One Year of Going It Alone

Spoiler: Building a consultancy is tougher than building a lego plane.

Well, it’s been just over a year of since leaving the warm security blanket of full time, public sector employment, and embarking on a new adventure undertaking Quality Management Auditing and Process Mapping activities with my new company Alacrity. So it seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on what I have learned on the way.

The Background

Over the course of the previous year I have had the pleasure to work with a variety of people and organisations across Devon, Cornwall and Bristol, all unique in nature, from a disperse range of industries, varying from organisations of 100+ staff to those working as sole-traders. 

The range of work we have conducted has been just as wide-ranging. From ensuring the efficient and effective layout of shop floor spaces, designing after-sales processes for customer re-engagement, remapping company reporting structures, designing KPIs and remodelling external communication processes. But regardless of the task or brief provided by our clients, the initial overall core objectives are the always the same – reduce cost, reduce time wastage, reduce mistakes and reduce inefficiency. 

Utilising time effectively and valuing all aspects of the process remains the at the core of quality management, no matter the size or nature of the organisation.

Remapping company-wide processes is often complex, it’s like unravelling headphone cables once they’ve been in your pocket for any discernible period of time. In the initial stages my first task is always to understand the unique character of the organisation. This inevitably leads to talking with people. Organisations are their people; I strongly believe that. I have met some quite brilliant and talented people over the last year, often carrying out activities which are unseen by the majority of their colleagues. It is only through understanding the experiences of those involved in processes that it is possible to remap to meet the core objectives outlined above. I have yet to meet a single person involved in a Process Auditing activity in the workplace that did not care or want to work more effectively.

More than ‘just work’

What has been somewhat a surprising circumstance this year has been the number of people who I have made cry. I am quite certain through talking about individual’s experiences of their work, I have encountered more people crying than I have witnessed throughout the rest of my life combined – and I’ve worked in education! In all seriousness, this has been the most enjoyable aspect of the work I have been involved within because of what it represents. Whilst auditing processes, I endeavour to engage every individual involved in the processes identified. This often means talking to individuals about their own experiences of their work, and it is evident that the overwhelming majority of us are so tightly strung, passionate and loyal to our work, that to even be asked ‘how do you feel about things?’, momentarily at least, gives us a moment to reflect, and that is all it takes to overcome us. 

Two cases in particular have really left an indelible mark on me this year. 

In one particular case, on the first day of conducting a process audit upon the external communication processes of a large organisation, I was working closely with a bright and talented lady who was responsible for the telecommunications system. Within a couple of hours she was to escort me to a separate office, and within minutes of entering this office her and the individuals inside had a vigorous disagreement over workloads. My presence to investigate had seemingly triggered an outpouring of pent up feelings and frustrations - the reality was that both sets of colleagues were incredibly hard working and talented, but given the lack of visibility to the other there was a misconception of unfairness. Upon talking to her there was an outpouring of emotions which demonstrated that this was not just work for her, she loved the company she worked for and being asked about her experiences was liberating.

The second experience relates to working with a self-employed individual. In the initial consultation meeting after the pleasantries the discussion regarding the root problems was held. The usual responses of core objectives were had, “it needs to be more profitable, and more responsive”. Then the big question “How do you feel about it how you are working currently, and what do you want to be?”. The individual became emotional, they explained their investment, both financial and family time related. It was much more than just providing Process Mapping. We were mapping out their life and how work fits in, and how work could support them. I am delighted that this individual has had an incredibly successful few months since.

Traditionally at least, Business Process Mapping (BPM) is quite mechanistic in nature, ‘if we do x, and then y, we will get z’. Contemporary BPM acknowledges that organisational fit and individual’s personalities determine what the most appropriate ‘x’ and ‘y’ are. Never taking a one size fits all approach. You would probably expect me to say this as an external consultant but my experiences, from the number of projects I have been involved in, has highlighted that true remapping and process auditing can only genuinely be objective when someone outside of the processes analysed is given open autonomy to investigate. Internally led auditing and remapping exercises often are overly tainted from the experiences of the lead party which, whilst being no less real than any other, are still not more significant or more ‘right’.

I would say that my personal mantra towards Process and Quality management is “lean doesn’t have to be mean”. I am a strong believer that any company consistently restructuring and needing to release staff has failed all of its staff. Effective people management fundamentally involves understanding the nuances of the industry it finds itself within and holding structures which are flexible enough to meet those changes without breaking them every 12 months. I would say that I have met at least three organisations this year where leaders have seemingly set out to future-proof their business through mapping and creating responsive structuring to their needs, present and future. None have released staff, and all are successfully increasing revenues to the levels needed for them to thrive.

