John Weathington, President & CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc.
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    John Weathington

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A Little Chaos Goes a Long Way

How to Speed Up Your Process Using Chaos

Tired of things taking so long to get done? Try injecting a little chaos. This advice may sound odd coming from a Six Sigma Black Belt, however chaos just might be the cure to your long cycle times and struggling productivity. I’d like to share with you what Agilists like ScrumMasters and Extreme Programming Coaches have known for some time now—chaos is a necessary ingredient in any efficient process.

This truism was recently illuminated by my involvement with PayPal, the transaction processing arm of Silicon Valley giant eBay. When I first started working with PayPal in early 2009, two things quickly became apparent: 1) things were very chaotic and 2) things got done very quickly. Somewhat by accident, the people at PayPal stumbled upon a fortunate byproduct of being somewhat unstructured and chaotic. Their lack of process and control provides a certain weightlessness and agility, empowering their talent (they have very talented people) to fly effortlessly to their goals in an unobstructed way.

This is the freedom that chaos provides. Ironically the same process that’s usually introduced to improve things can actually end up slowing things down. The organization somehow feels better because there’s a process in place which is repeatable and transferrable; however, they’ve sacrificed productivity which is never a good thing. They then try to compensate by adding more process, which further slows things down. When taken to an extreme, the organization completely eliminates chaos, while concomitantly becomes completely dysfunctional.

Obviously, total chaos without any process is not the answer either. Chaos is like fire: under the right control it can be very useful; however, if it gets out of control it can be very dangerous. When chaos gets out of control confusion takes over and instead if things getting done quickly, things don’t get done at all; the same result as the over-engineered process. So here’s my four step process for introducing chaos into an over-engineered process, without getting into trouble:

4 Steps of Chaos Injection

  1. Get clear on your process objective
  2. Identify value stream buckets
  3. Keep value-enabling steps, throw away everything else
  4. Find intelligent people and turn them loose on the objective

Chaos Injection, Step #1: Get Clear on Your Process Objective

If your process is bloated, most likely at some point in its life the steps became more important than the outcome. This needs to be immediately undone. It’s primarily a mental shift but there are some tactics involved. You must know exactly what your process is intended to achieve, who it’s intended to benefit (the end user) and the ideal cycle time from the customer’s point of view. You must be able to objectively measure whether or not your process produced a successful result, and whether or not it accomplished it in an acceptable amount of time.

Chaos Injection, Step #2: Identify Value Stream Buckets

There is a Lean technique called value stream mapping, which should be employed at this point. Categorize the steps of your process into three buckets: 1) value-added, 2) value-enabled, 3) non-value-added. Value-added steps are any steps the end user would be willing to pay for. Value-enabled steps are any steps that are required for contractual or regulatory compliance. Everything else is non-value-added.

Chaos Injection, Step #3: Keep Value-Enabling Steps, Throw Everything Else Away

That’s right! Get rid of all your process steps except for your value-enabled steps. The reason is this. You don’t build a process just to see it run; you build a process to get a result. The only thing that matters is the result, as long as you haven’t violated any regulatory concerns. Chaos Injection, Step #4: Find Intelligent People, and Turn Them Loose on the Objective The objective is to get the result within the ideal cycle time, while still following all the regulatory rules. These are the rules, the whole rules, and nothing but the rules. Let the team come up with any means they can to accomplish the task. Give them a hard and fast deadline to get things done. The important caveat is that you use intelligent people who are willing to play along. This will not work with people who don’t want to be creative and problem-solve.

Process bloat is a common disease found in companies, and the antidote is sometimes somewhat unintuitive—chaos. However, introducing chaos without proper care could lead you from the frying pan into the fire, so take care to introduce it cautiously. By clearly understanding your objective, and identifying any other legitimate process constraints (i.e. value-enabled steps), you can confidently turn an intelligent team loose to get the result without any other strings attached. Give it a try; you may be pleasantly surprised at the result.