How A Form And A Little Ingenuity Led To Organic Collaboration

15 Jan, 2009 | by

With advances in modern technology and the vast sums that organizations spend to implement cutting edge solutions, isn’t it odd that passing a folder from person to person in order to approve something is still so common?  You’ve seen it happen; perhaps you’ve even been part of those long conversations on the color of the folder to make it stand out on a desk.  Those discussions are usually preceded by an agreement made by all involved that the material will never sit idle but get immediate attention and route quickly.  In the end, it falls to some poor assistant to walk the halls in search of this folder, trying to track down approvers and keep things moving, usually taking much longer than any initial agreement.  To further complicate matters, fingers may begin to point at suspected sources of bottleneck.  Tensions mount and the innovative “folder method” had done more harm than good. 

Allow me to walk you through the evolution of a project to complete a form initiating the Personal Care Product Development Process and have it approved by associates in five functions across two business units in three states.  These hand-offs were necessary to pull critical knowledge from the organization determining the feasibility of a program before time and dollars were spent against it.  Bear in mind, any time spent completing and approving the form is time not spent on developing the product. 

The Situation…
Have you ever started down a path only to find it wasn’t the right direction miles later?  While frustrating on a journey, it is a costly and timely misstep in product development.  Imagine spending months developing a product only to find out that you are not permitted by your Regulatory function to sell it as designed.  Or how about the brand manager that requests a product to fill a specific white space in the market and gets a completely different product since the development teams shifted direction to make the product more achievable?  Lastly, picture the brand manager falling in love with a product submission, only to find out it costs more than double what was budgeted.  All of these examples were too common.

To combat this, various business units across the organization developed several home grown solutions to better vet a program before beginning development.  Success varied.  All of the business units shared a common vendor base.  The use of multiple forms with differing data accuracy complicated matters for the vendors.  While undocumented, the feeling in the organization was that it was paying a premium for sending bad information to the vendors and canceling many programs late in the game, wasting vendor resources.

Leadership decided that a single form would be used to initiate all development.  They identified one of the forms used as a “best practice” and mandated that it be rolled out to all business units.  The form evolved product requirements from a marketing perspective to those a bench chemist could use to actually create a product formulation.  It also ensured that the product was feasible from a regulatory and cost perspective before development was initiated.  When in place, our examples above would be the rare exception and not the norm.

The Opportunities…

There is a funny thing about “best practices”, sometimes they aren’t.  The initial form specified by leadership was created in Microsoft Office Excel© by an associate.  While the overall content was sound, the formatting made it very difficult to complete.  This turned out not to be a problem, because the form wasn’t actually being used as designed.

Additionally, the process to support completing the form called for data from five separate departments, located in three different states.  These groups included Brand Development, Product Development, Research and Development, Regulatory Affairs and Product Safety.  Some of these associates never met and only communicated by phone and e-mail.  The form was posted on a shared network drive; associates were to access it and complete their information.  There was no clear ownership of the data, so friction resulted as functions tried to provide input where it was not needed or welcomed.  The only way to tell if a form was complete was to open it and see what was missing.  The process was cumbersome and didn’t support the linear nature of the process.  You wouldn’t want your Regulatory team to approve a product before your R&D team added your chemical names.   Forms were rarely completed and in most cases simply transmitted to the vendor as is, not solving any of the problems, just masking them.

The Actions…
To begin, we conducted an analysis of all versions of the form previously used to ensure that the best data was being captured and the solution would work for all business units.  The initial form was redesigned, including any additional data points but also focusing on usability.  Next, we needed to tackle the process.

The initial process was sound.  A form was initiated by the Brand Development team outlining a white or blank space in the market and key attributes to distinguish this product to the customer.  The Product Development team would then add details on claims, color, fragrance and key ingredients.  R&D would conduct a feasibility review based on a more technical chemical background and add any chemical names for the key ingredients listed.  The form would then head to Regulatory Affairs for a feasibility review based on current regulations based on where the product would be sold.  Specific warning statements needed for the product were also added.  The Product Safety group would list out the tests required to ensure the product was safe for consumers and the substantiation of any product claims.  Lastly, the Brand Manager would approve the completed form, validating that this matched the initial product request and fell within target costs.

While sound, the process had a linear nature.  The geography of the teams made it easy to loose track of forms; a tool was needed to manage the process.  There was no budget, so we needed to get innovative.  Colored folders were out; besides they would take too long traveling state to state.  The network folder was out, we needed something that would support a more linear process and give us some control.  Would you believe the solution was right under our nose (or File menu)?

