It’s perfectly feasible to run projects to improve performance in activities as diverse as commercial…
It will be recalled from part one of this short series that the primary purpose of a ‘current state’ value stream map (VSM) – a map which is a snapshot of the value stream ‘as is’ – is to act as a communications tool. Ideally, everyone involved in the value stream should be able to see how all the flows and processes fit together. From this basis of common understanding the value stream can be reviewed, with the aim of seeking process improvements. Projected improvements can then be represented on a ‘future state’ VSM.
In practice it is much more common to have a representative sample of value stream workers gathered together a project team, tasked with process improvement initiatives. After achieving consensus about the current state the next aim of the team should be to seek as many ideas as possible about potential improvements for the future state. The role of a VSM mapper is to record the current state as accurately as possible and then act as a facilitator for suggested improvement ideas.
A fundamental aspect of process and productivity improvement methodologies is that all staff should feel empowered to make constructive suggestions for improvement. People actually working in the value stream are more likely than those outside to know where inefficiencies are. They are also more likely to have good ideas about how to improve things. Enlightened organisations recognise this and readily tap into the experience, skills and enthusiasm of all their staff. However as has often been noted, prevailing culture in many law firms seems to militate against such openness and sharing of new ideas. ‘Silos’ in law firms are very common and concerted effort is required to break these down (for a great article about this, see this article by Sean Larkin of Edge International). Creating cross-functional process improvement teams in connection with VSM exercises could be a good way of helping to break down such silos.
There is another reason, besides culture, which may inhibit people from advancing suggestions for improvement. Some may be concerned that as a result of increased efficiencies their role may become redundant, or may change significantly. This concern is not unfounded. Firms which undertake a VSM exercise may well ask the following questions, which are of a fundamental nature:
- Should we be doing this kind of work or these kinds of tasks at all? (If not, is outsourcing a realistic option?)
- Who within the firm should be doing the (remaining) work or tasks?
- How can the firm best automate the remaining tasks?
In his book ‘Tomorrow’s Lawyers’, Richard Susskind lists no less than 15 different ways for lawyers to deliver client services differently. Richard lists these under the heading ‘alternative sourcing and multi-sourcing’. What may be called traditional outsourcing is listed, but so too are lots of other variants such as ‘home sourcing’ which
harnesses legal talent that is not currently in the mainstream legal workplace and yet is available, often on a part-time basis, from lawyers who choose to work from their own houses.
Another variant is ‘co-sourcing’ where
organizations collaborate in the delivery of some legal service, often through some shared services facility.
The availability of these varying modes of sourcing is made possible by the concept of decomposing the legal service delivery chain. Decomposing the delivery chain and collaborative service delivery look set to gain increasing acceptance in the legal services industry. Organisations can probably best understand what tasks or activities they should retain, collaborate on or outsource etc if they do some form of value stream mapping exercise. Thus value stream mapping becomes a useful tool for improving overall effectiveness, not simply as a means of reducing costs and increasing efficiency (important though these are).
I’d suggest the possibility of radical change, perhaps even including a reduction in staff numbers, resulting from a VSM exercise ought be acknowledged at the beginning of the project. This is clearly challenging on many levels, and I am not making this suggestion lightly. I have been made redundant during my career and so can empathise fully with those whose career path may appear derailed in the short-term. One’s immediate reaction is to simply try and get back on the same track with another organisation. However it seems in future lawyers may be presented with a number of flowing paths, rather than one rigid track, which they may follow as their career develops. Just consider the range of sourcing models and potential alternative careers for lawyers (all of which are firmly rooted in legal services) which Richard lists in his book (and if you have not read it yet, you should). Obviously these are not all the direct result of VSM exercises, but the very fact that more law firms are taking things such as process improvement, alternative sourcing and project based service delivery more seriously than they once did indicates the extent of the change currently underway in the legal services industry and with it the new opportunities for legal service professionals to meet client need.
With regards activities retained by a legal service provider, in all probability it will not be that difficult to identify immediate areas for improvement as a result of a VSM exercise. In his recent book, ‘Legal Project Management, Pricing, and Alternative Fee Arrangements’, Jim Hassett quotes Lisa Damon of Seyfarth Shaw, who has noted:
If you get a group of lawyers and staff into a room to discuss how to make things more efficient, it’s very easy to find savings.
Workflow software developers using standard process diagrams often report similar findings: process mapping (of various types) soon uncovers obvious bottlenecks and inefficiencies. HH Judge Simon Brown QC, when reviewing proposed cost budgets in civil litigation, refers to ‘Manhattans’ as indicating items which stand tallest when compared to others. Although Judge Brown is considering individual cases, I suspect that most law firms would soon see their own ‘Manhattans’ when reviewing their standard processes through the lens of value stream mapping.
What aspects of legal service delivery are likely to be highlighted as being ripe for further improvement? In terms of general processes rather than discrete activities, areas such as the following are likely to be identified:
- Inefficient distribution of case information or materials
- Tasks assigned to inappropriate levels of expertise (eg partners doing tasks which can reasonably be done by more junior staff)
- Poor storage and retrieval of files (both hard-copy and electronic files)
- Infrequent and/or poor communications with clients.
These are just some instances, and there are bound to others. I suspect in many law firms there is already a tacit understanding, at least to some degree, that areas such as the above are ripe for improvement. In which case, some may say, what is the point of putting the effort into creating value stream maps? Why not just go ahead and try and improve things?
The point is that value stream mapping, like other process improvement and project management techniques, helps brings things out into the open. Once issues are brought out into the open, after being agreed upon and signed-off by the process improvement project team, considered steps can then be taken towards making improvements and implementing change. If this is done as a project, where baselines can be established and improvement activity monitored, then the chances of success increase. I will discuss approaches to change implementation in the third and final part of this series.