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Simplify for Success - Conversation with Priya Gopinath

Priya Gopinath

Priya Gopinath was on Simplify for Success, a podcast series presented by Meru Data and hosted by Priya Keshav. Priya Gopinath talked about her experiences using lean six sigma principles to simplify and accelerate enterprise-wide programs for managing data. She highlighted how communication is critical to ensure success in these programs. She also discussed how to leverage technology in the right way during program implementation. 

Listen to the full podcast below:


Priya Keshav:

Hello everyone, welcome to our podcast around simplifying for success. Simplification requires discipline and clarity of thought. This is often not very easy in today's rapid paced work environment. We've invited a few colleagues in the data and information governance space to share their strategies and approaches for simplification.

Today, we will be talking to Priya Gopinath. Priya Gopinath is a transformation leader with two decades of experience in leading organization-wide strategic planning and business transformation initiatives with focus on technology risk management, security and privacy by design and governance. Through her professional career, she has built expertise in accelerating traditional improvement fits such as Lean Six Sigma by combining them with secure, intelligent data mining, risk-based prioritization, and automation strategies. She's a member of organizations such as ISACA, (ISC)2, Gartner Audit Leadership Council. She is a certified Lean Six Sigma master black belt and a certified practitioner in information systems security. Priya volunteers for a number of non-profit organizations and enjoys spending time outdoors with her family in New Jersey.

We are very excited to have Priya on the call today.

Hi Priya! thank you for joining us.

Priya Gopinath:

Thanks Priya, that's very kind of you and a fabulous introduction. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity.

Priya Keshav:

So, before we get started Priya do you want to provide the disclaimer that we were talking about?

Priya Gopinath:

Sure, and Priya as we embark on this podcast, I'm really excited to be here and share my nuggets of knowledge based on my experience over the last two decades. I just want to provide a disclaimer that anything I share is my own, it's not a practice that's carried out or my current employer attests to, or any of my previous employers. Any examples I share are just my own genericized examples and my opinions, to be honest. So just want to provide that disclaimer as we pursue this path.

Priya Keshav:

So, you've had many years of experience in developing and implementing enterprise-wide process improvement programs in the insurance industry.

How do you build a business case for these programmes? Any tips that you can share?

Priya Gopinath:

That is a very thoughtful question and teams like business cases are performed all the time, right? But I really appreciate that you asked the question because it's a valid exercise, and it usually occurs in the early stages of any initiative and it addresses the why, the what, the how, and most importantly if the exercise is going to be worthwhile.

And developing a business case provides decision-making for those stakeholders and decision-makers on whether it is worth pursuing something based on evidence and based on decision-making, right?

So, I repeated the word “decision”, “decision maker”, “worthwhile” for a reason because I think when we develop a business case, the most important thing is that we understand our decision maker and his or her needs, and that's where we should always start, that's chip number one.

If there is a decision that needs to be made, good or bad, and “no” is a perfectly good answer. Not pursuing something is as good a decision as pursuing something, so the value of a good business case is doing your research and providing your audience, your decision-maker, the best information to make the best decision that's for them.

And what the business case will involve as most of you know is a really good thoroughly-thought problem statement. Preferably smart, it's the benefits of pursuing initiative or exercise. The risks that may be involved, the costs that may be involved, solutions that might meet the needs of this to address the problem.

Time frames, the impact because clearly, we are doing all this effort for some impact we have to consider the organization’s capability and maturity at that point and the most important one is sustainability.

If we pursue this, how are we going to sustain the improvements? What KPIs will we use? And another well thought of business case will also talk about the levers that we can use, right?

It's possible that the decision maker only wants impact. Let's say they want market share. The cost is not an issue. It's important for a practitioner to know that. Or let's say the decision maker just wants to avoid a risk completely, so you just have to know your decision maker and proceed in the interests that meet your decision maker's needs to be the most successful in presenting a solid business-like business case.

Priya Keshav:

Those are some really great trips to kind of think about when you build a business case. So, continuing on that thought, how do you balance showing immediate results while also setting expectations that some of these programmes that you're asking for a “yes” on are likely to be multi-year programmes, which means you might not see results for some time.

Priya Gopinath:

Right, that's often the challenge that most practitioners, especially in the field of process improvement or in operations are constantly battling with.

How do I meet expectations while phasing out in a way that meets the decision-maker or the executive sponsor's needs? And I think there are a few things that we need to understand if we understand the needs carefully at the outset, we have to be able to have the clarity and understanding of the problem and the possible solution to be able to develop some quick wins, develop some carefully thought-out positioning on what you can deliver.

It's important to listen because when we try to attempt this, we have to listen carefully to the teams that are already doing this and build the consensus that we can deliver XYZ in the immediate. It requires some creativity and thinking, right? That's why are people like me exist, because we've done it over and over.

There are patterns that you learn through that, but we can't forget the fact that there is long term. There's that big sustainability question. Whatever we do and deliver in the short term, it has to be sustainable in the long term. So, to answer your question, it's every practitioner's challenge but we have to balance the near term versus the long term and create a road map where we can lay out these wins and what ties it all together.

Communication is very important for the teams, the stakeholders, and the sponsors to be able to hear how the team is progressing. So that is a very key component and that, usually ensures communication of not just wins and progress, but also risks and, if done well, this can usually meet the requirements of most executive sponsors and stakeholders.

