Monthly Archive: July 2014

Beginners Guide: Using Appreciative Inquiry for Process Improvement

This week, as I finish my certification process in Appreciative Inquiry (AI), I thought I’d give our readers a little understanding of how we’ve used AI and applied it to our process work.

Our  process background has led us to focus on gap assessment and gap analysis as a primary methodology for seeking process improvements and identifying opportunities for improvement.  Our facilitation methodology was usually centered around questions like: “What is your pain point?” Or “What is the one thing you would change?” Or “What would make things better?”

This type of gap assessment methodology is highly successful and works extremely well in organizations that:

  • Have a strong (positive) organizational culture
  • Are accustomed to process improvement or are seeking it out
  • Have process aptitude or orientation
  • Are resilient to change

We’ve applied the AI methodology to our Process Improvement Part One and Part Two courses (part of the Whiteboard University Curriculum that we’ll be offering this fall).  Our Whiteboard Way teaches the following concepts:

  1. Define It! Learn to develop a problem statement to effectively describe a potential process improvement project.
  2. Draw It! Use basic process mapping tools to graphically represent the process at hand and begin to identify possible areas for bottlenecks, duplication of effort, or unclear roles and responsibilities.
  3. Imagine It! Use tools like a fishbone diagram to effectively search for root causes, and thus possible solutions to the problem identified in step 1.
  4. Prove It! Use data to demonstrate how the improved process could be measured against current performance.
  5. Talk About It! Effectively communicate process changes throughout the organization to support uptake of the new process and manage progress throughout.

We applied AI methodology (and Summit framework) in the following 2 steps of the Whiteboard Way:

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 11.07.37 AMTools We Use

Opportunity Map

Following an exercise to identify problem statements from a number of groups, the problem statements are collected and documented on a whiteboard. Process improvement project problem statements are then reframed  in the positive using AI methodology to talk about the ideal process or ideal experience to generate future state discussions that feature best-in-class processes.

Using multicoloured dots, individuals from each table group are able walk to the whiteboard and “vote with their feet”  on the top 3-4 projects that are of most interest to each individual.  The top 3-4 winning projects are then spaced around the room and participants are asked to join the project that is of most interest or that the participant feels could provide the most value from a knowledge perspective. For the most part teams naturally tend to be naturally evenly distributed, but wherever necessary shift to create somewhat equal participation between groups.

Using the opportunity map creates a great deal of engagement in the group. We have noticed that every person who joins a new project group has a vested interest in the outcome, and their excitement and engagement is palpable right away – versus teams being forced to work on pre-defined problem statements.

The re-shuffling of table groups based on working on the new problem statement of their choice truly helps to capture not only individual engagement, but the appropriate level of knowledge base within the group.

AI Questions/Reframing

In order to facilitate the Imagine It! portion, we first use traditional process improvement methodology using a fishbone diagram to determine possible root causes for the problem statement.  This is where traditional process improvement would end – what we do differently is ask them to then consider the possible root causes, and using AI question techniques begin to envision a future state for the problem.  The guided questions for each problem/opportunity statement are as follows:

  1. What is the current strength of this process?
  2. What are you proud of?
  3. Can you tell a story of when this process worked well?
  4. What are the key themes of success? (Using the Fishbone diagram as a guide: People, Processes, Materials, etc.)
  5. What does this process look like in one year, once it has been reengineered and is working effectively?
  6. What measures can we use to see how successful the new process is (versus the old process)?
  7. What things need to be done in order to get there?

The teams are then able to effectively leverage current components of the process that work the best, identify what needed to change, and what needs to happen in order to make that change.

Reflections on impact on participants

Using this new style of questioning is a fundamental change from classic process improvement.  Often during the Imagine phase there is a great deal of change resistance to changing the process, especially when certain parts appear to be working. Leveraging the parts of the process that work well allows that resistance to diminish significantly. The “pain points” and “what is the one thing you would change” conversation in a typical gap assessment tend to devolve into “personnel issues” rather than process issues. Often people determine that it in fact was not the process that was broken, but the owner of those process steps that is to blame for the variability in the outcome of the process.

