Balancing Efficiency & Quality for Your Customers

Balancing Efficiency & Quality for Your Customers

how to ensure quality in professional services

It’s easy to fall in love with efficiency. It promises big savings to those with the fortitude to see efficiency-saving measures through. Process Improvement is built on small, compounding efficiencies.

As easy as it is to get carried away, we must always balance efficiency with quality. The former is your perspective, the latter is your customer’s perspective. And the customer pays your mortgage. 

Cut processes too deeply, and you’re asking for trouble. It takes too long to process files, customer service suffers, and mistakes happen. 

The solution: build quality into the front end. It’s an integral part of Process Improvement, and it helps us negotiate the balance between cutting for efficiency and maintaining a top-notch product.


A Culture of Quality

You can improve your processes from the corner office, but it won’t last. To create sustainable change (and save some real money) you need buy-in from every desk and cubicle. Focusing on quality is low-hanging fruit for cultural change.

Focus on “efficiencies” in meetings, and people get scared. “Efficiencies” tend to mean job cuts. Tilt the conversation toward quality, and ears perk up because:

pros of quality professional services

A culture of quality will deputize every employee to ensure that everything they do represents the best of the company. Once they’re empowered to be stewards of quality, they’ll probably be more receptive to hearing about building efficiencies into daily processes. 

Remember that your workforce cares about the services they provide.The pride is already there, all you have to do is encourage them to actualize it. 


Mistake-Proofing Your Processes

Once a document or email with a missed detail or mistaken number goes out to a client, the damage is done. The science is in balancing efficiency with a culture of quality to get the best of both worlds. 

Mistake-proofing (poka-yoke in Japanese) is about catching mistakes early and empowering your employees to prevent them. It builds on the culture of quality that you remind people about every morning at your stand-up meeting.

It’s tempting to give employees instructions so clear that they can shut off their minds. Empowering them, and building that culture, is about asking them to check the numbers twice and use their intuition if something doesn’t add up. 

Everytime a file passes from one worker to the next, it freezes more of your cash into it. Catching mistakes earlier will help you retrieve that cash (by getting a sale instead of a bad review) at the other end. 

mistake proofing professional services

Every employee who touches a company file should be their own quality control. Don’t wait until the end; empower your team to spot mistakes or anything missed and fix them before they cost you another dime. 


“Quality is not an act, it is a habit.”

– Aristotle

Office Bottleneck? It Might Be You.

Office Bottleneck? It Might Be You.

office bottlenecks headerRunning an office is a gauntlet of processes that happen every minute of every day. Making coffee. Approving budgets. Putting callers on hold. There are some processes you think about, but most happen on autopilot. They flow and overlap throughout the day like a current.

But what happens when one process stops the current like a rock in the stream?  Or when multiple currents converge into one, slowing all subsequent processes to a crawl?  It’s a bottleneck, and it eats at profit like crazy.

Like all Process Improvement, getting brutal with bottlenecks requires identifying them first. That’s tough, and here are some reasons why:

  • Few businesses take the time to visualize the flow of their processes.
  • The bottleneck is probably invisible, in that it’s been “baked-in” over time to how your business works.


Process Bottleneck

The typical example of process bottlenecks is the “jam factory” allegory. Three conveyor belts with jars ready to be boxed converge toward one poor packaging employee—and they can’t keep up. There’s an obvious solution to this bottleneck. Hire another employee; fixed.

jam factory bottleneck example

That’s the easiest kind of bottleneck to smooth out. Naturally, those bottlenecks tend to be cleared up quickly. Want to find out about the ones that don’t get cleared up? Check that stack of papers on the corner of your desk.

No matter how much we delegate, the boss or manager is still going to be integrated into many processes. Often it’s just to approve the purchase/hire/work order/etc. That’s fine—until waiting for approvals becomes a problem.

It’s common for the costliest bottleneck to happen in the corner office, where a boss with a lot on their plate doesn’t approve or review in a timely way. Worse is that people often won’t speak up because—well, you know.



Ironically, bottlenecks often happen when the boss is trying to be lean by saving money. Are these thoughts familiar:

“I don’t need to train anyone for that, I can do it!“

Or, “I need to cut middle management—send it to my desk.” 

