Prologue: Digit…, whatever!

Let us first get the basics right. This is the way I like debating. In this way, we are all on the same page and we can then build upwards from a common level of understanding. Otherwise, I fear that the conversation may be tuned at different frequencies, and of course, un-matched.

Many tend to interchangeably use certain terms, thinking they are one and the same thing, and totally replaceable. Not quite so. At least not within the context of organisational digital transformation terms, let alone lean… that is a topic for another time; although most of the readers who know me must have heard me preach this principle!

Back to the ‘digit-something’ argument: converting a physical element into something that can be interpreted by computers is great, because then we can do things with that data, such as store it, process it, send it, etc. 

In this case, scanning a document and storing it on a server somewhere (the cloud?), is great because one can then send it across the world in no time by attaching the electronic document to an email.  Definitely much easier, more practical and cheaper than couriering it across. 

Of course, this requires some kind of investment in technology hardware and software tools to enable an office to process its data and information in this manner.

This is ‘digitisation’: converting an analog element into a digital form such that it can be interpreted by computers.

I have had past clients who misinterpreted the actual execution of their ‘modernising’ strategy. Upgrading their computing power to enable them scan and digitise their data and information, enabled them to communicate much more effectively. They could now email documents across, rather than physically couriering them over! They thought that their ‘transformation’ was working wonders… immediately.

Let’s say that their process of changing data and information from an analog form to a digital form helped them better manipulate matters through the business. Surely a step in the right direction, but hardly much of a transformation into a digital business model. 

Converting their paper documents into a digitised version merely meant converting analog information and encoding it into ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’ (computer language!). Digitalisation is far more than this.  Digitalisation is about adopting the right level of technology to change the business model; to provide new revenue streams, and to create higher value-producing opportunities for the stakeholders.

Digitising information is only a small (albeit important) element of undertaking a digital transformation. Digitalisation is about maximizing available technologies and digital data, processing this to generate information that can enable better decisions to be taken, predict trends, and thereby create higher value to all stakeholders.

I had to explain this frequently misinterpreted bit before delving into the case. I firmly believe that the distinction on these two terms must be made clear! 

Scenario: Lean digitalisation  

Let us take a practical scenario within a hospital setting. I will attempt demonstrating the difference in terms and the adaptation of effective processes through a context that may be familiar to many:

Traditionally, a qualified nurse might find him/herself struggling through a number of patients lying on beds within a ward. The nurse’s duties may include attending to each patient in turn, taking temperature readings, measuring blood pressure, administering prescription medicine, monitoring infusion dosages, adjusting drip rates, recording of results on bed-side files. Eventually, a colleague nurse might find him/herself entering data onto the hospital’s centralised patient records system (the System!). Healthcare professionals and doctors will need to attend to patients, as alerted by the ward nurse’s judgment and prompt action. 

No digitalisation in this scenario. There is a degree of digitisation because some data will eventually find itself being input into the hospital’s centralised computer system by the administration nurse, some time later in the day (delay, inputting errors, duplication of effort… all non-value adding elements, not very lean).

In the interest of modernisation, hospital management may decide to invest in some technology by providing portable devices for the nurse to carry around during his/her ward rounds. This will enable the nurse to directly capture and input patient data at the bedside through interfacing with the electronic device provided (a tablet?). In turn, this enables the nurse to enter data into the system earlier than he/she would have in the first instance described above, but not much more than that (some improvement on the delay and error opportunity probability). 

This is nothing more than management improving the methodology slightly, and throwing some more technology into the process, making it more efficient through the lack of paper documents, delays, etc.

Unless introduced with a broader framework in mind, casting more technology into the operation does not constitute a digitalisation route.

On the other hand, had the hospital developed a plan to review the existing process activities, identify roadblocks created by patient demand variation, overloading of hospital resources (hectic nurse!), and undertaking non-value adding tasks (lean streamlining), then the operational process may be redesigned to become more effective, operate smoother, and become more consistent. Such process streamlining can be achieved through carefully implemented Lean Management best practices.

Lean seeks to reduce waste, maximise on resource capabilities, and aided by the right level of technology, enable the operation to save loads of otherwise wasted effort and costs. In this fashion, we can then start thinking about a lean digitalisation roadmap for the hospital operations; what I call the Lean Digital Future State.

Through a well though-out digitalisation strategy in conjunction with a Lean Master Plan, the hospital may seek to maximise available technology, its interconnectivity and analytic powers, whilst introducing automation of processes which will relieve the repeat, mundane tasks off the qualified nurse’s routine. 

The lean digitalisation strategy needs to make best use of available technology. The latter can be set to do all the monitoring, automatic dosing and control, relevant data capture, information analysis and health record capturing, with actions initiated from resulting analytics. 

In this manner, and after value streamlining the entire processes, the hospital can maximise the potential of different technology solutions to change its operational model; to separate what can be automated through technology, whilst letting people do what work people are meant to be doing (the ‘nursing’). 

Freeing up the mundane tasks from the nurse allows her/him to spend better quality time with the patient, comforting, listening and reassuring them – something that cannot be done by technology.

Adopting such a lean digitalisation strategy is, in actual fact, creating more value for all stakeholders… real quality nursing: the best value a patient might need. In the meantime, saving costs from otherwise inefficient operations.

Lean first, digital after…

Of course, by way of illustration, it is possibly easier to visualise the benefits for organisations to embark on the route to develop their Lean Digital Future States, be they a hospital, a hotel, a manufacturing plant, a bank or a notary’s office, for that matter. 

The best practice disciplines are there to be deployed. That is the starting point. One needs to ask: where am I now, what is my digital maturity level, and where do I want to go?

The technology is there to be exploited. That comes in handy after one has streamlined the operational processes through proper deployment of lean best practices.

Action!

The action is there, waiting to be taken… help from knowledgeable mentors is available for those who feel they need the handholding of experienced coaches.

The benefits of digitalisation are clear:

  1. The potential increase in revenue generated for the organisation;
  2. the potential to reduce unnecessary costs for operating the business
  3. to solve current problems being faced, such as dealing with human error and rework, inconsistency in quality of service and/or product delivery, reduction in delays and waiting times, minimising unnecessary manipulation and handling of data and material, to mention but a few.

Naturally, there can be argued a number of reasons for decision-makers to feel apprehensive in undertaking the change. Some typical barriers I have heard of include the excuse of lack of budgets to undertake the disruption, resistance by the more traditional/conservative, power-head individuals and the excuse due to a lack of IT qualified staff to oversee the needs of additional technology introduction into the business.

I guess one needs to address such barriers and seriously consider whether holding on to these kinds of excuses is in fact tenable for the years to come. Let us take a look around us and see where the successful organisations are going, and how they are achieving their successes. Holding onto traditional, possibly mediocre, mindsets might need to be questioned.

Ing. Joseph Micallef is a freelance Consulting Advisor, bringing with him over 30 years’ worth of experience across various sectors. Working in areas related with quality, lean, business process transformation and project execution and programme management he can be contacted directly on m: +356 9982 2244 or e: [email protected]

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