by Bill Flury

Sarah Has a Problem.

Sarah was having a bad day, one of many in the past few weeks. Things just weren’t working as she expected them to. She was doing what she had been doing all along but, for some reason, some things were not going right. She couldn’t see what was happening. She asked me if there was some way I could help her see what was causing the problems.

Sarah worked in a high-tech organization that was staffed by a lot of engineers and programmers. They did analyses, conducted studies, and developed designs and produced reports about those things for their clients. Sarah’s job was to take the draft reports produced by the staff, get them paired with the appropriate graphics, get them to conform to the company formatting standards, and prepare them for final printing and delivery.

At our first meeting, I asked Sarah to show me in detail what she did so we could walk through the process and discuss it. Sarah gave me a quick overview of what she did. She mentioned that in the last few weeks some of the engineers had told her that they were upset about the graphics being produced for their reports. They felt that charts being produced by the graphics staff were not accurately reflecting the story in the data. On the other hand, the graphics staff were complaining that the engineers weren’t providing enough background information about the data. Sarah said that she was getting caught in the middle of the arguments as she tried to get everything pulled together for publication.

It’s All In My Head

It sounded like there was some flaw in the process that was causing these problems and we should try to find that flaw and fix it. So, I asked Sarah, “Do you have a written description of what you do?” Sarah said, “No”. “Do you have notes that you took when you were being shown or told what to do?” Sarah said, “No”. “Do you have a checklist or a set of instructions, or a manual that you follow? Sarah said, “No”. She finally said, “It’s just all in my head”.

We agreed that just having it all in her head was not very good. We couldn’t use that to find and fix any flaws in the process. There were several problems. First, what she was seeing in her head was obviously not clear enough to enable her to see what was causing her frequent problems. Second, we discussed the fact that what she was seeing in her head, her Mind’s Eye” so-to-speak, was an imperfect picture. She might be missing some of the details or remembering some things wrong. Finally, I told her I had to be able to see it also so we could work together to get what was causing her problems.

Seeing What’s In Sarah’s Head

As we started, I told her about something said by Bernard DeVoto, a great editor: “The best thing about writing something down is that then you can change it”. Then, I said, “Trying to work with something you can’t see (because it’s not written down) is like trying to make a suit of clothes for a ghost. It won’t work. So, we will have to work together to get it written down. Then we can find out what’s not working and change it. So, go ahead and “wing it” – explain to me, from memory, what you do and we’ll record it on the chalkboard”.

Sarah started talking and I started drawing what she said as a process flow chart on the chalkboard. In the first pass, Sarah talked though everything she was doing and I kept drawing and writing notes as she talked. When Sarah got to the end, we both took a short break and then came back to look at the result.

Then, we walked through the flow chart again. Sarah saw things she had missed and some things that had not been correctly recorded. We fixed the chart so it accurately represented all that Sarah told me.

Then, I asked a Sarah a few questions:

  • Are there some things you do without thinking?
  • Are there some things you only do in certain circumstances?
  • Do you have any checklists, “Sticky Notes” or other kinds of notes or reminders about
  • any parts of this process?
  • Are there any things in this picture that you think you do but, really, never do?

Those triggered Sarah’s memory and we made a few additions and changes to the picture. Then, we wrote “SAVE” on the chalkboard and went home for the night.

The Next Day

The next day we asked two of the engineers who were frequent authors to come and walk through the chart with us. They clarified a few points and changed one task that involved checking for documentation standards that involved two steps instead of the one shown. Later in the day we did the same with two of the graphics staff members and had similar results.

Then We Began To See

The following day, we walked through the chart together. One thing became very clear. All the communication between the authors and the graphics people went through Sarah. There were no places in the flow chart where those two groups ever talked directly with each other. All of the products from each group passed Sarah on the way to the other. Likewise, and here was a key point, all of the complaints and problems also went through Sarah and she, as a coordinator did not have the authority to provide technical direction to either group.

Sarah thought about that for a moment and then commented. She said that it seemed unfair that she was being caught up in the arguments between the two groups. She said, “I think I see the problem. The problems we are having are their problems, not mine, and I should not be in the middle”.

She looked back at the chart and said, “You know, if we added a task for the authors and the graphics people to get together while their documents are being drafted.”

Is there a Lesson There?

Creating the flow chart was, literally, an eye-opener for Sarah. When the things she was doing were only “in her head” they were floating about and were invisible to her and not really useful. As we drew the chart, Sarah was reminded of things that she and her co-workers did in the process without thinking. She also saw gaps in the process where there were things she did not know.

The sequencing of actions was not really as clear as it was later when the picture was up on the chalkboard. The problem was hiding in the details and Sarah had to bring out the details, make them visible, and stabilize them so she could see and get what was going on.

When she was done, for the first time, Sarah could clearly see how the whole process worked and how she and the others fit into it. She got a more complete understanding of what she needed to do to make the process work better.

What she saw, she got. Sarah needed help to recall, describe, and define the details of her process and the relationships among the players.

As Bernard DeVoto said, “Once a process is written down, you can change it.”

Once the process was written down on the chalkboard,

Sarah could change it, and she did.


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