Having a lean workforce saves money until bottlenecks happen. And that’s usually because, by reducing that “middle-management” layer, things pile up on the bosses desk and money is wasted. Meanwhile, employees wait in the wings and twiddle their thumbs.

Delegating is powerful, and can be an integral part of Process Improvement even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. It’s about reducing bottlenecks (and increasing morale) via empowerment. 

And that brings me to Kanban, the best weapon we have against bottlenecks.


Kanban Solution

If the bottleneck is baked-in, then it has become invisible. That means tolerating its profit-sucking existence is part of your daily routine. 

If that hits home, you need to change how you see your routines. Kanban is the elegantly simple tool for that.

The Japanese word loosely translates to “card you can see.” Kanban is about visualizing process flows in simple ways in order to identify the bottlenecks.

Here’s how:

  • Lay out your Kanban on a good sized whiteboard. Identify one vertical column for each step in your process. Horizontal rows (“swimlanes”) will be for workflows moving through the process.
  • Buy a stack of pretty Post-it notes and stick on one for each new workflow that needs to move through the processes.
  • Watch for steps where the Post-its accumulate. That’s your bottleneck.

Be consistent. While it may seem childish in the beginning, Kanban will quickly uncover inefficiencies that you either didn’t think existed or had learned to ignore. 

Put the board in the center of the office where everyone sees it. And if the “Boss’s Review” column is the one always loaded with Post-its, be prepared to make the changes that you need. 


When unaddressed, bottlenecks have another cost: employee morale. Chances are, if there’s a bottleneck somewhere down the line, there’s a frustrated person or team trying to squeeze through. The sooner you address your bottlenecks, the sooner you’ll restore a healthy sense of flow throughout your business.


“In most organizations, the bottleneck is at the top of the bottle.”

– Peter Drucker

Creating a Change Team in Professional Services

Creating a Change Team in Professional Services

change team professional services hlh edmontonChange can come slowly to an office. Processes get ingrained, habits form, and the pressures of doing extra—on top of a long list of daily tasks—can quickly quell cooperation. 

Process Improvement can change the bottom line, but it needs to be systemic. Change that’s top-down tends to make deep changes that aren’t sustainable and fall apart when the momentum wears off. Morale often falls apart shortly thereafter.

System-wide change is bottom-up. It’s about everyone sharing the same vision and being committed to incremental change that is, above all, sustainable. You can’t force that—it has to come from your internal Change Team.

Here’s how to build that team.

best people process improvement professional hlh edmonton

Find Your Change Leaders

Small changes don’t happen by themselves, especially if they’re to be consistent. Your Change Leaders are the ones who, hour after hour, keep Process Improvement top of mind.

Your change team needs to be as all-in as you are. They need to be talking up the need to be nimble and efficient in the hallways, lunchrooms, and job sites. 

But how will you find them?

Think of your existing staff. They drive your company and know its inner workings better than anyone. 

Who are your most engaged employees? The ones already coming to you with ideas on how to do better. The ones who care, not because they have to, but because it’s their nature. 

Start with them. Then let them inspire others to the challenge.


Roles in Change Leadership


roles change leadershipPeople have unique strengths. Embrace them. Here are the roles your Change Leaders need to fill. Put them into the roles they’re passionate about and they’ll bring their daily A-game. 

Communicators: Don’t fool yourself – you’ll still have skeptics about this whole “Process Improvement thing” you’re up to. You need someone to not only share your vision, but articulate it with purpose when you’re not around. 

Advocates: Your skeptics will say they’ve heard this all before and swear it’ll fizzle soon enough. Change Leaders will need to be consistent about why change is vital and how to make it happen. Ideally, you’ll have an advocate at every step of your process.

Liaisons: Sustainable change is organizational. It affects employees and customers alike. No one likes surprises in business, so each group needs to be advised and guided through what is happening and how it benefits everyone. 

Coaches: Your team will need guidance and they’ll need to be challenged. Coaches do both. Coming from a peer, ongoing motivation is a powerful thing.

Resistance Managers: You’re going to get criticism. Rather than stifling it (which doesn’t end well), your Change Leaders can engage and respond constructively.


