Getting Better All the Time: Continuous Improvement in Partnering
When technology consultants and vendors build solutions and deliver services for the federal government, they tend to be large-scale projects. As you might have guessed, no one organization can deliver these programs alone, and because these initiatives are so massive, keeping a pulse on each partnership isn’t something that can be done informally or on an ad hoc basis if organizations want to be sure they are delivering to the client’s needs.
“They’re big, complicated programs, especially when you’re working in the federal government. It is very rare that there is one person or one organization that is the person to talk to [in order] to understand what they need, want, or how to get something accomplished. It’s usually across an organization. It can even be multiple agencies or a combination of federal and state. There’s no direct line you can draw from the person you’re talking to to an ‘up-chain decision maker’ that can deconflict things,” said Adam McNair, COO at Highlight Technologies.
McNair’s observation came during the most recent Collaborative Connection Monthly webinar and roundtable, “Stand and Deliver: Continuous Improvement in Partnering,” during which he delivered valuable tips on how to accelerate the performance of alliances and the people executing them.
If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It
McNair gave the impression that the processes for tweaking partnerships and internal operations on the fly for the better are quite similar, and Highlight Technologies knows plenty about the latter. The company has been formally recognized for its positive work environment; it has received a Great Place to Work Certification, a designation that recognizes workplaces that have been validated as places to thrive by their employees. The first thing to know about achieving similar results in partnerships is that process improvement is for the well, not just the sick.
“A culture of continuous improvement is [evident] when different parts of the organization are thinking about what would be next, how to do something better. The other side of that coin is you only talk about how to fix something when it’s broken. You wait until somebody either complains or fills out a deficiency of some type. You have a real significant problem,” said McNair, before he added that improvements come in a variety of forms, such as the automation, streamlining, or elimination of part or all of a process. “A culture of continuous improvement is that everyone understands that there are things that we can do to make something better, of value—better for a customer, better for an employee.”
Grassroots Conversations Free Up Time to Talk State-of-the-Partnership
Second, improving your alliances is a continuous process, not an event.
“It’s grassroots, working-level conversations on a daily basis about how you can be better. That drives the innovation and the improvement in the company, as opposed to getting together once a year and talking about what you might want to improve, big picture, at the company. Yes, you have to do those, too, but the culture of innovation is the strategic and the tactical on an ongoing basis working together.“
In fact, those day-to-day interactions help optimize the formal meetings to assess the state of the partnership.
“The fact that those are already going on means that when you get together to talk about the overall state of your partnership, you’re not getting into those little tactical things because you have already identified them,” said McNair. “It gives you some clear air to talk about, ‘We know we’re already working together on day-to-day things to make better and improve, but let’s talk about the health of the partnership.’”
Small Accomplishments, Big Rewards
The human element can’t be ignored. Rewards and recognition play a huge role in keeping alliance participants reaching for greater heights, as they do for internal employees. Again, no accomplishment is too minor to honor in some way. Even something as relatively small as a $50 gift card goes a long way in incentivizing continuous improvement.
“You celebrate successes and you talk about them. It doesn’t have to be the $100 million contract you just won for it to be something that is important. Talk about what’s successful, whether that’s when you pass an ISO audit, or you increased the time for a metric, you got better at filling jobs, or you got better processing deliverables for a customer,” said McNair. “The fact that they improved something is part of their bonus or performance increase or however their company handles that. It counts. They didn’t just do something good for the heck of it and get a pat on the back.”
44001 + 56002 = a Happy Client
Throughout the webinar, McNair extolled the use of frameworks offered by the International Organization for Standardization. Highlight Technologies utilizes ISO 9001 to set a general quality platform, ISO 20000 for IT services management, ISO 27001 for security, ISO 56002 for innovation, and of course, ISO 44001 for organizational collaboration. The interplay between the latter two has had a profound effect on Highlight’s business, according to McNair.
“In a client environment, the real power of the 44001 is, [in regards to] what we think we heard you say that was important, are we really working on the things you wanted us to? Are we really working on what is important for your organization? Do you know exactly what we are working on, so that [regarding] what we think is important, we heard you correctly?” said McNair.
Overlay the 56002 methodology and the partners can ensure that the initiatives they plan to undertake won’t merely result in “change for change’s sake.” “Based on our 44001 engagement, we heard you say these things were important, we worked on them, we thought we were going to get this value for your organization, and here’s what we got,” said McNair. “If we can do ‘x,’ is this amount of investment worth it? Then, when you get done, you spent all this effort, we thought we were going to get this value. Did we?”
Not Your Average Methodology, but It Fixes Your Average Collaboration
Interestingly, McNair shared that these processes have the biggest impact on the “middle-of-the-road performers” or “non-remarkable” partnerships in Highlight’s alliance portfolio.
“It’s easy to talk about something that’s great. It’s easy to talk about something that’s broken. Talking about something that’s average, mediocre, steady-state, those types of things, talking about how you get it out of average is a very powerful place to find opportunities,” he said. “You might be able to get it to just-good-enough so that you can exit it and not have it be a real big problem.”
And there’s nothing average about the Collaborative Connection Monthly webinar program. The next event in this series, “A Two-Way Street: Better Communication for Partner Managers,” will take place Nov. 3. For more information on this and other upcoming ASAP events, go to https://www.strategic-alliances.org/events/.