Begin Where You Are and Build on What You’re Doing Right

Begin Where You Are and Build on What You’re Doing Right

Judah Mogilensky shares timeless wisdom on process improvement, human dynamics, quality of life, and much more.

(Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in 2013 for 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success.)

Today it’s my pleasure to speak with Judah Mogilensky. Judah was the Owner at Process Enhancement Partners in 2013 when this interview was conducted.

I met Judah in 2012 at event called Consultants Camp. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to attend many of his presentations at other events and conferences. Judah has a lot of wisdom to share on a variety of topics related to change, people, and process.

Joining me to participate in this interview is Michael Calihan, President at was supporting the 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success initiative at the time of this interview.

What is your best process improvement strategy that has worked well for you?

Judah Mogilensky: The analogy I like to use for a best strategy is the map you see when you walk into a shopping mall. The most important thing on the map is the little circle that says “You are here.” The best improvement strategy is “begin where you are.”

If an organization is in business and they are accomplishing anything for customers, that means there’s some good stuff that they do. There’s this phrase: “Catch people doing something right”. There’s been some argument about whether Ken Blanchard, the Disney Institute or somebody else came up with that, but it’s usually in the context of rather than criticizing people, you should encourage them. But it also applies to organizations. You want to catch the organization doing something right. You want to build on whatever they’re doing right, figure out what it is.

Often it turns out there’s only one part of the organization that’s doing it right, so you want to take what they’re doing right and spread it.

Then start looking at gaps to determine what else they might be doing better that they are not doing. The strategy that I’ve never seen work is to come in and say: “Here’s a new process. You guys are all going to do that and forget everything you’ve been doing before.” I like to refer to that as “process lobotomy”, and I’ve never seen that be effective.

How do you “begin where you are?”

Judah: I usually invite people to gather up their good project management people, I ask them to tell me what they do on a regular basis, how they get a project started, how they keep track of it, what they do in order to deliver. They either write it down, or get somebody else to write it down, and we get a bunch of descriptions of what projects they do. Then you get all the leaders together and you ask them to look at everybody else’s description of what they do. Then I say: “Let’s figure out what are the common threads. What do you guys all do?” That’s the basis for their process. Then we start there and build on it.

This is also one of the reasons why I depart a little bit from the standard approach to appraisals, because what they’ve been teaching is that appraisals in the final findings briefing, you’re only supposed to brief weaknesses and outstanding strengths. I certainly do those, but I also do something I call “indicators of process implementation,” which is: “Let’s take a slide, one slide. Three, four, five bullet points and say: “OK. What is the organization doing that leads me to think that this process area is actually satisfied? What are they doing to accomplish the process area?” And the reason why I want to make that explicit is because I want them to recognize what they’re doing; and second, whatever changes they make in the future, we want them to not lose the things that are helping them do things effectively.

Bill: That’s a great approach to quickly learn what’s really going on. Michael, do you have a follow-up question on Judah’s strategy?

Michael: I’m assuming that the reason you say you’ve never seen a “process in a box” kind of approach work is because the organization fails to institutionalize it, is that right?

Judah: The cause can be stated as “it doesn’t fit,” and “doesn’t fit” isn’t going to work. The best way to get something to fit is start with what they are already wearing. When you go to get a custom tailored suit made, what the tailor will always tell you is: “Come in wearing your best fitting suit.” It’s the same principle. He’s going to make something really new for you and it’s going to be very fancy, but he wants to start from where you are.

Improving the Quality of Life

Bill: Judah, on your website, you talk about improving the quality of life for employees in terms of reduced pressure, reduced overtime, more reasonable demands, realistic schedules, enhanced teamwork, etc. This stands out to me. I don’t see many other consultants talk about this. Why is this important to you?

Judah: There are two reasons why this is important to me. The first one is just from a practical process improvement point of view. If you’re going to make process improvement happen in an organization, you have to get buy-in from everybody. If you’re going to get buy-in from everybody, you have to explain to people what’s in it for them.

Senior managers know what’s in it for them. They’re going to get reduced costs, better quality, better customer satisfaction, etc. The project managers know what’s in it for them. They’re going to get better visibility into their projects, greater likelihood of delivering, and so on. It’s not clear upfront what’s in it for the people who are actually doing the work. One of the reasons why I want to emphasize making their quality of life better: that’s what’s in it for them. That way, everybody involved has tangible benefit out of what’s happening. That’s the practical reason.

