Lately we have been working with a new client in a completely new field for us: maritime engineering. The project scope is to create a mobile interactive tool that engineers can access via an iPad wherever they are working remotely on ships, or in the shipyards. The tool is a simple workflow that provides them with a step by step process to perform. The tool acts as an aid to prompt their memory to ensure that every crucial step is completed accurately. The tool is not only for young engineers in the field for the first time, but also for those expert engineers, for whom this may be a new process, or one that they do not complete very often and so may be in need of a reminder.
So, in a few words, this is a very interesting and challenging project. It may be a new field, but wherever we go, we tend to come across the same challenges.
Last week, we were talking about gathering the right information from interviews. Today, let me talk about the challenges that can arise from the common mistake of making assumptions during that process.
Making assumptions is unfortunately part of the human condition, and for the majority of the time they can actually serve us well – assumptions can allow us to cut down on unnecessary detail to get to a destination faster and more efficiently. However, when it comes to understanding and documenting process flow, assumptions can make the difference between a perfectly executed process, and one that literally can make a whole ship go ‘kaboom!’
To avoid this I tend to continually repeat the following during interviews: “assume that I don’t know anything at all about the process you’re explaining, in fact pretend that you are describing this in the most basic fashion to say, a 5 year old.” The idea is that a comprehensive process map needs to take into account every single step, no matter how obvious it may seem, to truly make it comprehensive, and to ensure that there is no margin for error.
There is a common anecdote for IT helpdesks that the very first question you ask a caller is “Is the computer turned on?” Now this may seem like you are inferring that all users are idiots, and in reality the most common issue is indeed the interface between the chair and the keyboard, but this is also the smartest way to start to fully understand how a process is being conducted, and to be able to define where a fault has occurred. The same bears true when creating a process for the first time, or even documenting an existing process. It is important to ensure that you are covering every single step, no matter how obvious it may seem to those who have a little bit of experience.
Cast your mind back to your very first job. I’m sure you will remember at least one process that, for you now, is a piece of cake and extremely obvious; but at the time, had you feeling more than a little stressed out. This was often due to the fundamental fear of the unknown, but also would have been exacerbated by the pressure of ‘wanting to do it once, and wanting to do it well’. You probably constantly referred to your notes, or manual, or user guide just to be sure. Imagine if a very basic step in the process was missing in that documentation – potential disaster!
The common problem with documentation and process flow is that the ones with the expertise in the process, are usually the ones called on to develop the process map – as only seems logical. However, when experienced staff are the ones to document processes, the demon of assumption is more likely to come into play. The expert has often been performing the role for years, and many tasks have become a reflex. It is easy then, when mapping a process, to neglect some basic steps.
Of course this is why companies like Simple + Smart exist. We have the benefit of being able to say ‘treat us like we are 5 year olds’, and tease out all the details, no matter how ‘obvious’ – without fear of losing face, or having to admit there is a hole in our knowledge that we should have had as ‘base knowledge’ upon entering the role.
There is another reason the experts tend to miss some of the basic steps when charged with mapping processes…. this is purely because it is often viewed with frustration or even boredom. When we are the ones probing for all the process details, we often get the feeling people are thinking “Why are you wasting my time over-analysing these basic and obvious steps?”. Imagine however, that you’re on a tanker with holds full of flammable gas, and the engineer coming to perform his tasks is either new, or hasn’t performed this task for a while, or perhaps had a very big night last night and is a little bleary eyed. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable knowing he’s following a process where nothing at all is take for granted?
Just some food for thought.
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