It is also perhaps no coincidence that the management and leaders who have engaged with services with Alacrity over the past year are all extremely positive about change, and open to whatever findings arise. I do believe that any leadership who enter into an externally led Process Mapping activity should consider themselves brave and progressive. It is often easier for leadership to rest on their laurels and previous successes, allowing the status quo to wash away progress – as it so cruelly will if unchallenged. I have worked with some outstanding professionals this year, ones who are multi-award winning, recognised for their innovative ideas in the media, brilliant to their staff, and not satisfied with standing still and not progressing further. I would be very confident that all managers, directors and leaders I have worked with this year would agree that the Process Auditing and Mapping work conducted by Alacrity has provided them with a real basis to push further forwards with their businesses, and that they have learned invaluable insights about their staff and how their business works. That to me is genuinely more reward than any invoice could bring.

Common Observation

In terms of what I have observed this year, I have been somewhat surprised to the extent of which process and quality mapping activities are misunderstood or undervalued within business. The financial value attributed to remapping activities can easily be monitored in most cases involving front line services. From the design of post-sales processes to designing waste minimisation processes, the financial benefits of the remapping always out-strip the consultative costs numerous times over. But more undervalued still are the ‘softer’ benefits of process auditing. Nearly always, leadership gain greater understanding of their staff and how they work, I have seen countless examples where senior management have gained greater appreciation of the commitment and skills that their staff possess, and this always seems to be pleasantly surprising. Highlighting that processes are most often unfit for purpose, not staff.

From an organisational perspective, the most common lesson learned is to recognise value in all aspects of what organisations do. For example, in an organisation where there are non-‘profit generating’ staff, the processes and work they do must be recognised for the inherent value they generate. For example, receptionists provide value to the customer experience. Obviously providing a reference to this financially is difficult, but it is not imperative to provide a specific value - the recognition is the key factor. From a quality management perspective, it has been evident that in situations where this value is not recognised there is often a decrease in performance, or in some cases inefficiency. 

Perhaps one of the more neglected processes highlighted through our work is the practices businesses undertake to re-engage with existing clients, or to even collect relevant data on existing clients to start with. In one such organisation I have worked with, they have started to implement such systems to re-engage and this has resulted in several high value pieces of work which would not previously have been realised. Thus more, even if these clients do not re-engage then they have been given exposure in the form of non-offensive, gentle marketing which keeps the company as the first choice in its field for recommendation should friends or family require their service.

Throughout my work I have also witnessed a great deal of ‘skills-modesty’. An overly modest approach is one in which the provider devalues the service or product provided, when clients would not hesitate to pay for these services. On one recent occasion, a brilliant design company would relinquish design costs (approx. £500) if a client were to commit and buy fitting services. From a superficial glance this appears to be an understandable business practice, however when you examine more closely it is communicating that physical fitting is a more valuable activity than design – when in reality design is an intellectual skill in far less abundance in a wider context. To neglect the value of this is to undermine the core values of the organisation. Individuals and organisations need to continually recognise the inherent synergies, skills and wares that they possess which clients and customers value enough to buy. If you do not respect the value of your services, neither will clients.

Still learning

From a more personal reflection I have learned several lessons over the previous year. I’ve always believed that life is a continual lesson – and oh boy that has proven so. 

The first is a general lesson, take nothing for granted. Whether that be upcoming work, health or other’s actions. The number times potential clients have decided against proceeding at the last moment, the times clients have paid invoices late (the larger the company, the worse!), the times where people wish to discuss work but then want it as a free-session.

Secondly, be yourself. In my initial discussions with clients, I felt uncomfortable whilst feeling like I was overly selling. The reality is that by just being myself, focussing on what benefits I could bring, clients would want to work together. Repeating from before, if you cannot value your own services, then neither will clients.

Thirdly, enjoy it. There have been many times in the year where I have missed the security and company that comes with employment – particularly during a worryingly quiet month – however it is always important to remember why you chose to go self-employed. It is risky, it is up and down, but you do have ultimate control.

Finally, don’t go it alone. I have been very fortunate to have worked with and met the acquaintance of some great business people over the previous 12 months, through networking I have also built connections of a wide variety of others who provide understanding and experience to draw upon. I have also been extremely lucky to have the support of a brilliant partner whose support has been unwavering, even in the darkest and hardest of times – having someone to listen and help reflect on your ideas is essential, and do not take it for granted.

It has been quite a year, and here’s hoping the next year will be even more fruitful and rewarding!

Finally, the sell. Business Process Mapping is an essential activity to undertake in business, no matter how big or small the organisation is. If your business could benefit from reducing costs, reducing time wastages, reducing mistakes and reducing inefficiencies, then process mapping is always the starting point of find how this could be achieved. The benefits always outweigh any costs of the exercise, and insights into what makes the individuals of the business tick are always beneficial and surprising. 

If you would like to find out more, contact us at for a free, no-commitment consultation to discuss your businesses circumstances and how we can help.

Andrew Penfold

Managing Director, Alacrity Consulting Ltd.

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