Empower Your Change Team

How many employees are driven every day to change your business for the better?  How many are doing the bare minimum until the end of their shift? And how many are somewhere in the middle? 

No one is going to be proactive about positive change unless you show them that the business is worth the investment of their energy. And that means investing in them first. 

Empowerment is a leap of faith. You need to give your employees the opportunity to contribute their perspective to the Process Improvement project. 


Not everyone will step up, and that’s normal. But give everyone the opportunity to be a part of a special initiative, and often your Change Team will come out of the woodwork organically. 


“Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are sure to miss the future.”

 John F Kennedy

Real and False Urgency in Professional Services

Real and False Urgency in Professional Services

real vs false urgency professional services

When complacency sets root in an office environment, it’s hard to dig out. No amount of stern emails or strongly worded memos will give your team a sense of urgency. Only a culture of Process Improvement will do that.

Forcing your team to rush isn’t healthy urgency. It does far more harm than good. Before you know it, corners are cut on quality control, key meetings are cut short, and client-losing mistakes start to happen.

Here are the 2 kinds of urgency:

  • False urgency needs this job done now and then the next job done now. It thinks about the next step and then the next. It doesn’t coordinate with others. It trades aerial perspective for the perspective of those grinding away in the trenches.
  • True urgency finds the horizon, and create a map as it charts backwards. It keeps perspective, knowing the goal is urgent but the task is not. It neither hustles nor bustles, but takes correct, coordinated steps, exactly when it needs to.

real vs false urgency professional service

True urgency is the fuel that drives Process Improvement forward. False urgency is the fast, easy, and costly path that drives your people into burnout. 

So how can you create the right culture of urgency?  It’s about differentiating good “busy” from bad “busy”, and attracting the people who believe in Process Improvement.


1) Create the Right Kind of “Busy”

Stop measuring your day by hours. Start measuring it by focus. You always have more hours available than you have focus to make them productive. Choose wisely. 

Listen to your team. How many times per day do they mention how busy they are? Do they list off what they need to do when you say “hi?” Do they wear their busyness like a badge of honour?

Keeping a business running smoothly is not checking off a list of errands. It’s giving your focus to the processes that matter the most. 

Ask your team what was their 1 solid accomplishment that day. If they can’t think of one amid their errands-list of busyness, you need to slow them down so they can be more effective. 


2) Attract the Best People

Hiring the people you need, when you need them, is a challenge in every industry. To meet and defeat the challenge, you need to offer something that the other guys don’t. You build your marketing strategy to prospective Clients around your key differentiators; same rules for attracting quality staff: 

What are your hiring differentiators?

  • Paying more money?  This doesn’t necessarily attract the best people- just the opportunistic ones. And it can kill the bottom line like a bullet.
  • Reputation? We’re all envious of the companies that everyone wants to work for. But there’s a reason for it, and it’s probably not money.
  • Empowering culture? This is the one that matters. Empowering workplaces treat workers like skilled, smart adults. They foster accountability while encouraging people to make smart decisions independently.

A culture of urgency is a culture of listening. It’s a promise to listen, and then backing that up with something more personal than a feedback form. It’s asking your team what’s bugging them, and making good on your share of the solution. 

steps to urgency professional service

At the heart of it, creating healthy urgency is about encouraging employee engagement. The goal isn’t to “get there” faster, it’s about generating momentum as a team. Rather than letting complacency set in, you can create a dynamic in which accomplishments are shared and celebrated by everyone.

Creating a Sense of Urgency in Professional Services

Creating a Sense of Urgency in Professional Services

urgency in professional services



Successful process improvement needs to be cultural, and urgency must be at the cultural heart. Whether or not your entire team is driven towards process improvement will decide if your organizational change will succeed or fail.

Professional services businesses are close-knit teams. While having everyone under the same roof may get crowded sometimes, it also creates a deep sense of unity. You’re all in the same boat, and it’s that much easier to build a culture of urgency.

Here’s how:

urgency process in professional services

1) Daily Stand-Ups

Remember the meetings that are called with a deep sense of urgency, but by the time people wander in, pour a coffee and find a seat that urgency is gone?  It’s time to bring it back.

