The Law Firm Infographic Challenge

fresh and direct We’re hosting a dinner party on Friday night.  To maximize our chances of delivering a delicious meal, I’ve already determined the menu and drafted a work plan that will allow us to prepare ahead for the dinner. We are organized!

However, there is a small potential problem. Since I’m fully committed with work and extra-curricular activities this week, I don’t actually have time to go to the grocery store before our dinner party. Not to worry, we’ve got FreshDirect. Those of you who don’t live in New York City may not be familiar with this amazing gift to working folks.  FreshDirect has a fabulous website that offers food, drink, household items and recipes.  All I have to do is place my order and choose a delivery time.  Then I simply sit back until the food arrives almost magically at my door.

While the transaction may seem like a magic trick to me, The New York Times published an infographic that shows exactly what’s involved in delivering a food order placed with FreshDirect. To be honest, my initial reaction upon seeing the infographic was amazement that the process was so complicated. My second reaction was profound relief. The infographic illustrates the degree to which FreshDirect has analyzed its business and set up its processes to ensure that its service levels keep customers like me delighted.

Taking a page out of Freshdirect’s book, here’s the challenge for you: would your law firm be able to generate a comparable infographic that shows with reasonable accuracy all the steps required to deliver services at levels that consistently delight your clients?

Try it. You might be stunned to discover how little you actually know about how your business really operates.

[Photo Credit: Adrian Duckett]


Seyfarth’s Success Story [#Ark]

If Lisa J. Damon has a bridge to sell, I’m buying it.  And, it’s not because I’m all that gullible.  However, over the course of one hour she changed me from an admitted Lean Six Sigma skeptic into a person willing to consider the possibilities of that approach for every law firm. I had previously heard several presentations on the law firm miracle that is Seyfarth Lean Six Sigma, but it was only when Ms. Damon and Seyfarth’s Chief Information Officer, David Hambourger, explained how they and their colleagues are beginning to change the way the lawyers of their firm actually practice law that I began to appreciate the scope of their accomplishment.

First a little background, Six Sigma is a business technique developed by Motorola to quickly identify and fix defects in its manufacturing processes.  Lean is a business technique derived from the Toyota Production System to redesign a manufacturing process to make it more balanced and consistent, thereby removing waste from the system.  (Another way of looking at this is to eliminate anything that does not create value for the end customer.)

At first blush, neither approach to manufacturing would have much obvious application to the work of any lawyer who considers herself or himself to be an artiste. Even in a so-called “law factory,” I’m not sure many would consider lawyers to be in the manufacturing business.   However, Seyfarth’s leadership came to the conclusion that elements of their practice needed to be handled with the same discipline Motorola and Toyota brought to manufacturing.

What drove them to this conclusion? Economics.  As their clients started requesting more alternative fee arrangements, Seyfarth’s leadership correctly concluded that the firm would take a loss unless it could find a way to reduce its own costs of production. So six years ago they began with the following goals:

  • improve predictability of fees
  • lower client costs
  • increase transparency
  • allow clients to collaborate
  • provide clients with real-time access to fees and the management of a matter

After looking at pure Six Sigma and Lean, and talking to clients who had used these approaches, Seyfarth settled on a modified Lean Six Sigma approach tailored for legal services.  To begin with, they eliminated the jargon, some of the statistical tools and the heavy-duty math. (Ms. Damon acknowledges that the focus on numbers demanded by Six Sigma would have been a major turn-off for every lawyer in the firm who went to law school just to avoid another math class.)  They also built in some strategy, project management and change management.  Along with this, they hired client-facing professional project managers and created a project management office. The other key element is a commitment to continuous, sustained improvement (kaizen) in the quality of the services they deliver.

To make these wholesale changes in the way they practiced law, the lawyers of Seyfarth also had to make wholesale changes in the way they carried out the business of law:

  • They replaced their professional development and promotion model with a more dynamic model based on advancement by competency and achievement rather than tenure.
  • They replaced their compensation model so that it rewarded results achieved rather than time spent.
    • Seyfarth has a scorecard system based on the ACC value index. They survey clients and then reflect that response in partner compensation.
  • They moved from merely automating manual processes to the creative, strategic use of knowledge, expertise and operational information.
  • They changed their service model from bill/pay as you go to one with a more strategic focus, with defined outcomes based on client business goals.

