Published: April 28, 2021

Do you ever feel like you keep having the same conversations about shared projects over and over? You spend half your time just talking about the same ideas you chewed on last time with little forward progress. And now with the addition of a video conference platform, conversations can feel even more frustrating and less productive. What can you do?

Team meeting

This article will introduce three continuous improvement tools that focus on helping a team make incremental progress.

The tool you need depends on the kind of conversation you’re having. Maybe you’re talking about grand ideas for the future. Or you can’t quite put your finger on why some part of your work keeps causing problems. Or maybe you’re having circular conversations about completing the agreed-on work of an established project. Keep reading to find a tool that will help you move forward on all of these conversations.

Bringing the future into focus

Imagining a shared future that does not yet exist takes time. These conversations are particularly challenging to have in parts and pieces.

Developing any strategy requires consideration of three timeframes.

  • Past: What is relevant about our identity, our strengths, and our capacity that should shape our future?
  • Future: What is our vision of where we would like to be?
  • Present: What must we do next to make a small but meaningful step toward that desired state?

That is the same structure as a journey: a starting place, a destination and a route to get there. So a road is an effective metaphor. Think of that road when you document your discussions and brainstorming sessions to build that shared vision.

Over a period of several months, this document went through at least four versions as we developed our “big picture” thinking. At first, we just used markers. Later it migrated to Mural, a collaborative, web-based platform.

When the “big strategy” conversation comes up again, pull out your working roadmap document. It doesn’t have all the detail of every conversation you’ve had so far, but it does have the headlines, so to speak. There might be key ideas that come from other guiding documents or references to other notes where you have worked out a bit more detail. A substantial conversation from your last meeting might be boiled down to a single phrase, but it is enough to remind everyone of the main idea.

Keeping that record in a handwritten summary gives a sense of being a work in progress that big blocks of text do not convey. As ideas are added or tossed out with each conversation, the document may need to be reworked.

Now, you can do simple things to make the story more visually appealing. How can you use color to connect ideas? Can you use the space on the page to create a sense of motion?

When the work keeps breaking down

Some circular conversations are frustrating efforts to define a problem. You might be seeing similar process failures, but you can’t quite describe what they have in common. Or the conversations circle around and around because you get stuck on different factors that could be causing the problem.

“A is the problem.”

“No, B causes A. We should focus on B.”

“But wait! C is the real issue. If we addressed C, B would go away.”

“And then there is situation D. That is a bigger problem!”

“Isn’t D just another way of saying A?”

The fact that this conversation recurs frequently is a good indication that your core work process needs to be improved and that the improvements might not be obvious. A deeper dive by the people who actually do the work – something like a Lean kaizen event – is going to be needed to get to the kernel of what is happening, why it’s happening and what to do about it. As the manager, you’ll need to delegate that deeper analysis to a team. And a project charter is a great tool to give that team clear direction.

A project charter helps leaders clarify their thinking about the problem that needs to be addressed.
What is going on?

Your first step in stopping this circular conversation is to describe what’s actually happening. State clearly the specific breakdown that needs to be corrected, being careful not to focus on identifying causes and proposing fixes. Those steps come later as part of solving the problem.

If there really is more than one problem, describe each one separately. It isn’t important at this stage to understand if there is a causal relationship between them or a shared solution.

Next, look for sources of data at hand that document your process failures. What do you know about the frequency and significance of this problem? Is it rare but catastrophic? Daily and corrosive? Or common but just an annoyance? This data builds a case that your organization should commit resources to solve this problem.

Remember that the goal is enough clarity to give clear instruction to someone, or perhaps a small team, to fix this specific problem. Their task will be to delve deeper into understanding the current state, find root causes and prioritize improvements.

Where are we on that project? Implementing your plan

For some of our clients, the biggest “a-ha” moment comes during the last phase of a process improvement project. We started with a project charter. The team examined the current state in detail, identified opportunities for improvement and brainstormed solutions. Now, we’re ready to talk about what will actually have to get done to make that shared vision a reality. So we start building an implementation plan.

Completing an implementation plan is not hard, but it does require discipline. The key is to be thorough, systematic and clear. What needs to be done? Who is responsible for getting it done? Who else needs to be involved because the outcome will affect them or because they have essential information or expertise? How are you going to communicate these changes to key stakeholders? And how much time will team members need to do each of these tasks?

An implementation plan does not need to be complex. And it isn’t set in stone. This is a working document to help a team get the work done. Significant process improvement often requires moving forward on multiple small changes simultaneously. The team needs to stay coordinated and committed to completing their tasks. When the team has progress check-ins, the implementation plan can serve as a standing meeting agenda to help create the future the team imagined together.

Why is a detailed implementation plan such an “a-ha” moment? It might be because people have seen what happens when there isn’t one. When a team develops a detailed implementation plan, it gives everyone a shared point of reference – and stops those circular conversations created by vague improvement plans.

A simple implementation plan just records the team’s commitments to each other.

These three tools — a shared roadmap for the future, a project charter and an implementation plan — should help you to keep conversations moving forward. Each one is a structure for capturing key information from one meeting that will be essential when you get together again on that topic.

What is your challenge?

We hope these tips are helpful. If you need some help applying these ideas to your situation, reach out to us and we’d be glad to talk with you. We also have a Lean toolbox full of other helpful ideas to meet whatever your recurring conversation challenge might be.

Because the Center for Government Innovation specializes in working with local governments, we can adapt our services to meet your needs. Reach out to us at center@sao.wa.gov.

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