airplane engines, medical equipment and nuclear subs. My mathematics degree makes me predisposed to the statistical foundations of this approach. The analytical side of my brain appreciates the rigor of DMAIC.

As time passed though I found that too many of the improvements, including those I was personally involved in, focused on isolated processes, even fragments. They were too disconnected from the overall improvement that might be achieved by looking more holistically at a business from the eyes of the customer.

Focus on the Customer

As my career progressed and I spent more time with customers, I embraced Lean methodologies. I liked the focus on reducing waste, defined as anything that has no added value in the eyes of the customer. Then, as many did, I quickly turned to the combined management approach of Lean Six Sigma (LSS). The customer focus ensures “outside-in thinking,” and emphasizes value streams rather than isolated process. 

LSS will always be a favored approach of mine, incorporating as it does the elements of Six Sigma rigor and the more human “Zen” aspects of Lean. It is the “fit for purpose” approach that works well not just for the core manufacturing sector, but for distribution and retail as well.

Speed to Deliver

As my journey continued, I increasingly sought ways to speed my time to results. Agile Scrum is such an approach. One of the Insurance customers that I worked with used Scrum followed by automation using BPM technology to reduce reliance on manual processes. They viewed Scrum with its multiple small teams working in an intensive and interdependent manner as a people-centered technique that not only brought agility, but also facilitated adoption.

Perhaps at this point I might have considered my improvement toolkit full and my journey might have taken me no further. Then I began focusing on the unstructured, unpredictable aspects of business. 

Deal with Business as it Happens 

With the rising importance of knowledge work to business, it became clear to me that I needed a better way to  deal with business as it happens.

As I’m sure Gordo Cooper would agree, all the best pilots have this ability to deal with events and information as they unfold. They aptly handle the unexpected with a combination of systems and judgment. Dynamic case management enables knowledge workers to interact with information and perform work in their own unique ways. Responding to changing circumstances is one of the distinctive elements of dynamic case management. Rather than modeling the entire business process ahead of time, you have an environment that supports access to information and progression through tasks as needed to achieve the goal.

For one community bank customer that I worked with case management proved to be the cornerstone of improving their performance across more than 200 processes. What emerged modeled the personal interactions that community banks once had with their customers. It enabled personalized service to occur in today’s digital environment. And the added advantage is that these interactions are now less costly and more streamlined.

The Best Way

My journey is of course personal to me and (hopefully) is not over yet. I suppose many of you may have experienced a similar journey. I’m equally sure that others have found a different way.

So now when I’m asked which approach is THE best way to improve performance, I don’t hesitate to say “you’re lookin’ at ‘im” — it’s the one that works best for you. My advice is just make sure your choice has a strong tie to the people and moments that impact your customer.

A version of this post first appeared in CMSWire.