Lisa Damon is honest about the work involved in making such extensive changes within her firm.  While they don’t yet have 100% adoption, she says they make a new convert every day. Along the way, they take every opportunity to improve their practice and their business. As the inimitable Ms. Damon put it, “Seyfarth loves to process map. We create process maps for anything that moves within the firm.”  In addition, they approach this in a way that flattens the hierarchy within the firm; everyone with expertise is brought into the effort — whether they are professional project managers, paralegals, secretaries or lawyers.  In the beginning, they create their process maps with paper and pen. Later, they record their process maps using a lawyer-friendly tool called Task Map (an overlay to Visio). Once the process maps are created, they are linked to key knowledge management tools such as case analysis, checklists and samples. Better still, each process map can be tailored to the needs of individual clients or matters.

On the IT and knowledge management side, Dave Hambourger reports that they started by implementing enterprise search.  They also have built extranets that create new business for the firm.  (They are not just inert document repositories).  Another important element is the way they have deployed SharePoint to deliver “memorable value” to clients.  This includes matter management tools and financial dashboards.  The matter management tools show both the percentage of the project completed as well as the percentage of the budget spent. Since the dashboards are visible to the clients, the lawyers of the firm have had to learn the discipline of entering their time daily.

Lisa Damon will be the first to tell you that none of this has been easy or cheap.  However, the sheer joy with which she tells the Seyfarth Success Story suggests that the undertaking has been well worth the effort. At the end of the day, sustaining a success story like this requires top-level business support, careful project selection, project discipline, and a focus on continuous improvement.  Seyfarth shows that it can be done.  Is your firm willing to try?


If you’d like to learn more about SeyfarthLean, I’d encourage you to read (or listen to) the following:


Fixing the Weak Link

LEEDM.E.1967.0032.G.13 He thought they were going to have a quiet dinner, but she arrived apoplectic.  Some of the folks who worked with her had dropped the ball on a project that was routine and should have been foolproof.

She thought they were going to have a quiet dinner, but he arrived apoplectic.  Someone had asked his help on a project, but frequently failed to send him the necessary documents — even when those documents were mentioned in the transmittal note.

This couple is headed for high blood pressure problems or, at the very least, indigestion.  I suspect they are not the only ones.

Why do simple things get messed up? Look for the weak link.  In the first instance, the weak link was between two parts of the organization that were handling a job together.  Because it was a collective effort, nobody felt responsible because everyone was (theoretically) responsible.  In the second case, the weak link lay in the person transmitting the documents carelessly.

Fixing the weak link is tough because by the time you confront it, you’re often in a towering rage.  So, the first step is to sleep on it.  If that’s not possible, at least count to 10 before commencing. Then, take a look at the procedure surrounding the weak link.  In the first case, each part of the organization had a checklist for handling their part of the process.  However, someone failed to follow the checklist. And the organization had not created a checklist to cover the handoff.  This handoff checklist could have acted as a secondary check, another chance to catch a error before it developed into a real problem. In the second case, the problem arose in…the handoff between the person sending the documents and the recipient.  They clearly did not have a checklist that the first person could follow to ensure that all relevant materials were sent to the recipient when promised.

Peter Bregman believes that problems arise in the handoff phase because of poor communication:

Most of us think we communicate well. Which, ironically, is why we often leave out important information (we believe others already know it). Or fail to be specific about something (we think others already understand it). Or resist clarifying (we don’t want to insult other people).

To address this problem, Bregman recommends that we develop and use a handoff checklist along the following lines:

Handoff Checklist

  • What do you understand the priorities to be?
  • What concerns or ideas do you have that have not already been mentioned?
  • What are your key next steps, and by when do you plan to accomplish them?
  • What do you need from me in order to be successful?
  • Are there any key contingencies we should plan for now?
  • When will we next check-in on progress/issues?
  • Who else needs to know our plans, and how will we communicate them?