After some research and testing, we discovered the Routing Slip functionality built into Microsoft Office©.  There wasn’t much documentation on this, so we did a fair amount of testing before moving forward.  (We only tested with users on the same applications and within the same domain.)  This feature allows you to route a document to a group of people one by one, get input and then pass to the next person.  Even nicer, it will notify the route initiator that the document has changed hands and return the document to him or her when the route is complete with all of the comments. 

This got us 60% of the way there.  We also needed an easy way to find a form while it was routing (that didn’t require sorting through dozens of emails).  We needed to measure the routing time and make sure forms moved through the process.  To complete our work, a spreadsheet was created to track each form and each approval step.

With the finish line in sight, we documented and documented.  We defined each field on the form and determined who completed it and who reviewed it.  We created clear instructions on how to use the routing for the routers and approvers.  We also clearly documented the process with approval times and set clear accountability for each team and associate involved.

Now came the hard part, presenting it to the function heads for buy in.  We didn’t anticipate problems with the form or the technology, but relationships had deteriorated so much that we expected tension around the acceptable approval time (three days) and data ownership.  On seeing the thoroughness of our work, everyone signed off.  We had a process!!

We moved into training.  Each associate connected to the process attended a quick training session.  Our objectives were simple, review the process, highlighting the contributions of each team; establish our three day baseline for each approval and show how it would be measured (and by who) on the spreadsheet and review the routing technology.  We did not review the form or field ownership, that documentation was provided to each associate for reference.  On average, training lasted 30-40 minutes.       

The Results…

So what was achieved with all of this effort?  Well, let us start with the metrics.  I know that measures can be frightening; after all, they can show failure as easily as success.  Where did we end up?   The routing time that was agreed to by leadership was 16 business days, we averaged seven.  This returned nearly two weeks back to the development process.  (Our best time was a single day; our worst was over twenty days).  If this was all that we accomplished, our project would be counted a success, but as they say on any good late night infomercial, “wait, there’s more.”

A funny thing happened as we built more formal collaboration between the teams; it began to happen more organically.  I know it is counter-intuitive, but think about it this way.  Once clearer accountability had been established, individuals no longer needed to grab for their piece of the pie.  It was easier to partner and support one’s peers.  The culture began to transform from an “us and them” mentality to just us. 

Those scary metrics were published monthly for about eight months after we rolled out the project.  They became a source of pride for each of those teams, a clear and objective testament to their level of expertise and the collaboration they had created.  It wasn’t all smooth sailing; we did have some flies in the ointment.  How did we handle it?  We knew each team was more than capable of exceeding our agreed upon timeframe, so even having one group consistently run late didn’t knock our process out of spec.  When things went off the rails, it was no longer about blame, but how best to support this team to get them back into acceptable parameters, keeping everyone far ahead of the curve.  We learned that the team in question had several open positions, so without an immediate remedy, the rest of the teams worked extra hard to give this group the time they needed to handle the workload with reduced headcount until those positions were filled.

We also saw a shift in how associates related to the process, they took ownership of it.  They began to wonder how things could work better and submitted ideas that lead to a next generation of the form.  Where did that lead?  With some nifty macros we were able to automate more of the routing process; associates could literally click a button to send the form on its way instead of initiating it manually.  These continuous improvements eventually lead to the linkage of all forms used in the development process, so data was entered once, by the right team and carried through to the end.  You can imagine the reduced workload and improved data accuracy that resulted.  And yes, it was all done in Microsoft Office Excel and Outlook©.

People can be very afraid of process, especially in a more creative space.  When I hear that, I am reminded on the crash cart in a hospital.  Everything has a very specific place, so in an emergency, doctors and nurses can focus on the job of saving lives and not searching for something.  I think of process as much the same, it is there to enable not fetter.  It should be seamless and intuitive, allowing associates to reach for it, enabling them to meet or exceed their goals.

8 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Caroline Jarrett
    January 18th, 2009 at 8:15 am #

    Great story. This shows why you really need to investigate and think about what I call the ‘relationship’ of a form: the reasons why the organisation is publishing it, and why the users are filling it in. Your form had a lot of complex reasons why the organisation needed it and why the various groups were filling it in, and your thoughtfulness in thinking through those issues really led to the overall success.

  2. Rich Vinhais
    January 18th, 2009 at 8:00 pm #

    Great story and very well written. I just love case studies with a positive ending. I especially liked how you captured the essence of how the project evolved. Enjoyed the perspective.

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