The other one, frankly, is the moral reason. Fundamentally for me, a lot of what happens in organizations that is done to people, especially allegedly professional technical people, is just unconscionable. The way they’re treated, the stuff that’s expected, the hours they are expected to put in—I have literally had an engineering manager tell me: “You know, my people don’t want to have a life. They appreciate the fact that I prevent them from having their own free time.” That’s one step above the justification for slavery. I reject that completely, totally, 100%.

I really feel that if we’re going to intervene in organizations, one of the outcomes of our intervention should be alleviating the abuse of the “baby seals.” I’ve certainly seen that in software. I’ve seen it in other parts of engineering. I’m starting to see it in the service arena. Those are the reasons why it’s important.

Bill: Those are all great reasons Judah that I appreciate fully. Selling it to the people and what’s really in it for them are largely undersold over and over again.

Judah: It’s one of the key reasons why a lot of programs fail.

Bill: Exactly. Sometimes we sell just the business benefits, which is important, but it’s generally not enough to get employees excited about the change.

Judah: Yes, you have to sell the sponsor. Just from my point of view, if all I were doing was going in and making the bottom line of the business better, and nothing else was happening, especially if the way that we’re making the bottom line of the business better was to make life even worse for the people at the bottom, I wouldn’t be doing this. I couldn’t look at myself in the morning.

Bill: Judah, I feel the same way. I’m happy there are people like you helping organizations do improvement for the right reasons. On your website, you also mentioned that you bring an understanding of the human dynamics to process improvement. Can you tell us more about what that means to you?

Understanding Human Dynamics with Maps

Judah: One of the things I frequently present at SEPG Conferences is talking about observing behaviors in the organization that can either confirm or call into question what I’m seeing in the formal appraisal data. One of my mentors, Jerry Weinberg, always used to say that he could walk in an organization and he could smell what maturity level they were at. He’s better at this than I am. I understand where he’s coming from. I can do a version of that. That perspective comes from some of the things that I’ve learned from Jerry Weinbereg and Virginia Satir style family therapy.

Another example is one of the methods in Virginia Satir’s System is called Family Maps, where we draw a graphical depiction of the family members and the family relationships but avoid verbalization. You use symbols and a couple of adjectives, arrows and so on.

There’s another version that I call Organization Maps, where you sit down with somebody in an organization and go through exactly the same process, and end up with a map of their view of who the key players in the organization are, how they are related to each other, what roles they have, and how they interact.

And what’s really fun – I have only had the chance to do this a couple of times—is to go through an organization, get multiple people in the same organization each draw their map of the same organization and then put them all up on a wall and let everybody see all the maps. There’s nothing that people don’t already know, but they only know their own perspectives. They don’t know the other people’s perspective.

The level of learning and insight that you can get from something like that is just amazing.

Transforming Covert Organizational Rules

I also talk about transforming covert organizational rules. Here again, the whole concept of rules and rule transformation is part of Virginia Satir’s System.There are rules that people follow that are sort of buried in their subconscious.

You have to figure out what they are, and you can do the very same thing with organizations. Now, to find an organization rule you have to use a slightly different technique. The technique I like and that I find that works pretty well in a number of contexts is to ask people: “Imagine that your best friend’s son or daughter just graduated from university and they’re going to come into your organization. Your best friend has asked you to give them some advice to live by about how to really do well and be successful in this organization. What would you tell them?”

By asking the question that way, you get at things that aren’t in the policy manual and in the organization chart. You get at what’s really going on inside the organization. You can make some of those things explicit. The reason they have that power is because they’re covert, they’re unwritten, they’re unspoken, and so nobody acknowledges them. Once they’re visible, you can transform them, you can say: “Do we really want to live by this rule?”