Time it takes to go through the checklist? One to five minutes. Time (and trust) saved by going through the checklist? Immeasurable.

If you’re tempted to ignore the need for a handoff checklist or a checklist of any sort, take a few minutes to read this collection of sad (and in some cases, scary) stories of what happens when people fail to create or follow checklists.  If you want to learn more about checklists, read my prior post, The Value of Checklists.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that taking the time to develop and follow a checklist that addresses the weak link can save lives, save time and possibly save you from high blood pressure and indigestion.


Legal Services and Sausage

We’re told that we should not watch anyone make sausages or laws. These are messy (and, in the view of some, stomach-churning) processes that can produce wonderful results. Unfortunately, many have extended this aversion from the making of laws to the providing of legal services. So we go through our days doing whatever the client needs without pulling back the curtain to see the reality of what it takes to provide that level of client service.

Well, I’ve got bad news for you:  if you want to continue to provide a high level of service at a price your clients are willing to pay, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves, pull back the curtain, and take a much closer look at how sausages are made in your firm.  Do you have the right ingredients, recipes, workers, machinery and processes?  Do you consistently turn out high quality work at a predictable price? What sorts of changes might improve the way you work and what you produce?  Have you analyzed the effect on work product, efficiency and morale of changing your ingredients, recipes, workers, machinery and processes? Do you know exactly where you might create sustainable improvements? These are the questions every lawyer, law firm and law department should be asking.

In fact, these questions are being asked in businesses of all types.  As a result, more people are beginning to understand better what it takes to do what they do.  In order to get to this realization, we need many open conversations between the experts who do the work and the experts who understand how work processes may be improved.  Mark MacDonald describes this well with respect to how an IT department can assist in improving business processes.  We could say something similar about knowledge management personnel:

Process experts create value through working with their business peers in an environment of discovery and problem solving.  This is in contrast to many application development shops that gather requirements then go away to build the system.  Process change makes the sausage best in open collaboration with the business.

I’m not suggesting that we engineer a law firm to death, turning it into a soulless factory producing bland, unappetizing sausages at rock bottom prices.  However, I do think it’s possible to make our firms efficient producers of artisanal sausages — where we marry state of the art methods and machinery with highly skilled (even artistic) personnel to produce extraordinary, memorable, successful work product. And, I believe there is an important role for knowledge management and IT to play in achieving high quality artisanal work product at a price that makes our clients happy.

[Photo Credit:  cobalt 123]


Rethink Your Routine

In Tom Davenport’s terrific post, Microdecisions for Macro Impact, he reminds us that fortunes can be won and lost in the little decisions we make every day. As he astutely notes,

What many companies don’t realize is that microdecisions — small decisions made many times by many workers at the customer interface — can have a major impact on the business. How they are made can be the difference between sloppy and effective execution, and between profit and loss.

Equally, small decisions made in the course of routine procedures can have a profound effect.  If you’re not sure about this, think about the huge beneficial change in health care derived from the simple act of hand washing.  Or, imagine what would happen if your pilot decided to “wing it” and disregarded the standard take-off checklist?

In knowledge management, we regularly spend time thinking about work flow and business process.  And, especially when we’re considering bringing technology into that flow, we have an opportunity to ask whether the individual steps within a process are sensible given current circumstances.  Do they yield the best possible outcome on a predictable basis?

The fact that something is routine does not mean it is optimized.  As you go through your day, take a closer look at the many repeatable acts you perform and consider whether there are small decisions you could make differently to yield much better results.

[Photo Credit:  Wisconsin Historical Society]


Leaving Your Octagonal Outhouse

We were touring Kings Landing, the historical Loyalist settlement outside Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada, when a child in our group asked, “What’s that?”  “That” turned out to be a little white octagonal building in the pretty gardens outside the Ingraham House (visible in the picture above).  Upon closer inspection, we discovered that it was in fact an octagonal outhouse.  This led to a humorous explanation given to a mystified child who previously was unaware that some people lived without the comforts of indoor plumbing.

