Seeing Stars: Hollywood and the Keys to Continuous Improvement

by Angelo Esposito and Tim Rogers

Every organization has a stake in improving the services listed in their respective service catalogs. The reasons for undertaking improvement exercises on a regular basis are many and varied: the technology supporting service delivery changes for the better, making the technology either less costly or more efficient; customers’ needs and wants evolve (tablets versus laptops); the market demographics change (the maturation of Gen X-ers); or your competition introduces a feature that leapfrogs it to the front of the pack (Samsung’s wrist computers). All of these are excellent reasons to undertake an improvement initiative, and it’s unlikely that anyone would argue against it. Everyone knows improvement is a good idea; where organizations usually stumble is in the actual execution.

Often, organizations rush to kick-start improvement efforts without first completing a thorough analysis. All too often, improvement exercises are either reactive—knee-jerk responses to what others have done—or conceived in response to the passionate advocacy of a charismatic (and usually senior) individual. Little attention is paid to important factors like market segment demand, return on investment, and the cost of retooling and distribution. While some of these ad hoc initiatives succeed, the vast majority either fail completely or fail to deliver the expected results. The fallout—in terms of lost revenue, decreased market share, and diminishment of the brand—is typically a career-ender for the unfortunate soul who promoted the idea.

In this article, we’ll offer a few practical, battle-tested ways of identifying, justifying, and then successfully implementing an improvement initiative in your organization. Before delving into specifics, however, let’s start from one simple assumption: a repeatable process or existing viable service is already operational. This may seem self-evident, but it bears saying nonetheless. In our practice, we’ve encountered executives who have asked us to improve a process when what they are really requesting is to have a process designed and implemented. While some of the steps may be the same, these are two different activities, with very different outcomes. Before you begin, make certain that you and your team are traveling down the right path. With that understanding locked in, let’s begin.

In order to properly illustrate our approach, we’ll use an example everyone can relate to: Hollywood films. When a production company decides to reboot a well-known, successful franchise, the first item on the agenda is to revisit the original business plan. Why? To determine which elements are valid, which ones need updating, and which items should be discarded. Your organization should be no different. The landscape has undoubtedly changed since you first deployed your service; make sure your business plan reflects that new reality.

Next, executive producers inventory the current offering. They do this to determine which elements of the franchise can be retained for modern audiences. In the updated Star Trek series, producers decided to retain the characters in the original 1960s television show, but made them younger. Likewise, the Enterprise was retained, but it was updated to incorporate modern science. Meanwhile, older elements of the series that were no longer useful were summarily discarded. Your organization should follow a similar approach. Keep what is useful, and discard that which is not.

Third, validate your service inventory with the relevant stakeholders. In the case of our Hollywood analogy, relevant stakeholders might include the head of the studio, the executive producers, and the accountants. Each one will have a stake in the final outcome. The same principle applies to your organization. Make certain your stakeholders agree with your assessment of the current situation. As the ultimate consumers of the service, their input and feedback is crucial in building a coalition that supports the improvement initiative.

The fourth step in our approach is to perform a cost-benefit analysis. Hollywood does this routinely; hardly a single film is produced without some assurance that it will at least cover the cost of its production. Apply this methodology to the improvement under consideration. Just because a service is in operation, and perceived to be valuable, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be cost-effective to upgrade it. When all factors have been considered (hardware, software, testing, distribution), you may discover that a more viable option is to retire the service and invest the funds elsewhere. This is sometimes a difficult hurdle for people (especially the service owner) to get over, but in the long run, it can pay dividends.

Once you’ve convinced the Powers That Be to approve your initiative, you’re going to need a governance body to shepherd the project from initiation through to completion. In Hollywood, these are the producers. Who will be the producers of your initiative? If you’re organizationally intelligent, your producers will be made up of business and technical leaders who will remove roadblocks, adjudicate disputes that may arise, and make any required decisions. Position the governance body as the initiative’s “parent,” and let everyone know it’s the “organizational brain” behind the initiative. Nothing beats executive support when difficulties arise.

Your sixth step should be to define (with the governing body’s input and final approval), the ideal target state for the initiative. In Hollywood terms, this is the storyboarding phase of production. This is the point where the producers and directors decide what the final film will look like and what it will contain. The same concept applies to your initiative. Your production may be as simple as modifying the customer-facing interface, or as complex as rewriting the underlying database business rules. In either case, know where you’re going before you start your journey! We cannot stress this highly enough. You must know what your final result will be. If you don’t, you’ll never achieve it.