We often don’t realize some of the advantages our business models have. In professional services, everyone arrives to work at about the same time. It’s an opportunity to catch people before they get into their work and get them all on the same page.

Daily stand-up meetings will build a habit of urgency. The model is about energy and efficient communication designed to get people focused and on their way instead of ambling into their projects over 3 coffees.

Make it clear to the team that the stand-ups are reserved for announcing wins and losses, proposing solutions, and requesting help from other people on the team. When the team understands the utility of the stand-up, it becomes a tool for employee engagement and rapid change.


2) Identify Waste as a Group

Being there to listen to someone who tells you about waste is effective. But providing the space for people to assemble and identify waste together is powerful.

Hold a monthly or quarterly ‘efficiency’ meeting. Ask people to prepare by spending time beforehand thinking about waste (give them this time, don’t ask them to make it magically appear).

Conduct the meeting roundtable style with the bosses keeping their mouths shut. It’s the employees’ turn. Give them the chance to talk and they will, and what they say will save you money.


3) Inspire Them

Process improvement needs everyone’s engagement, but it needs your vision. Urgency comes from being inspired, and inspiration comes from leadership. It’s a common theme in process improvement and Lean that leading change can’t be done from the corner office; it happens in cubicles, hallways and lunchrooms.

Inspiration is more realistic than idealistic. Set actionable goals with timelines and accountability. Get everyone involved and move towards them together. Stay transparent about what parts of the plan are working what needs to be improved.


Make Sure Urgency is Productive

There are 2 kinds of urgency. There’s the running place-to-place, always-busy-never-focused, working-harder-but-not-smarter urgency. It’s unproductive, and in an office environment important details can get missed like that.

Productive urgency is being driven not to work faster, but smarter. It’s following the processes you’re used to, but opening your eyes to the waste that’s in plain sight.


productivity types professional services

Urgency goes hand-in-hand with a sense of ownership. Take the steps to involve your team today, and let them in on the impact their productivity is making on the business. When your team knows how much their contributions matter, a sense of urgency will naturally become a part of your business’s culture.


“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

Leonardo da Vinci

Lean Leadership in Professional Services

Lean Leadership in Professional Services

lean principles professional servicesWith a stack of files on your desk and 3 urgent calls gone unanswered, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day of managing a professional services firm. But to achieve process improvement that brings systemic change, we need to invest our leadership focus in the people who run our business everyday.


Inspiring Experts

To succeed in professional services, you surround yourself with experts. This can complicate what leadership looks like, and makes their buy-in absolutely essential.

Change Leaders need to articulate their vision clearly to themselves (don’t skip that part), and then to their team. But what about those who are comfortable just the way things are?

If you try to bully your expert team into change, it will taint the process from the beginning. When you encounter the “but we’ve always done it this way” crowd (often referred to as the old guard), you need to erode the resistance with your vision. Here’s how:

change in professional services



If you’re a quiet leader who likes to keep to yourself, that will need to change. Change Leadership is about building people, and that takes advanced communication skills. If you lack these, but want to become that leader, don’t be ashamed of reaching out to a professional coach or other mentor to help you.

When it comes to communication, office-based business have the advantages of being in close proximity where everyone (usually) starts work and has lunch at about the same times. Take advantage of this and get clear about what communication looks like in a change-driven office:

communication in professional services


Visualize It

Process improvement is about constant definition and measurement. People need to see where change is needed, what change is happening, and how successful change has been. And they need to see it in a glance.

Be transparent with your KPIs for file turnaround time, efficiency, etc. Buy a big whiteboard and track the course of each KPI daily. If a deliverable isn’t on target, there’s a reason. Professional teams need concise constructive feedback when they’re off-base, and be motivated to review processes, sniff out waste, and change the course.

Make the whiteboard democratic. Put it in the centre of the office (not in the boardroom) and provide post-it’s for ideas. Make it the hub of your daily stand-ups and keep it simple.


In professional services, everyone in the organization serves a critical purpose to keep the business running smoothly. When everyone in the firm feels valued and empowered to make an impact, they show up with their best ideas and contributions. Make your team feel like they have a stake in the success of the business, and you’ll be amazed at how much more can be accomplished with the same Lean team.


“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

 John Maxwell