The Process Improvement Blog

Pain Time

Pain Time

by Rob Collins on 12th January 2015, 0 comments

A client of mine used to say of his organisation “Not enough time to do the job right – but plenty of time to do the job again when we get it wrong the first time!” Do you experience the same symptoms? If so, then maybe it is Pain Time!


Of course, I understand the argument from both sides. Projects have to have budgets and need to have limits placed on expenditure and time. But it is also true that some projects are cut too close to the bone. We “Save a nickel to spend a dime”. There are many examples of this but, for example, consider: failing to understand customer needs and requirements before launching into the development of a new product or service. Or failing to invest in effective document and configuration management - and then living with the consequences of missing and incorrect data.

A few years ago I came up with a concept graphic which I call the “Collins' Pain-time Graph” (it hasn’t made me famous yet – but I am still hopping!). The graph is easily explained using the example of toothache… A visit to the dentist can be described by the figure below – rather painful, but only for a short period of time.

But the problem is, we don’t want that pain even for a short time. We have an arbitrary pain threshold that we don’t want to cross…

So we put off the trip to the dentist because we aren’t willing to cross our pain threshold. Things are ok for a while. But then, inevitably, that sore tooth starts to turn into something more serious. Now the graph looks like this:

We put off the trip to the dentist because we aren’t willing to cross our pain threshold

Now the problem is obvious. The long-term pain (red line) gets worse and worse. There is a very good chance that the tooth will go rotten and we will end up passing the pain threshold anyway. Even if we don’t eventually cross our pain threshold the problem may rumble on for an extended period.

In business terms this is like the company that repeatedly fails to improve their effectiveness and efficiency. Bit by bit they lose ground against competitors and reduce their service or product value in the eyes of their customers. In both cases the prognosis is bad. In each case the result may be irrecoverable – we lose the tooth or lose the business.

Part of the issue here is our thinking about time. The correct way to think about the Collins' Pain-Time Graph is not to focus on the line itself – but the area under the line:

The total pain (cost) we incur is not the short-term (instantaneous) pain, but the sum of all pain (costs) over a much longer time horizon. In simple terms it’s the red area here that you need to worry about and focus on – not the height of the blue line.

The Collins’ Pain-Time graph is surprisingly universal. It’s a good model for how people may put off exercise and then suffer the consequences of ill health. It’s a pretty good model of my garage-workshop. If I would only grit my teeth and run my own private 5S event then I sure would make more progress on my weekend classic car project!

So, cut to the chase, what does this mean for real projects and improvements in organisations?

For sure, part of this is about having a longer-term strategic vision – and also funding that vision. Improvement isn’t going to happen of its own accord! Some of the things we fix now are simply not going to have pay-back over the life of a single project, or even several projects. The business-case for those process improvements is not going to show up in short-term business plans. Some improvement activities will need to be independently funded at the corporate level and the business case for them will need to be made in terms of the strategic vision.

It will inevitably be difficult to show a direct, financial Return on Investment for the development of some of the required improvement assets. For example, developing coherent, high-quality, unified, cross-functional business process models. I can jump through hoops to show that these will represent a dollar saving (indeed, I have done on several occasions). But the arguments for those financial benefits are tenuous at best. It is far better to accept that artefacts like these are foundational to the business. They pay off over and over again in terms of reduced process errors, identification of improvements, ease of training, reduced compliance risk, sharing of best practice knowledge within the business, ‘auditability’, links to measurement and metrics etc. etc. But it is not easy to show what this worth in Euros, Dimes and Pence.

Another angle on this relates to building commitment to improvements and ensuring improvement efforts are relevant and valuable. The other ‘disaster scenario’ is the centrally funded Process Excellence team that commits large expenditure to improvement activities that fail to be relevant and sensitive to local, functional, departmental and process needs. We want to avoid the situation in which functional and project managers are thinking “what is the lowest cost thing I can do to get these Process Excellence guys off of my back?” Don’t get me wrong – we do need Process Excellence centres of excellence with skills, knowledge and experience of how to do the improvement job. But they have to be locally relevant and accountable.

One effective method of achieving some of these things is to set a standard ‘Process Excellence tax’ on projects and functions – scaled by their budgets. The advantage of this ‘hypothecated’ tax is that it focusses the mind and creates ownership of the expenditure: “If I am spending money on this Process Excellence thing then I am going to make sure it does my project some good!”

In this way, project and functional mangers become real, paying customers for the Process Excellence function. It is then up to the Process Excellence function to justify expenditure on longer term, strategic, vision-lead improvements. One of the ways of making that argument is, of course, the Collins’ Pain-Time Graph: “These changes we are making will be a short term cost to you – but a long term benefit to the business.”

Sometimes we just have to be more resilient to the short-term pain of rapid change.

A final thought is that sometimes we just have to be more resilient to the short-term pain of rapid change. We have to build resilience to the discomfort and muscle on through the pain barrier. It is here where an experienced change facilitator can really help build and maintain the moral of the troops. The experienced change leader can help people face up to some of the short-term pain of improvement change and give them a vision of a pain free (or at least, slightly less painful) tomorrow.

So, as they say in the advertisements: I am not a dentist, but I do recommend that you don’t ignore that nagging pain! We Process Excellence practitioners have a variety of excellent pain-killers at our disposal these days. If you are lucky – you won’t feel a thing. And even if it does hurt a bit – you know in your heart that sometimes you have go through some discomfort to make things better in the long-term.

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Rob Collins

Rob is a Principal Consultant for Donox Ltd. He holds a PhD in Software Engineering, Psychology and Training and an MBA from Henley Business School. He gained his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt whilst working as Process Authority for Lockheed Martin IS&S in the UK. As well as presenting courses and running workshops for Donox, Rob also teaches courses for Oxford University on their MSc in Software Engineering. His particular interest is 'coal-face' business process improvement - running workshops, documenting business processes, running improvement project and teaching Lean Six Sigma.

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