Why Organizational Improvement is Like Whack-A-Mole
Have you ever fixed a process or implemented a new technology and did not achieve the savings or efficiency you wanted?
Sometimes this is due to the usual project challenges with organizational improvement projects, such as poor leadership or lack of appropriate level of resourcing and commitment (Check out a previous blog of mine that touches on this).
But sometimes organizational improvement is like a game of “whack-a-mole” – every time you address the challenges over here, something pops up over there.
An organization is a combination of many different parts: internal structures, processes, staff, supporting technology, rules and other things.
50 years ago, organizational design was looked at as more linear or systematic – it was focused on one particular area. For instance, if you feel you have a staff workload challenge, you focus on staff workload. If you have a structure challenge, you focus on the organizational structure, but you wouldn’t worry about the other domains.
What’s Wrong with That?
Research has shown that this mechanistic model of organizational improvement is ineffective for most organizations.
It only works when environments have a high degree of certainty, technologies tend to be routine, organizations are designed for large-scale, and employees are treated as another resource. If you work in a static environment, you can focus on any one area and improve it without needing to worry too much about the other areas.
However, most organizations aren’t static, routine and predictable. Even organizations set up to deliver the same type of services to different citizens or clients have ever-changing pressures, environments and service needs. Its like that old saying: you can never stand in the same river twice.
An Interdependent Model of Organizational Improvement
The key to figuring out whether and how to make your organization more efficient is to better understand it and how its parts fit together.
What is most effective for doing this is an interdependent model that encompasses a variety of organizational factors and understands that each impacts the others.
I created the framework below to use in my projects and to explain to clients how to think about improving your organization. This works well for community, not-for-profit, healthcare and other broader public sector organizations. I have also used it with Provincial Ministries.
The framework is also useful for helping you figure out where to focus within you organization to assess opportunities for efficiency, assess how your organization aligns within your community needs, and aligning your organization’s outputs to both internal activities and system requirements.
The Inputs are system inputs, requirements, or factors that an organization (children’s mental health, community healthcare, community support services, really any community or larger public sector organization) faces.
I often use the “Client - Services - Capacity - Funding Mode” concept as it works well for thinking about things in a variety of situations. It isn’t always necessary for thinking about efficiency, but it can help.
I added the Input domain to this framework a few years ago as I increasingly worked with public sector organizations that were to some degree framed by government funding models or policy changes.
For instance, new funding policy mandates may directly impact how you plan and deliver services. Check out this blog I wrote two years about how new Health funding would impact hospitals in just such a ways.
In terms of Clients and Services, at a strategic level some of the questions you can ask to figure out where to focus on, include:
Who are the clients you are serving?
What are your clients’ (or patients) needs? What is the acuity of their needs? Is it changing?
What are your changing client demographic changes for the next 5 or 10 years?
How well do your services align with those changing needs?
Some other useful questions to ask yourself, to help figure out whether and where you may focus some transformation activities:
Do you have a solid sense of how your services align with the funding parameters and requirements from your funder?
Have you done a review recently of how your client-services-capacity-funding parameters align?
Are you able to continue to provide the same quality level of service to the same number of clients?
Have you compared against other similar service providers in your area - do you have a sense of how your organization compares in terms of quality levels and number of clients? Are there differences in terms of your service delivery models?
The Operational factors in the middle of the model are those aspects of your organization that together, combine to allow you to plan and deliver your services. These are all the classic design elements that together provide the organizational design and framework for running your organization – staffing, structures, processes, technology, etc.
The most important thing to remember is this: each of the main elements to some degree rely on and/or impact the others.
Each factor needs to be considered in its relation or impact on the other factors. Looking at the model as a whole, consider that you can’t make an impact on strategy without considering its impact on structure, style, staff or the other areas.
If you want to know if a program, unit or entire organization is truly efficient, this is the main pond to play in. Ask yourself some basic questions:
Are our services aligned with our strategy and staffing?
Do we have appropriate structures, technology, staffing, skills to deliver the services?
What is our model for this? What are the underlying costs? Is there any waste or barriers to providing this program?
The bottom of the framework represents the outputs or outcomes of your operation. There are a variety of components or areas that could be included here such as service levels or performance metrics. This is what you are working to achieve.
This is useful to consider in operational review or program reviews in terms of the connections between Inputs, Operations, and resulting Outcome metrics. For instance:
Are you serving all the clients you can? If not why not? What element within the organizational domain is keeping you from expanding services?
What are the direct connections between funding requirements, how you perform services and service levels or outcomes?
Have you set up continuous improvement models to ensure you are constantly driving for adjusting the organizational elements to provide more service or more efficient services (or both)?
Devil is in the Details
Like any other framework, the devil is in the details of how you use it to plan and implement. Depending on the focus of your review, you can use the model to focus on understanding the impacts of funding or acuity level changes, determining how to achieve operational efficiency and effectiveness, or to assess quality levels given all of the above.