The AI methodology  paired with gap analysis allows participants to steer clear of the negative, and focus on positive process improvements that are more fruitful than those that develop from pure process gap analysis alone (Click to Tweet).

Reflections on AI

While traditional gap assessment methodology is still a large component of process improvement initiatives, the use of AI is very effective when there is significant resistance to change or organizational culture issues that tend to draw negative conversations rather than opportunities.  This is completely normal for process improvement where users of a process experience the effects of the change curve, namely first disbelief in the efficacy of the methodology, anger possibly due to fear of the unknown or lack of skills to execute the newly developed process,

New questions or observations

It would be interesting to document a process improvement project that used AI exclusively as a methodology against one that used gap analysis to assess whether the improvements using AI could in fact yield better results.

Our opinion is that differing methods work for different individuals, so blending the two approaches meets the needs of all stakeholders and will yield the best possible approach to engage a wide variety of thinking styles and communication styles.

Want to know more about AI and process improvement?  Send us a note.  Have any interesting AI stories?  Join the conversation on Twitter @whiteboardcons.

Until next time,



Coffee Talk: Explaining Whiteboard’s Sweet Spot

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 12.50.36 PM“I thought you did process improvement,” said my friend.

“We do,” I responded, stirring my decaf soy skinny mocha (new fave drink, for those keeping track).

“But you just taught a course on Coaching, and another on Executing Flawlessly.”

“Yeah, and?” I was sure there was a question in here, but wasn’t clear yet on what it was.

“I don’t get it. What do those have to do with process improvement? That’s process mapping, and finding efficiency, and statistics. You’re talking about leadership skills in those other courses.”

Ah, the lightbulb came on. And my first thought was, “Really? Isn’t it obvious?” My second thought was “Ruth, don’t be rude. Clearly this is not as obvious a concept as you seem to think.” In fact, most people Nicole and I talk to are not quite sure how to explain the niche that Whiteboard Consulting has carved for itself.

“Hmmm,” I stalled for time as I gathered my thoughts. “OK, you’ve done some process improvement at work, right?”

“Well, we’ve only done a little bit. My boss is trained in Lean Six Sigma and has been teaching us a little at a time. It seems ok, but it takes a really long time to implement and most of us don’t have the time to dedicate to it. It’s crazy, because Sherri, my boss, clearly loves this stuff but has trouble explaining it to some of the people who are more cynical. We’ve got people with 30+ years of experience, and you can’t tell them about changing the way we do things when the processes work just fine for them. And it’s so involved! I mean Lean has all these steps that you have to do, and meetings, and charts – people don’t have time for it all, and so the ideas they come up with just don’t stick. I really don’t get it. No offense,” he added hastily.

“None taken,” I said. “What else do you know about process improvement?”

He thought a minute while he chewed his blueberry scone. “To be honest, not much. I know that a buddy’s company tried to implement Six Sigma and spent a ton of money on training and then ditched it after a year. But I also know that there are people who are successful at it – I mean, you and Nicole have obviously had great experiences or you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.” He shrugged. “I don’t know why it works for some and not for others.”

“Think about it this way,” I began. “If your boss could do one thing differently to make her process improvement efforts more successful, what would it be?”

“One thing? That’s hard because there are a bunch – she needs to be able to actually explain why this process stuff is necessary, and put it in the language we’ll all get. And that’s not easy because we all come from different backgrounds at work. And then there’s the time to get things done and the tendency to allow things to just slide by. No one has the time, so stuff gets dropped and there are no consequences. Why should I kill myself over something if no one really cares enough to hold me accountable? The whole thing is inconsistent and so it just doesn’t stick with people.”

“Right, so if your boss was better able to coach you on what needs to be done, communicate why it needs to be done, understand the cultural resistance for how it’s being done, help people make time for the work, and hold people accountable to their tasks… that would make it successful?”

