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Great Process Improvement Begins With Knowing Your Knowledge Gaps

In The Last Blog...

We identified governance activities necessary to know which steps in a cross-functional process don’t have an owner or, worse, which may have more than one. In our example, we created a RACI chart to visualize who the responsible and accountable parties are and who needs to be consulted and informed.

In this blog series we’ve now set a standard process and assigned consistent ownership, Is the hard part over now? Not quite.

We now need to arm the process owners with insight into how the process is conducted, specifically what knowledge is required to best execute each step. Often the most valuable insight of this stage is discovering how much you don’t know.

This month’s blog is focused on providing practical and tactical advice to help you overcome this gap in your process journey.

What vs. How

In the first blog in this series we suggested you start with APQC’s Process Classification FrameworkSM (PCF) to identify the steps in the process. A process framework is a great way to standardize your language to describe what happens in the process, but it won’t tell you how the work gets done.

In other words, even if 10 different business units say they do the same 10 steps, you still need to dig a bit deeper to find out if they really do it the same way. Do they go about executing each task and activity the same way? Do they use the same tools, templates, data sources? Are they using the same knowledge? How do you know?

To understand processes at the activity and task  level, APQC uses a Knowledge Map – a table that breaks down the required knowledge (and knowledge artifacts) at each step of the process.

Mapping Knowledge

If I asked you to tell me everything you know in order to do your job, you’d probably stare back at me with the same look my teenager gives me when I ask her to clean her room. Where would you start? How would you know when you’re done? How would you know if you left out something? How do you know what you don’t know? And why can I only find my left shoe – though that may just be her.

The first activity is to understand all the steps, and sub-steps, of the process. (To clean up clothes, sort clean vs. dirty; put dirty clothes in hamper, split clean clothes between those that get hung up vs. those that go in the dresser, etc.) To understand your business processes, break them down into similar pieces.

Once you have your steps identified, simply list them in the left column(s) of an Excel table.

Then, across the top of the table, ask yourself what knowledge is necessary for each listed step – and if, where, how the knowledge exists. Consider:

  • What knowledge is required to execute this process step?
  • To what degree does this knowledge currently exist?
  • Is it tacit or explicit?
  • Who has it?
  • Where and in what form does it exist?
  • Who needs it?

Feel free to add additional columns as necessary. You might find the answers vary by business unit or function. If so, consider adding the following:

  • Does the “owner” of the knowledge know they are a global owner?
  • Do all owners know what “ownership” means?

Then bring this grid to everyone you identified in the RACI chart described in the prior blog. Don’t limit your inquiry to process owners, often those at the C (consulted) and I (informed) level can offer a unique perspective.

As you begin to fill in the grid, don’t be surprised if you find that multiple people think they own the same knowledge, resulting in multiple versions of the truth. You may also discover that no one is sure what knowledge is necessary, or no one has ever written it down.

To illustrate these realizations, we often use heat maps to highlight the gaps. You can start with a simple scoring scale: 1 = we have no idea what knowledge we need or have to 5 = we are fully aware of what knowledge we need and it’s available for use.

You can also create a quick heat map for any of the columns. Maybe you want to visualize how many of the process steps have documented knowledge. Or how much of that knowledge is tacit or explicit? Sub-total heat maps can help you prioritize where you need to focus your attention.

Example of Knowledge Map Template

Timing is Key

When are you ready to build a knowledge map? The answer is, it depends.

If you’re blessed with an open, collaborative culture, with full support for process improvement and no political in-fighting, you can begin to collect this information right away – when you’re working to standardize the process steps as described in the first blog in this series.

However, for most organizations we recommend waiting until you have a governance structure in place. If you thought cross-functional process ownership was contentious, just wait until you start to tell people that they’re using the wrong tools and data or that someone else is going to own their knowledge. If a strong process owner isn’t in place, there is a high risk of internal sabotage.

Also note that this is not a once-and-done exercise. As process steps change, as new tools, data and knowledge artifacts are created; the knowledge map has to be updated. Depending upon the dynamic nature of the process, we usually recommend that organizations review and update their knowledge maps at least annually.

 Key questions during the review include:

  • Are these still the process steps?
  • Is this still the state of the knowledge?
  • Can the heat map(s) change to reflect our efforts to collect and distribute the crucial knowledge?

Next Steps

To recap: In this blog series you’ve learned how to standardize the process steps, identify ownership, and capture the knowledge needs for your process. All done? Only if there’s unanimous agreement on what needs to be fixed.

Sometimes the gap analysis in the knowledge map can identify low-hanging fruit, easy fixes that will result in immediate and important wins. If so, do those. Just don’t stop there.

In the next blog we’ll discuss strategies for prioritizing your broader process improvement efforts.  

Comments/Questions

If you have any questions or comments about your processes you’d rather not post publicly, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our Process Advisory team directly.

Jess Scheer can be reached by

Email: jscheer@apqc.org

Phone: 1+ 713-685-7215