After visiting the house and gardens, it was apparent that Mr. Ingraham had been a person of means in his small community.  His octagonal outhouse was probably considered in its time to be very modern and sophisticated.  (In fact, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson constructed octagonal outhouses on their properties.)  And yet, looking back on it from the vantage point of the 21st century, it’s clear that the best was yet to come.

While standing in the Ingraham House gardens I found myself wondering what octagonal outhouses we were most proud of.  In other words, what 21st century things did we consider modern and sophisticated that would, with the passage of time, seem odd and outdated?  It’s worth asking that question of the technology and business processes you once prized.  Do you really have a clear view of their capabilities?  Do they still meet your needs?  Do they represent the best of current thinking or are they shopworn and past their sell by date?  If you don’t ask these questions periodically, you may find yourself hobbled by systems that no longer adequately support your work.

It’s astonishing how long we can tolerate substandard systems, seemingly unconscious of the toll they take on our productivity and morale.  Unlike the dinosaurs, we too often adapt to the shortcomings of our environment and soldier on without complaint. One of the functions of knowledge management is to help organizations upgrade their business processes and technology over time so that they continue to meet the needs of an evolving enterprise.  This requires identifying the octagonal outhouses in your organization and regularly asking tough questions about them.  Above all, it requires a willingness to leave your octagonal outhouses behind and lead the way to more modern solutions.

[Photo Credit:  Kings Landing Historical Settlement]


Just One Thing

Here is a brief recipe for sanity that should make next week better than this week. As you go through your work today, look for Just One Thing that meets any of the following criteria:

– it is a drag on your efficiency
– it does not contribute to the revenue of your firm
– it could reasonably be done more cost effectively by a colleague
– it is done more from habit than conviction

and then, eliminate it.

Rinse and repeat each business day.

If done effectively, this should remove from your plate tasks you shouldn’t be doing and give you more time and energy to focus on those areas in which you really can make a difference.

The result of this exercise? Sanity.

All you have to do is begin today with Just One Thing.


What’s Your O-Ring?

The destruction of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was one of those events that seared the nation. After the inquiry into the accident was complete, we learned that a small defective O-ring seal had led to the disaster. Similarly, when the space shuttle Columbia exploded in mid-air in 2003, we learned that a piece of foam insulation had fallen off the spacecraft during the launch and had struck a protective tile on the left wing, thereby damaging the shuttle’s thermal protection system. During Columbia’s re-entry into earth’s atmosphere, the damaged tile allowed hot gases to enter and destroy both the wing and, ultimately, the space shuttle. More recently and a little closer to the ground, Boston learned to its sorrow that using the wrong glue in its Big Dig project could cause several sections of a tunnel’s ceiling to fall — crushing a car and killing its passenger. In New York City, officials are wondering if the local practice of pouring concrete in two days rather than five during the winter months has led to a disproportionate increase in the number of construction site accidents.

In each case, it’s a seemingly simple thing that is the point of failure.

What’s your point of failure? Do you have critical business processes that can be completely undermined by a single design flaw?

One classic KM system design flaw has to do with gathering content. You may have technology that is a thing of beauty, but if content collection depends on the voluntary participation of your knowledge workers, that’s a flaw that could be fatal. They often are (or feel that they are) too busy to contribute. Or, as I discussed in my recent posts on capturing content and hardwiring KM into client engagements, if content gathering is not baked into your client engagement process, but is shunted off to the side as something that is nice to have rather than necessary, your content collection business process will fall apart.

Another classic point of failure in law firm knowledge management is appointing KM “guardians” who have the responsibility of ensuring the purity and currency of the KM collection. What happens when those guardians become bottlenecks? That’s another design flaw.

Yet another point of failure lurks in the Outlook folders of every lawyer in your firm. If they don’t faithfully send copies of their e-mail correspondence to your central records system, how will your firm have an adequate record of your client engagements?