For instance, the classic version of: “We must do whatever the customer asks of us, without question.” There are many organizations that operate like that. The first part of transformation is to take away the “must” and replace it with “can.” So it becomes: “We can do absolutely everything the customers ever ask us about, no matter what.” So then the question is: “Is that true?” And the answer is: “Obviously not!” Obviously the customers can ask you to do things you can’t do. Now we start putting conditions on them. “We can do whatever the customers ask when it’s feasible, it’s something we can do, it fits within our business model, it doesn’t conflict with things we’re doing for other customers, and so on”.

We take “we must always do whatever the customers ask”, make it something visible, something seen, and transform it into something else, rather than driving the organization into doing things that are insane, and self-destructive. Do things that allow the organization to behave in a way that’s healthy both for them and for the customer. Those are a couple of examples. I’ve heard people say: “You have to deal with the culture”. Well, you have to deal with the culture that’s there, you can’t ignore it. But if it’s going to kill your effort, then you probably need to do something about it.

What Would an Ideal Improvement Model Look Like?

Bill: Judah, I love the method you just described for making the real culture known and visible. Here’s my next question: Imagine the best CMMI model you can think of, what would it look like?

Judah: This is actually a question that I’ve been dealing with, because the CMMI Institute is considering new ways of packaging and presenting the model. The power of the model is that it’s not at a level of “what you have to do”, it’s at a level of “here are things that you should think about doing but you get to figure out how to do it, and how to apply it to an organization.” You need to make sense of that. On the one hand, that’s the power of the model; on the other hand, that makes it really tough for new adopters because they’ve got a really large mountain to climb. To see where they are and to see this model up in the sky, and to figure out to bridge that gap.

I think if I were looking at the ideal model, it would be the same model, but in a completely different, much more accessible, form. I think of it as “CMMI for the 21st Century.” Not a book or a series of book, but rather an app. Not multiple constellations, but rather a single integrated set of Process Areas covering all models and constellations. Not a single appearance presented to all users, but multiple interfaces for different contexts. For example, different user communities, such as defense/aerospace, financial systems and services, Agile software development, IT support services, each would have a view in their own terms. Also, different types of users, for example, project managers, technical practitioners, Lead Appraisers, educators, each would have a user interface that suits their needs. And finally, not just one revision every several years, but on-going moderated updates, especially to the informative material, based on a constant stream of user feedback and comments.

But at the same time, it would retain the essence of CMMI. It would still consist of practices found by the community of users to be major contributors to successful performance. It would still be organized into Process Areas, Goals, Practices, and informative material, but this organization would not have to be immediately visible to users who don’t need it. It would still support both implementers concerned about process improvement and appraisers concerned about determining whether model expectations are being met. And it would still maintain a focus on the things that differentiate CMMI, such as continuous improvement, institutionalization, and quantitative performance management and prediction models.

Bill: That’s a great idea, Judah. I’m reminded of my own journey with CMMI. What I thought it was when I initially encountered the model is quite different from what I thought it after gaining experience working with it. If I’m understanding what you said above correctly, you’ve come up with a version of the model that will look more familiar to people? Is that right?

Judah: Yes, it would make it easier for a new user to jump on board. They can say: “I can explore that picture. I can see myself in that picture. I recognize how I can jump into that picture.” And now, instead of CMMI being something off in distance, we can talk about the things we talked about in the beginning of this interview, “Here’s where you are now. Let’s start there.”

That’s my vision. And it’s not just my vision. There are other people at the CMMI Institute who have a similar vision. My hope is that’s actually the direction that the model’s going to be evolving towards over the next couple of years.

A Philosophy Based on People and Family

Michael: The most interesting thing that I found is how much your approach and philosophy is based on people and family. That’s obviously what’s more important to you. And taking that into the work makes it particularly rewarding for you.

Judah: One of the interesting things I’ve discovered, and again, this is contrary to common belief, is inside every geek there really is a human being. Sometimes you don’t have to dig deep to find it, sometimes you do have to dig a little bit more to find it, but it’s in there. You not only can reach it, but a lot of times you have to reach it in order to accomplish what you’re doing. Now, I’ve also discovered from my training people who come from the family therapy and psychology point of view, but not every human being has an inner geek. So it works one way, but it doesn’t necessarily work the other way.

Bill: Thank you again Judah and thank you Michael for joining me on this interview. Judah, you are shared many wonderful ideas here today. I’m looking forward to making them and you more widely known.

Judah: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.