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An Introduction to Value Stream Mapping for Lawyers and Business Development Staff: Part 3 – implementing improvements

A future state value stream map (VSM) can be a daunting prospect, likely as it is to consist of new flows, amended processes and other suggestions for improved performance.  Where to start making improvements?  How best to implement change?  I will explain some well-known techniques to help focus on the most productive improvement suggestions and show how applying some core project management principles can help achieve successful change outcomes.

Identify loops

One common techniques used by process mappers when striving for future state implementation is to divide the future state map into several ‘loops’.  Loops are drawn around processes, and may almost be thought of as meta-processes in their own right.  Loop boundary lines are drawn where there is a clear stop or break in the process flow.  At least three (often more) loops can be drawn on future state VSM’s: a supplier loop (drawn on the left hand side of the map), a customer loop (drawn on the right hand side) and loops between these two.  There is likely to be some overlap between loops but this is not fatal.

Prioritise loops

Once loops have been identified, the next step is to prioritise them for action.  Hence it is necessary to draw up and agree rules to apply for prioritising loops. Probably the most essential criterion for prioritisation is this: which loops offer greatest ROI from improvement activity?  There are many ways of looking at this.  For example, which loops contain most activities or processes which seem to take up disproportionate amounts of resource and / or time to complete when compared to others?  Or you may wish to prioritise according to whether the improvement activities within each loop appear fast and easy to complete, or those which have the most direct and immediate impact on clients etc.

Prioritisation rules may be informed by pre-existing organisational objectives, or perhaps themes for process improvement which emerged during the process mapping exercise. Regardless of their provenance, the rules should of course be applied consistently to all loops.

Prioritise improvement activity within loops

Once loops have been prioritised for action, then specific improvement activities within each loop can also be sorted and prioritised.

Keep the process improvement project team involved

The process improvement project team should be closely involved in the prioritisation exercise.  In fact, as with the creation of the value stream maps, the project team should ‘own’ the priortisation, with the process mapper(s) facilitating the process.

Move swiftly

Potentially, prioritisation exercises could last a long time – so many variables to consider, and different ways of looking at things.  Needless to say excessive deliberation, or procrastination, slows down any momentum and enthusiasm for change generated during the mapping process.  The whole point of value stream mapping is that it should provide a springboard for action.  So, loop and prioritise swiftly.

Focus on the right level of granularity

One of the main benefits of a VSM exercise, as referred to in my last post, is that it allows organisations to take a bird’s eye view of value streams so they can begin to ask – and answer – some fundamental questions about their ability to deliver legal services effectively.  Those involved in process improvement projects should therefore avoid temptation to dive deep into minutiae too soon.  I’d suggested instead that analysis is done a little like peeling an onion, layer by layer.  Start with the high level flows, processes and activities which offer most return on investment in light of the time and resources expended, and then drill down to lower levels of granularity for further examination.

Firms which are already so efficient that just about the only things left to improve upon are items such as reducing staff time waiting at photocopiers should of course tackle these, but I suspect very few (if any) law firms currently operate at this level of efficiency.  The reality for most law firms is that there are plenty of other things which account for far more ‘waste’ than people standing line waiting for photocopies.  Besides, who wants to work in an environment where the feeling is that people are being watched – and timed – at photocopiers?  Value stream mapping, and other process and project based productivity techniques, should not just be about bearing down on costs.  They are tools which can be used to help think a little more creatively about legal service delivery and help support more innovative approaches for meeting client need.

Create specific improvement projects

The list improvement activity (as prioritised) becomes an action plan.  The next stage is to create improvement projects to achieve specific outcomes.  As with projects of any type, project managers should be appointed, although it is often more common in this context to designate these individuals as ‘value stream managers’.  It does not really matter what they are called, so long as they are tasked with seeking to increase value delivered from activity in the (remodelled) value stream.  Ideally such value stream project managers should themselves work in the value stream and they should be expected to spend between about 5% and 10% (at the most) of their time on managing and monitoring the process improvement activities.

Project goals and kpi’s should be created during projects of fixed duration.  As with all projects, a key function is that of monitoring and reviewing progress towards stated goals.  If the looked-for improvements are not materialising fast enough or having the effect as planned, the value stream project manager will need to take corrective.  This may be require making further or alternative suggestions for improvement or escalating issues to senior management.  It is important that the value stream project managers have sufficient authority vested in them to take the relevant corrective action needed.  Moreover escalation should not simply amount to passing problems on and thereafter letting them lie in a black hole.  Any issues escalated need to be resolved speedily, which means that senior managers and law firm partners must take any concerns raised by the value stream manager seriously and action them promptly.

Develop a culture of continuous improvement

The concept of continuous improvement is closely associated with VSM mapping, which is in turn most often associated with lean and six sigma methodologies.  Most people are familiar with this concept and it appears attractive to sign-up to (who doesn’t want to improve continuously?).  It is actually quite difficult to sustain in practice though. Often, it is all too easy for us to revert to past inefficient practices and behaviours when the pressures of the day job surface.  The reality is however that lawyers have little choice but to change.

I attended the Modern Law magazine conference earlier this week. It was there made plain that in order to remain competitive, especially against the new market entrants which already enjoy widespread brand recognition, law firms will have to change the way they operate.  Clients, through the mechanism of the market, are asking law firms to change their ways.  Keeping, or reverting to, the status quo is no longer an option.  Value stream maps, if created correctly, can be really useful tools to help law firms understand where they are at present and chart the way towards meeting client need more effectively in future.

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