So how do you prevent these potential O-Ring disasters within your systems? The best approach seems to be extremely pessimistic planning. In the midst of project planning it’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement and anticipation. That’s when you make the mistake of believing that reality will follow your planning. The better approach is to ask at each critical juncture of the design phase: What if this doesn’t work as planned? What if users don’t comply? If they do not comply, what are they most likely to do? These questions should help you identify potential points of failure.

After launch, repeatedly tracking user behavior and system results can help identify where reality departed from planning. Sometimes the results are serendipitous. More often, these departures from plan indicate a point of failure that wasn’t properly analyzed and addressed in the planning phase. Then, the next question is: Should we fix this? That’s when you get into some interesting cost-benefit analysis. However, if the design flaw goes to the heart of a critical business process do you really have a choice? Just ask the folks at NASA.


Snow Day

Large snowflakes are falling steadily outside my window, temporarily veiling the urban landscape. We heard breathless warnings this morning on the radio and TV of impending commuting disasters. We’ve been asked to stay home, but if we must travel, please use public transportation. New York City was winding up for one of those rare (but highly enjoyable) occurrences — a bona fide snow day that doesn’t fall on the weekend.

In the midst of all of this excitement are two interesting knowledge management lessons:

1. Garbage Trucks: In most normal towns, garbage trucks collect the garbage. And in New York City, that is usually the case. However, as soon as the snow starts to fall, garbage trucks here morph into snowplows. While they may look strange, they are effective. They are also good reminders of a basic knowledge management lesson: sometimes the easiest way to create excellent content is to repurpose existing materials. For example, organizations that have good communications between their training function and their knowledge management function have discovered that training materials are a rich source of actionable knowledge. Once added to the knowledge management system, they become more widely accessible and more widely used. This is a win-win for the trainers and the knowledge managers. Above all, it is a win for the knowledge workers who need this information. Similarly, materials created for marketing purposes can become valuable content in the KM system and vice versa.

2. Going to School on a Snow Day: One of the great joys of childhood is waking up to learn school has been canceled because of a snowstorm. The kids are oblivious to the agony of the school administrator, who must make a decision before dawn as to whether or not to cancel school. If there is an enormous snowfall and the administrator made the decision to cancel, the administrator is a hero. If school is canceled and the forecasted blizzard ends up being a light flurry, the administrator is vilified. In New York City, we sidestepped the agony by adopting what seemed to be a reasonable approach: if the city’s board of education decides to cancel school, then all schools (public, private, parochial, etc.) will be canceled. This takes the individual principals out of the decision making and puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of a faceless bureaucracy. Who could argue with that???

Since NYC has relatively few snow days, this scheme rarely gets put to the test. However, it has begun to irk some kids that in recent years the only decent storms seem to occur on weekends or during the February school break. It is particularly annoying for kids whose schools do not follow the public school calendar. In their case, even if you have a legitimate snow day that falls on a public school holiday, the board of education won’t go to the trouble of canceling school since the public schools aren’t in session. So these kids are deprived of the benefits of a snow day.

I recite these facts not to incite sympathy for this small, disaffected subset of NYC school children, but rather, to point to a little business process challenge. Arguably the NYC approach to snow days works most of the time by default since we almost never have large snowstorms and when they do happen they seem to fall on days when public schools are not in session. So when do you know you have a valid, reliable business process as opposed to a lucky way of doing things? Admittedly, the decision making that leads to declaring a snow day probably doesn’t rise to the level of a proper business process as envisioned by Frederick Taylor and others who studied manufacturing processes. Nonetheless, the question is worth posing with respect to the many practices organizations adopt over time. Followers of the “if ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of management, won’t understand the question. But that’s fine. Let them leave money on the table for the rest of us. In my knowledge management work I’ve discovered time and time again that by simply taking a closer look at how an organization goes through its routines we inevitably find ways of improving and adding value. Granted, not every change is a blockbuster, but that may be all to the good given the human tendency to resist change.

(Just to add insult to injury, not only do some kids have to go to school today, but they will also be missing the City Parks Department’s celebration of the First Snow Day of the Year. The Department will be providing sleds and hot chocolate in some city parks from noon- 4pm. Too bad about those afternoon classes!)