Mike Clargo – September 2017
Executive summary: Over the past century, increasingly effective process improvement techniques have transformed business performance – through data. Conversely, our experience of the meetings process is largely unchanged – through lack of data (we don’t even keep score of the basics!). Meetings excellence has massive potential for not just productivity, but health, culture, innovation, … Gathering meeting data is key to sustainably delivering this, and it is now both simpler and easier than people imagine. Three key pieces of data provide all we need to enable and inspire people to improve meetings for themselves, and Siemens now have real-life examples of how this can be achieved through the tools businesses already have to hand.
Process Improvement has transformed business …
Many of you will already be aware of the history of the Business Excellence movement. But as a brief reminder, it started almost 100 years ago when Shewhart first began to apply statistical methods to improve Quality in production processes back in the 1920s. Since that time, the application of metrics and data to improve performance has developed through: the Japanese quality revolution of the 1950s and 60s; TQM in the 1970s and 80s; and Business Excellence models such as EFQM from the 1990s onwards.
More recently it has spawned ideas such as Lean, Agile, and Digital, and now we find ourselves at a point where virtually every business process is efficient and continuously improving.
Business processes (with one notable exception – which we will come back to) have been transformed to a point where they are almost unrecognisable in terms of their performance and efficiency. In many cases, one person is now able to deliver outputs which previously required twenty.
And at the core of this transformation is one vitally important thing – a mantra almost. A four letter word which has enabled and sustained this progress.
Conversely, the process of meeting has not changed in 2000 years …
However, one business process, the process of meetings, remains, in large part, unchanged. And the extent to which it remains unchanged may surprise you.
Five years ago, I ran an experiment. I took the transcript of a meeting, altered a few instances of content which provided obvious clues to its age, sent it out to 60 business people, and I asked them to take a guess, purely based on the approach taken, as to the date of the meeting.
Most guesses were in the last decade, but some went back to the 1800s, and one even as far as the 17th century.
The point I am seeking to make is – the meeting process is so unchanged, that most people are unable to date a meeting, even over a 300 year period.
That is concerning enough, but when you consider that the transcript I used was of a meeting which actually took place 2000 years ago (for the record, it was the council of Jerusalem recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 15), and that most of our business audience confused it with a modern event, you can see the true extent of the unchanging nature of the meetings process.
And why are meetings so unchanged? Why has the business excellence movement proven so ineffective in this one area?
Meetings lack the data they require to sustainably improve …
The answer, quite simply, is ‘lack of data’.
The reality is that we (and by that I currently mean virtually all organisations) have no ‘efficient’ means to even understand:
- How much time they consume?
- How well they achieve their objectives?
- Or even … whether they are getting better or worse?
As a result, meetings are now the most complained about process in business.
- They are cited as the biggest cause of frustration and time-loss
- Their inefficiency means we have too many that last too long
- And they fall well short of their potential to excite and empower
The potential gain from meetings excellence is huge …
A conservative estimate is that if we could improve meetings in the same way we have improved other business processes – with creativity and flexibility to needs – we could save ourselves 4 hours per week in meeting time alone – that is a 10% gain in productivity, or the equivalent of an extra 11% people for free.
But this is more than just the numbers. It is also
- a reduction in stress,
- a gain for mental health,
- a boost for ownership culture
- and the opportunity to free our people to drive digital innovation.
It is a really big prize, …
But our history shows that we cannot get there if we cannot answer the three questions posed above. And, as the saying goes, and as our own experience illustrates, those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. The reality is, without data, we cannot sustainably improve.
But how on earth do we measure meetings?
Measuring meeting excellence is conceptually straightforward …
Part of the problem in measuring meetings is that we have seen their wide variety of types and purposes, and we have got lost in this apparent complexity. This has led us toward partial impractical solutions which have not been sustained over time.
But, at one vitally important level, the purpose of meetings is intensely simple: They exist to enable people to be better able to add value: through their work; their understanding; their motivation; their ideas; their relationships; their health; … either directly within the meeting, or as a result of it, or both.
To the extent to which meetings can deliver this value quickly, they are efficient. And to the extent they fail, they are inefficient.
Furthermore, people’s own assessments of the meeting are largely a self-fulfilling prophesy – meeting value will be enacted, by its attendees, according to the value they perceive. Therefore, the value of most meetings can, to all practical intents and purposes, be largely evaluated by the value its attendees perceive at the end of it.
But how do we gather people’s assessments? Wouldn’t this be horrendously bureaucratic and burdensome?
Readily available technology makes measuring meetings practical …
It might have been in the past, but the digital revolution has brought us new opportunities. Our systems are connected as never before, and we can now use simple mobile apps to gather these assessments – and, lets face it, even a single click would be better than the dearth of data we have presently.
Think about it. What is the evidence that our meetings are currently poor? Is it not people’s opinion?
Supposing we could capture that opinion, in the blink of an eye, for all people, for all their meetings, as they happen? Would the sum not equate to the current evidence? And if it did, would the detail not provide clear metrics by which to improve?
We can empower people to improve their own meetings …
Furthermore, the history of Business Excellence shows us that the most effective process improvements occur, and are best sustained, when we empower the operators with means to measure and make improvements themselves.
So what would happen if we empowered people to:
- see their own data across all of their own meetings,
- enabled them to prioritise where they would most like to see improvement,
- and gave them simple tools and ideas based on that feedback?
Given that the vast majority of our employees want to do a good job, would they not begin to fix their own issues?
So how might this technology work? It would clearly need to answer our three questions, so let us return to them to see what might be needed.
Three things provide all we need …
Our view is that any effective data solution would require three key elements:
In regard to …
- How much time meetings consume: There is only one accurate current source of meeting time, and that is people’s calendars. A simple, privacy-compliant, add-in working in the background of Outlook could analyse how much meeting time is in people’s calendars, and even how that time breaks down into different types of meetings and travel. And it could keep this updated daily.
- How well meetings achieve their objectives: For this we would need a simple effortless means of engaging people. We need to engage them through what they have with them at the meeting. A simple mobile app, working in conjunction with the add-in, could capture anonymous single click feedback on all meetings, and it could feed this back immediately to the organiser. It could also allow flags and comments if required.
- Whether meetings are getting better or worse: We need a means of collating this data securely, but providing authorised access to users. Individual cloud-based accounts could gather all of this data and enable people to have real time data on the meeting process, and to see trends for their meetings, and for their areas of responsibility.
In terms of doing this ‘efficiently’ , items 1 and 2 could consume virtually no time at all. Item 3 would be at the discretion of the meeting organiser, and would be commensurate with the potential savings available (as in the case of all business excellence and process improvement).
Providing a proven solution …
We could also link the technology to the wide range of meeting improvement strategies, enabling people to easily select, access, and evaluate the optimum solutions for their meeting effectiveness. All fairly obvious really.
In fact, you might say that what we have done on meeting data was therefore fairly inevitable. Perhaps, if you were being a bit unkind, you might even go so far as to say that the only creative input in the whole thing has been the logo.
But actually, there has been a lot of work put in to developing a working practical solution, and for that we are indebted to the efforts of our friends in Siemens Supply Chain and Building Technologies. And thanks to their efforts, we not only have a viable solution, but we also have some real learning and practical advice on how to get the best out of it.
And the advantage of learning from BT and SCM’s experience, is that you don’t have to reinvent it for yourselves (unless of course you really want to).
Notes: Mike Clargo is a Director at Inspirometer Ltd.
To understand more about the Inspirometer system, please visit: http://inspirometer.com
For more information on this article and the case studies referenced, please contact Mike Clargo