Interview with Milton Mattox: On keeping business processes simple and effective

miltonmattox600x600Vera: One of your books is ‘Raiders of the lost Art’. What is the lost art and what do you hope can be done to bring it back to relevance?

Milton: The lost art is that of focusing on business process excellence. Prior to the boom in the 1990s, companies focused on business process efficiency with programmes such as Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, ISO 9001 etc. However, during the era, traditional business management and how a corporation’s success was measured was turned upside down in my view. For example, companies with extremely high debt were acquired for millions, if not billions of dollars on a “promise” of someday delivering on their mission.


Although corporations returned to traditional ways of measuring Return on Investment (ROI) after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, the focus on business process excellence never quite recovered. Companies tend to focus on the short-term goal of turning a profit using brute force rather than becoming more efficient and effective. Leaders can bring the art of business process excellence back to relevance by ensuring that their processes are (1) well defined, (2) measurable and 3) simple to maintain.


Vera: In a world where the focus is on results and impact, what’s the case for prioritizing process excellence?

Milton: The case is straightforward–process improvement still positively impacts the bottom line from a profit margin perspective. For example, I recently worked with a large international company whose profit margins averaged a healthy 32%. I looked at their processes and found that with a few minor improvement tweaks and eliminating wasteful time consuming processes, they could increase their profit margin to 42%, improve employee satisfaction and customer loyalty.


Vera: You address one of the addictions today- people ‘’too busy being busy’’ in the book. What have you learnt about the psychology behind people needing to be busy and how can an organization tackle this issue?

Milton: I am really happy you asked this question. “Too busy being busy” is perhaps one of the biggest reasons companies do not focus on process improvements. People unfortunately equate being busy with being productive but are unable to point to what they achieve. For example, one of my colleagues is responsible for responding to requests for proposals (RFPs) – at least 5 RFPs per month. However, he manages only 2 RFPs per month because of spending too much time on some parts of the process. One easy, obvious process improvement in this case is to develop a RFP response template to use as generally about 80% of all RFP responses at his company are similar. This would allow him to increase his output to the minimum 5 RFP.


Vera: From your experience, which are some of the processes that organizations don’t pay enough attention to and how can they get better at this?

Milton: Corporations do not pay enough attention to processes involving people, their most precious asset of all.  For example, the process of hiring good talent is generally fraught with inefficiencies. Hiring individuals who are not a good match impacts negatively on the business and the existing team. Onboarding is another area where processes are generally quite poor.  People come onboard and spend days getting their computers working properly and understanding what they are supposed to be doing. Companies can help themselves by improving people-related processes as a high priority.


Vera: What are some of the ‘do or die’ processes that organizations need to get right to stay robust and vibrant?

Milton: Companies need to set a clear vision and mission with everyone in the company having measurable goals and objectives aligned with these. Without this, employees waste time and money on activities that do not advance the company. If one were to randomly ask employees, team members, or even managers what their organization’s mission is and what they are doing each day to advance the mission, I think most people would be surprised at the responses they receive.


Vera: Change management is one process that organizational leaders don’t tend to get right. How does a leader get people to work in a new and improved way?

Milton: Personally, as a manager, I focus on developing a culture of mutual respect, support and trust. Change not only becomes easier with this but such a culture is necessary for the team to continue to thrive. My message to organizational leaders is; “Build a culture of trust and then get out of the way so that your team can move mountains to achieve the goals of the organization.”


Vera: Delegation is the other process that managers can’t get a good handle on. What are the constraints and what are your top tips on delegating effectively?

Milton: I agree in that delegation continues to be a huge challenge for managers. People who rise to the role of manager because of their success as individual contributors tend to be poor delegators. They tend to believe that they can do the job better than their team members so they keep the tasks for themselves. Then there are those managers who worry about a team member appearing more competent than them. I find that managers who focus on individual tasks have a hard time delegating. When managers shift their focus to the goals of the organization and away from individual tasks, delegating becomes a means to get things done rather than a threat to a manager’s position and authority.


Vera: Performance management is another process that arguably does not enjoy much credibility with employees. What needs to change?

Milton: I have written a few articles about how to improve performance management. My advice here may seem counter-intuitive. Managers need to focus on their team members’ successes rather than on performance failures. As a manager, I go out of my way to praise a team member’s success. What I found using this approach is that people will go usually above and beyond to get another positive performance appraisal the following year. The power of focusing on the positive during performance appraisals is immense. Managers should harness this power to take their organizations to productivity heights rarely seen today.


Vera: Organizations have a knack for making everything complicated. What’s the best way to keep business processes simple?

Milton: This is perhaps my most favorite topic. People have a knack for complicating things. The test of simplicity of a process should be that every team member should be able to describe the high-level process in less than one minute. Companies often tinker too much with processes and eventually what should be simple processes become complicated. In my book, RAIDers of a lost art, I explain the high-level process of Receive-Analyze-Implement-Deliver (R-A-I-D) with people who implement the R-A-I-D process called RAIDers. There is more to it of course, but the R-A-I-D process should be measurable and answer basic questions; for example how long does it take to get work through the process? How much time is spent in each phase? If processes are kept simple, they will be used, repeatable and impact measurable.


Vera: You’ve indicated changing your desire as a young child from ‘hoping to change the world’ to now ‘’hoping to change yourself for the better’’. What process led to scaling back your childhood ambition so to speak?

Milton: I don’t see this as a scaling back of my desire but rather refocusing my childhood desire on something that really matters. In my adult perspective, the best way to change the world is to start by changing myself for the better. If each of us took this to heart, changing the world would be as simple as R-A-I-D.


 Milton’s profile

 Dr. Milton Mattox is author of “RAIDers of a Lost Art: Reinventing the Art of Business Process Excellence”.  He is a senior-level business executive, leader and technologist who has worked with some of the world’s most acclaimed companies. Milton is an expert in software engineering, information technology, and quality process management. He has written several articles on how to successfully increase return on investment for organizations and companies.


For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here.