I recently spoke to Victoria Lubomski, who is the Business Operations Director at IDEO, an innovation and design firm that uses a human-centered, design-based approach to help organizations. She was previously the Director of Operations at Mammoth Advertising and an Operations Manager at Utowa. My fellow Fast Track contributor, Anita Bruzzese, previously spoke with Tom Kelley, a partner at IDEO. In the following brief interview, Lubomski talks about how she defines process improvement, her approach to improving processes, biggest challenges, and how she solves her biggest problems.

Dan Schawbel: How would you define process improvement, and its importance to your business?

Victoria Lubomski: Most simply put, process improvements are initiatives that aim to positively affect the health of an organization, on anything from talent to profit to quality of work produced. At IDEO, we use process improvement to grow and maintain a healthy business, especially the aspects that relate to the happiness of the people who work here.

Beyond the beneficial result of whatever process improvement we are creating, what excites me are the benefits we see just going through the exercise. For example, we often form small teams to tackle a specific process improvement initiative, these teams are often multidisciplinary (from all areas of design, marketing, operations, etc) and are a chance for people who ordinarily do not get to work together to build something that will create positive change for the business. A lot of richness comes from those collaborations. For example, we recently did a revamp of the whole process for onboarding new employees. Having a very diversified group of people designing the system, each bringing their specific expertise, really helped us to approach the onboarding experience holistically. Making sure to take in account all moments along a new employee’s journey, from HR paperwork, to setting up a new computer, to getting introduced to their discipline’s community.

Schawbel: How do you approach process improvement within your organization?

Lubomski: I usually start by asking myself a slew of questions: Should I spearhead this or help set the stage for others to tackle the challenge? Who should be involved? What’s the reach this will have and consequently how scrappy can we be in our approach? How does this need stack-up against other things on the priority scale? (more on that last one in question #4’s reply)

To put this in perspective, I might view something like improving the equipment rental process for project use as a challenge for the community to take on: They’re best placed to create the solution they want to see. Something like a rework of asset tracking in a location, because it requires someone with a special understanding of our financial systems, would be a project I’d head up, with the goal of helping more people learn about this aspect of the business.

Regardless of who leads the project, most process improvement projects mirror IDEO’s design methods used on projects for clients. To begin with, make sure we have a good brief and really understand what we are trying to solve for. Then we move into research, where we try to understand the problem at hand through things like observation, talking with the people we’re designing for and understanding the pain points they experience, and gathering learnings from the past or other offices. Next synthesize what we learn from research and begin designing possible solutions. Then try prototyping a concept (or more) and iterating until we’ve got something that works. Maybe running through a brainstorm at some point along the way for good measure (and more brainpower!).

Schawbel: What are the biggest challenges you have from a tools / systems perspective to support process improvement?

Lubomski: Challenges tend to shift based on the studio and what else is happening at the same time. Some of the challenges that I keep an eye out for include:

  • People getting excited by shiny new things: They use a new technology or tool, and then they move on to the next thing that strikes their interest. This can be especially true with designers. Seeking out the new and novel helps them stay inspired for their work on some of our most complex, groundbreaking work, but it also means that the business and its processes have to keep up!
  • Stickiness: People need to really integrate new tools and processes into their daily lives. A comprehensive tool or system is no use if it’s not used consistently.
  • Ways tools impact behavior and culture: Sometimes the way a tools directs a user along a process (whether it be creating a project plan, tracking candidates and applications, tracking hours, etc.) leads to behaviors that aren’t helpful to our culture or business. I’m always looking out for the impact that our processes have on our interactions and our regard for one another.
  • Flexibility: Our tools end up shaping not only our work, but our culture as well. Finding systems and tools that are flexible and responsive to the needs of our employees creates the right foundation to build innovative solutions for ourselves and our clients.

Schawbel: How do you allocate resources / personnel to support process improvement?

Lubomski: At IDEO, one of our toughest challenges is prioritization. We have ridiculously smart people here who come up with tons and tons of amazing ideas. And you want to try them all! But we have the same constraints as everybody else: budget, time, and resources.

So first step prior to even allocating resources is when initiatives are prioritized in a collaborative manner and the resources needed to accomplish it are considered heavily. Hopefully if you have a manageable amount of process improvement initiatives slated, resourcing towards that becomes all the more feasible.

The actual allocation of talent to support process improvement usually starts with figuring out who is passionate about the challenge at hand, and/or has expertise in it, and going from there.

Schawbel: What strategies have you found most valuable to overcome those challenges?

Lubomski: Not trying to always be ahead of people. Sometimes it’s more beneficial to just watch what everyone around me is already doing, then try to elevate or formalize existing behaviors. People will often do the work for you! We do the same for our clients. There’s no use in designing a cutting-edge new technology if it’s too complicated to use or doesn’t fit into people’s lives. That kind of product would fail. The same goes inside of our studios: If it won’t be a natural part of the workflow or is clunky to use, it won’t fly.

The biggest learning I’ve had at IDEO is to always involve the power users (recipients) in creating process improvement. They will teach you the most. And without their buy-in and ongoing feedback – and most importantly, long term use – the process improvement won’t be successful long term.