“For sure. Absolutely. But you’d have to teach her how to… oh… I see what you did there. Nicely done.”

We both laughed. “See,” I said, “so many of the more formal process improvement efforts require a HUGE investment in time and money, and companies take them on before fully assessing whether the organization is ready to change. They expect people to be thrilled to change their processes when first of all, they’re perfectly happy doing what they’ve always done, and secondly they’re terrified that process improvements will mean job cuts. Then everyone’s day jobs kick in, and draw attention away from what the goals were, and things slide, and it becomes this swirl of doom. Nothing gets done, and process improvement efforts get a bad name.”

“Swirl of doom. Did you just make that up?”

“Sort of, yeah. We also call it the vortex of insanity. Take your pick. But seriously – Nicole and I recognized this long ago, and set up Whiteboard Consulting with its own little niche: we are the company that teaches the initial steps of process improvement that prove themselves and start to shift the culture. We also teach the leadership components that are essential to supporting the success of the initiatives. You just can’t do one without the other. Well you can, I guess, but you’ll likely screw everything up.”

“Are you saying Lean Six Sigma is the wrong way to go?”

“No! No not at all,” I said quickly. “You know I’m a black belt in Six Sigma, and obviously I loved it or I wouldn’t still be doing it almost 15 years later. We just feel that those big programs are, for a lot – not all, but a lot – of businesses, too much, too soon. We teach the baby steps first, and if the culture is then ready for the big guns, then by all means, launch the formal stuff. Whiteboard Consulting’s sweet spot is where process and leadership meet.” (Click to Tweet)

“That sounds like a good tag line.”

“It does, doesn’t it. I may have to do something about that. Now enough about work, let’s discuss the season ender of Game of Thrones and whether Jon Snow really does know a thing or two after all.”


Until next time,


When To Be a Bitch at Work

Ruth and I spend a significant amount of time teaching our clients and training participants to be kind and curious, ask open ended questions, reduce assumptions and judgements, and basically be the most lovely manager your team has ever had.  I’ve laid out a broad sweeping generalization in our blog before – coaching is everything. But I take it back. Coaching is ALMOST everything.  The final key to the mysteries of management is just saying what needs to be said – in the right way and at the right time.

While coaching might be 90% of the solution, the other 10% is delivering firm and clear messages that get results. Interestingly enough, it is often that behaviour that makes many women leaders “the bitch” and their male counterparts “assertive and determined”.  But that’s a whole other topic for our Women and Leadership Series – in today’s blog – I’m talking about being assertive and clear and not trying NOT to be a bitch by softening the message.


Which comes first the coaching or the bitch?

Well it depends on the situation and the person of course! One of our favourite leadership theories, and one that resonates well with our clients, is Situational Leadership.  At its core, it trains leaders to effectively diagnose the needs of an individual or a team and then use the appropriate leadership style to respond to the needs – based on two communication styles: Task oriented and relationship oriented styles.

This means that each individual and situation needs to be diagnosed appropriately.  There is a time to use coaching for:

  • selling –> How might this benefit you?  What would make you want to do this? Tell me what is working well for you?
  • discovering –> Help me understand what happened? Tell me more? Tell me about a time you have you done this in the past?
  • problem solving –> What is the impact of your decision? How might you approach this? Who needs to be involved?

And there is ALSO a time, for more directive language. Directive language, or more simply, direct, assertive, to-the-point language, is often deemed negative and insulting to the recipient.  Our Canadian (and British influenced) culture, in fact, does a particularly bad job of being direct. We are much more likely to soften the message with the sandwich approach (good feedback, bad feedback, good feedback) or softening our message with words like “occasionally” or “maybe” or perhaps. It is this weakening of messages that causes confusion in employees.  They are unable to discern between the message and the words.

So when can you just say it?