The seventh step is creating the “shooting script.” You, of course, will call this your implementation road map, but the basic premise is the same. Your road map will consist of the capabilities (grouped and prioritized) mapped out against the sequenced activities necessary to realize them, along with identified dependencies and estimated timelines. Just as the director will use the shooting script to guide the creation of the final film, so should you use the road map to direct the activities necessary to realize the final product.

When shooting a Hollywood movie, every person on and off the set knows his or her role. They know the activities for which they are responsible, and they know the timeframes in which those activities must be completed. Without this understanding, the film will never reach theaters on its promised release date. The key is that every person knows who is responsible, who is accountable, who must be consulted, and who needs to be informed. If a production as large as a film adheres to the RACI concept, why should your initiative be any different? Take your team through the RACI exercise and clearly spell out the respective roles and responsibilities. This is an important step, and you need to get it right at the outset. Ignoring or minimizing this step can lead to chaos. Once this preparatory step has been taken, the initiative is ready to be launched.

Volumes have been written about the importance of a standard development approach, so we won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say, a structured, repeatable process (whether it be waterfall, Agile, or some hybrid combination of the two) saves, time, money, and effort, and has the added benefit of allowing other team members to quickly step in and take over from their colleagues should circumstances dictate that such an action be taken. If your organization has a structured development methodology already in place, take advantage of it, and use it wisely.

The penultimate step is where the rubber meets the road, for it is in this step that you execute the plans that you’ve created up to this point. In Hollywood parlance, this is when filming (on set and on location) take place. You, as producer, must now turn over a great deal of responsibility to your director (i.e., the project manager). Provide as much assistance and oversight as you believe is necessary, but let your PM handle the day-to-day tasks involved in running and managing the project. Your primary objective during this step is two-fold: running interference for the project team as often as is necessary, and ensuring that the deliverables satisfy expectations in terms of quality and adherence to requirements. All deliverables produced as a result of the development process must be thoroughly tested—both individually and collectively—and then combined into the release package for transition activities.

The final step in your improvement initiative is designing and then building the balanced scorecard. A holistic approach to measuring and reporting IT value creation, the scorecard is a tool especially loved by senior executives because it measures tangible, intangible, financial, and non-financial value. Best of all, the scorecard is your key input into the analysis and selection of future continual improvement initiatives.

In closing, let us offer one last bit of advice: In our humble opinion, ITIL (while a great framework) alone is not enough to transform IT and institutionalize a culture of continual improvement. We have found that the ITIL CSI approach works extremely well when combined with elements of CMMI-SVC and Lean Six Sigma. Used collectively, these tools offer a powerful, synergistic suite of tools that allows one to focus—with pin-point, laser-like intensity—on those areas in the organization most in need of improvement.

Lastly, we strongly suggest that you define and create a continual service improvement database. This register will house all proposed improvement initiatives, and if properly used, will allow you and your organization to combine similar improvement proposals, thereby achieving even greater gains at minimal cost. If at all possible, push for the assignment of a permanent Continual Service Improvement Manager, one who reports to a member of the C-Suite. Positioned at this level in the organization, the CSI Register becomes a valuable strategic tool that can be used to grow the business, drive down costs, and offer better, more efficient services to the customer base. And, in the final analysis, isn’t this really what continual improvement is about?


Angelo Esposito, a program manager with Jacobs Technology, is currently advising the US Navy on its enterprise ITSM transformation initiative. A former CIO with more than twenty-five years of experience, he’s worked in the commercial, nonprofit, and government sectors. Angelo holds certifications in ITIL, IS auditing and management, and governance, and he’s the coauthor of Ten Steps to ITSM Success: A Practitioner’s Guide to Enterprise IT Transformation (2013).

Tim Rogers is an ITSM consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he specializes in enterprise service management, governance, and continual improvement. A former CTO with more than fifteen years of experience, he’s worked with high-tech startups, financial services firms, and large government clients. Timothy holds certifications in ITIL, ISO, and Lean Six Sigma, and he’s the coauthor of Ten Steps to ITSM Success: A Practitioner’s Guide to Enterprise IT Transformation (2013). He currently serves on the board for the San Diego LIG and the itSMF USA social media team.

Tag(s): customer service, continual service improvement


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