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Clifford Chance

Clifford Chance

Innovation Insights

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Continuous improvement: Learning to see is now even more important

For me, one downside of the 'new normal' is that I've had to change the way I do something I really enjoy: observing, understanding and solving problems with my team. Observing the problems has taken on a whole new look.

In a recent meeting, I was reminded that one of the most critical skills that change professionals must have is “learning to see”. Not only does it give us a fresh take on how we do things as a business, but it also transforms what we can do for our clients. Each time we embrace continuous improvement, that potential grows yet further.

From very early on in continuous/process improvement, you learn about the concept of “walking the Gemba”. Of course, the first thing you may be asking yourself is “what does Gemba mean”? It is a term that derives from the Japanese word for “the real place”. Looking at it in the context of process improvement, however, its meaning is simple: go and see how the work is done. It is only by taking a “Gemba walk” that you can truly know what challenges and opportunities exist.

‘Walking the Gemba’ in a professional setting

For us in the legal sector, our “real place” comes in conversations we have with and services we provide to our clients. It is the setting for our value-creating work. For several reasons, however, taking a “Gemba walk” in the professional world presents its own challenges.

  • This is a people business. Unlike machines, not everybody approaches a task or a process in the same way. As unique individuals, we all have our own unique way of doing things.
  • Trying to observe how work is being done in itself can be hard. It is both unappealing and unsettling to have someone watching over you and asking: “and then what do you do”.

In the current climate where our teams are doing their work from home, learning to see remains a challenge. After all, we are unable to physically observe people doing their job. Even for teams who are back in office settings, social distancing – at best – distorts the observation process. But we can now actually see a lot more from the comfort of our desks via video conference.

This is, after all, “how the work is being done” right now.

Improving processes to overcome new challenges

The fundamental aim of any “Gemba walk” is to learn what we are doing and how we are doing it. From this, we can unearth the opportunities that enable us to make improvements and meet challenges head on. If we fail to do this, our path is directionless. As W. Edwards Deming notes: “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing”.

At Clifford Chance, we firmly believe the legal sector has much to gain from process/continuous improvement techniques. And perhaps it is now more critical than ever with the unique challenges that 2020 has delivered. For us, therefore, one recent example saw us work with our International Arbitration team to assist with and improve the experience for virtual hearings. 

The first step was for the team to join the virtual hearing and simply observe what was going on. This would have been more challenging previously. But it is also important to remember that the fact such hearings are now being held virtually is changing “how” they are done. So, this means we need to go and “see” what these changes mean for the hearings in practice.

It can seem somewhat daunting for those new to process improvement. Our team has, however, come away with several opportunities to improve the experience. It includes creating:

  • A simple checklist for the team to run through before a hearing
  • A clear action plan for when the internet connection is disrupted
  • A different way to present evidence, making it easier for the panel/witnesses to follow

How we can apply process improvement to legal services

That example is perhaps a simple overview of what process/continuous improvement can mean in high-end legal services. Looking from our viewpoint at the forefront of using such techniques, we can see there are numerous opportunities just waiting to be identified.

To do this, first we must allow ourselves to bring the benefits of our multi-disciplinary approach to bear – process, technology and project management. And we must combine it with an ability to see what is going on. After all, process improvement is as much about doing the right things as it is about doing those things right. And it all starts with what our clients need from us.

As the current situation continues to impact the way we work and deliver value, it has become essential that we keep finding ways to enhance the client experience. It is also crucial for us to take advantage of the increased use of the virtual world to see how things are being done. It is how we are “walking the Gemba” – and it is how we will continue to improve what we do.

For more information, read our white paper on Applying Continuous Improvement to High-End Legal Services – or contact our Best Delivery team to start a new conversation with us.