3 Situations When You Can (and should be) Be a Bitch.

  1. Urgency (when time is of the essence) –> I need you to contact the following people by end of day to resolve this customer service issue before it becomes a bigger problem.
  2. Lack of skill or experience–> First you will contact the suppliers, then you will generate the purchase orders, and finally you will order the parts – that is the process I need you to follow.
  3. Resistance to  previous coaching –> We have talked about the impact of your tardiness at the last 3 meetings. You are required to be at work at 8:30.  Another incident of tardiness will be noted in your file.

The coaching drives engagement, but it is the direction (when appropriate) that drives results. Your ability to be the bitch at the right time and in the right way, will make both you and your team a success.  Discover the magical balance between coaching and direction to become both a loved AND respected manager (Click to Tweet!).

Tell us your stories about your results @whiteboardcons!

Until next time,


How to Be a Shirtless Jogger at Work

It is possible that the title of this blog only resonates for those who live in the Greater Toronto Area. It’s also possible that with social

shirtless jogger

media and the global popularity of Rob Ford, that others are now familiar with the awesome Shirtless Jogger. But for those of you who aren’t, let me explain…

Toronto’s famous/infamous mayor, Rob Ford, returned from his stint in rehab this past Monday, June 30th. The next day was July 1st, Canada’s 147th birthday, fully of parades and flag waving and fireworks and BBQ’s and… a shirtless jogger.

At a parade in the Toronto neighbourhood of East York, 35 year-old Joe Killoran, a local teacher, experienced his 15 minutes of fame when he confronted the Mayor with questions to which Torontonians (most of them, anyway) want answers. Mr Killoran was out for a jog, it was a hot day, he was shirtless, he was bold, and the media captured it here.

Toronto Twitter exploded with the hashtag #ShirtlessJogger, and the national media picked it up and ran with it – the Globe and Mail called for more Shirtless-Jogger-Brand Outrage in Toronto.

That got me thinking…

How Can We Have More Shirtless-Jogger-Brand Outrage at Work?

Of course it’s not ok to shout and yell at work, and it’s probably not a good idea to be shirtless unless you’re a lifeguard. But the sentiment behind Mr. Killoran’s actions is that he was fed up and he wanted to be heard, so he saw an opportunity and did something about it.

One of the characteristics of office group behaviour is the tendency to agree with things when around a conference table, and then immediately dismiss or bad mouth them as soon as the meeting is over.

Have you ever seen someone do that? Have you seen groups of people chat away in the break room, complaining about something that was just announced, or about a change that is coming? Were they all nodding and supportive, or refusing to ask questions, while it was being announced? Did anyone actually do anything about it? This is classic passive aggressive behaviour, and it’s not only unhelpful, but can be destructive to office morale and productivity.

This is where the Shirtless-Jogger-Brand Outrage is required.

You can be the person to break the cycle of negative groupthink by being constructive, thoughtful, and open to discussion. This is your chance to openly question, present your concerns, and confront questionable (or seemingly questionable) actions in a thoughtful and helpful.

Once you decide to ask the questions and address the issues, remember that your leaders will appreciate your points much more if you:

  1. Ensure you are in a calm frame of mind. The Shirtless Jogger asked the right questions, and although he didn’t have much choice but to shout, it certainly won’t give you any credibility in the office. So think things through and make sure you’re in a conversational, not argumentative, state of mind.
  2. Be kind and curious. Make sure you have the facts, and where you don’t, ask questions rather than make assumptions.
  3. Plan your conversation. Doing this properly requires finesse and planning – it may even be an opportunity to “coach up“, and that ALWAYS requires planning.
  4. Make an appointment. Unless you find yourself in a spontaneous perfect situation for the discussion or, like Mr. Killoran, there’s simply no other choice but to rain on someone’s parade, it’s best to make an appointment.

Great leaders at all levels have an obligation to constructively question decisions in an open and respectful way. Once those discussions are complete and decisions are made, then the show must go on. Click to Tweet If there is no moral objection to the direction, then we must not only proceed with that direction but support it. Or we leave. It’s that simple.

Be a leader. Be the Shirtless Jogger and inspire change. Then tell us about it.

Until next time,