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Six ways to check if your processes measure up

Recently I read an article about the biases that trick your brain and what you can do about them.  One idea that stood out was that of holding pre-mortems

The most effective check against one’s biases says Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman, is from the outside: “Others can perceive our errors more readily than we can. And “slow-thinking organizations,” as he puts it, can also require procedures such as checklists and “pre-mortems.” A pre-mortem attempts to counter optimism bias by requiring team members to imagine that a project has gone very, very badly and write a sentence or two describing how that happened. Conducting this exercise, it turns out, helps people think ahead.”

It got me thinking about how ideas such as this fit into processes improvement and project management for in-house legal departments and for law firms.

So I asked Catherine Alman MacDonagh JD, founder of the Legal Lean Sigma Institute, to provide an introduction. (Catherine will be in Sydney on November 13 to conduct a White Belt Certification course covering process improvement and project management – more details at the end of this article).


Let’s start with the basics. Most people can identify when there are issues with a process. But few know where we are performing specific tasks well or have the discipline to check our biases and not jump to solutions. Bias and ‘flying solo’ (which is how many deliver projects) typically compound the problem.

One of the first things we do when engaging in process improvement project work is to form a team. This is usually 5 - 7 people and always cross functional with a representation of key stakeholders. These teams comprise a diverse range of views - not only in the sense of inclusion, but also in skills, problem solving approaches, personality types and communication styles.

It is the structure of process improvement that helps us avoid failure. For example, before jumping to a solution ask yourself these five questions :

  1. How will I decide which problems are the most important to solve?

  2. How will I know when I’ve succeeded in improving a process?

  3. What is value in the eyes of my client or my boss or my market?

  4. Where is variation and consistency (or standardization) desirable?

  5. How capable is our process of delivering what our stakeholders require?

Process Improvement (PI) provides us with methodologies (like Lean and Six Sigma) frameworks, and tools to help answer these questions and a whole lot more.

PI is the systematic practice of first analyzing a process to understand how it is currently carried out, then searching for issues, problems, and opportunities in the process and prioritizing them. Once prioritized, tools and techniques are employed to solve priority problems or to capture significant opportunities. Finally, the new process must be controlled so that it delivers the anticipated benefits. PI projects are always delivered by cross functional, diverse teams – and more often now, are cross-organizational as well. In other words, PI offers tested frameworks for collaboration and innovation.

A process is a describable, repeatable sequence of activities that generates an outcome; as such, to a process improvement practitioner, nearly everything qualifies as a process, from the mundane routines of everyday life (like making a cup of coffee) to incredibly complex processes involving multiple and global operations.

Based on my experience, I anticipate there’ll be readers who are not convinced that the legal work they do can be distilled to a process. And one of the things I often hear from the client side is “we don’t have a process for that.” The reality though is that if you are doing a particular kind of work right now, you have a process – albeit one that may radically differ from matter to matter, client to client, lawyer to lawyer, staff to staff, or office to office.

Moreover, we consider processes to be the way that law firms and legal departments create and deliver value to their clients. Processes embody the knowledge of a legal department or law firm and our processes are the way we do and deliver work. Ideally, they are the best way to do something and that’s what gives you an advantage.

There is a direct connection between process improvement and project management (also called legal project management or LPM).

Consider this: what is the benefit of having the ability to manage projects very well if our underlying process is not the best it can be? Conversely, what is the value of having an excellent process that is not being managed well? When we develop the capacity to do process improvement work, we can employ project management skills to select the best processes, tools, and skills to be able to carry out our ideal process every time.

Project management is both a role and a set of skills that ensure that, for a particular engagement, we review and select the right processes and then apply them appropriately to each particular matter.

It used to be that PI was only employed in manufacturing but over the past decade more and more legal departments are using PI so they can do more with less and focus on the right things.


 Catherine Alman MacDonagh JD will be in Sydney on Tuesday 13 November to deliver a one-day White Belt Certification Course on Legal Lean Sigma® and Project Management. Facilitated with Tim Corcoran, this course will teach you how to apply Six Sigma, Lean, project management and other methodologies in contexts that are immediately useful and relevant to the practice and business of law. To register and find out more information, please click here.

Sue-Ella Prodonovich