Priya Keshav:

Simplifying for success, essentially there are two ways to simplify breaking down the parts to reduce complexity or identifying a new and completely innovative way to do something. Would you choose one over the other or do you have a preference?

Priya Gopinath:

Again, that is a profound question, but I can share with you what's worked for me just before I answer that. I wanted to share what I practise and have been practising for decades now. It's the practise of lean and Six Sigma as you shared and during my introduction there are methodologies and one person once told me “Lean is simple, but it's not easy.”

I’d like to draw an analogy to that is Lean is like exercising, it's obvious, it's simple in concept, right? You got to work out, you got to be active, you got to lead a healthy life, you got to eat well. It's all simple, it's not rocket science, right? It's intuitive, but what separates the real winners is those who have the discipline to implement and those who can create that action and sustain it. So that's what I mean by “it's the ones that exercise and make it a habit and part of the culture that eventually win.”

So just to answer that question, also, I love this concept of simplifying because I had a boss once, many moons ago and, this was early in my career. I had learned a lot about this industry that I was in, and I was showing off and he had just taken on the new role and obviously, he was very mature and he said, can you explain that to me like I'm a 5-year-old. At first, I was a little puzzled, but I got to appreciate why he asked the question because he wanted to see if I really understood the problem. Because if I understood it, I could simplify it, not oversimplify it, but simplified enough to be very well articulated in the response.

So, I'm going to answer your question. I know you asked a very profound question and I just want to set some foundational elements before I answer it.

In lean there are two kinds of dynamic concepts, one is Kaizen which most people know, right? It's the five S is that's a very commonly used tool and it's intuitive and if I had to create a word cloud or something about Kaizen and it would be small stepwise increments, continuous improvements, iterative small wins, fairly good probability of success, measurable, focused on process waste. I would talk about product and service, delivery, and most importantly, culture because Kaizen is all about engaging people, the local, it's engaging the power of the team, and really the nuances of the business problem in the process to make huge improvements.

It has a snowball effect because it directly underscores culture. Quite contrary to that is the concept of Kaikaku and that in Lean is quite opposite to your point, it's more disruptive, it's more out of the box, it's more strategic, it's measurable, its sustainability, with it comes failure, with it comes fear.

So, it's the completely diametrically opposite concept. And what I've learned through my experience, it's usually not this or that. It's usually an integrated approach and how you weave them together is the recipe.

I don't know if that answered your question Priya, but I can certainly describe a little bit more through examples or through some more debate on this, but my approach has always been if you have to meet the needs of the decision-maker, weave them together because I don't think you can do one without the other because Kaizen, in my opinion, will definitely take you quite far. It might meet the immediate needs, but to make it long term sustainable and continually make the kinds of leaps and bounds, you also have to weave in the element of Kaikaku, which is what you were talking about in terms of disruptive. Thinking, disruptive innovation and it takes a lot to build there. You can't have Kaikaku without Kaizen, meaning you can't make those leaps and bounds and that innovative culture- you can't build that without having the kind of culture that Kaizen builds and Kaizen cannot sustain itself long term, unless you have Kaikaku, so I think they're like both feeding on each other.

Does that answer your question?

Priya Keshav:

You brought up a very good point. So, sometimes you need smaller changes that are aligned with the culture which is easier and then once everybody gets on board and you're making those kinds of smaller improvements to sustain it, you definitely need more structure and you need to sort of shift your strategy.

So, I think it makes a lot of sense. You talked about providing examples. So, here's my question.Can you share some examples on how you have simplified in the past and how some of the things that you just talked about worked in with a more specific example?

Priya Gopinath:

Of course, Priya happy to.

So, one example that I can remember from many moons ago but it was a fabulous example specific to this point at hand. I was brought up to a situation at a firm that I worked for and they contracted with a whole bunch of vendors and these vendors provided very specialized kinds of services to this firm that I work for and as part of that, they got reimbursed and we had a very good, robust payment system in process, but the communications that surrounded the payments was all done via email and so that was the challenge, because we didn't have 5-10 vendors, we had hundreds, if not thousands of vendors, and we had a really good team of 30-40 people and they had a good structure.

They had what they called pods, certain pods focused on certain types of vendors and services, so there was like this inherent knowledge that wasn't part of these teams. So, I was brought in because senior management wanted to have more transparency at these processes. There was a feeling that customer satisfaction needed to be improved.

People were feeling burnt out. There was a lot of work and so the organization really wanted to improve customer satisfaction but also employee satisfaction and employee productivity. And so naturally they come to someone like me.

And say OK, here you go, create the business case, talk to us about how you're going to change this around and of course, like you said, how quickly can this happen. So this is an example I'd love to share. I came in spent a day or two just trying to understand what these different pods do, and the nuancesare the kinds of questions that the answer and as part of this exercise, they created a plan.

I went to each team, and I said we're going to train you on Kaizen we're going to do a blitz. It's going to be short periods; it's going to be bursts of improvements and everybody was gung-ho because guess what? They had been doing this and they were kind of frustrated, right? So, it was good timing. We build on that, it's momentum and I said all I need is the end of these Kaizen Blitz is really three things.

I need to understand a common set of questions that will cover most of these questions your vendors ask. I need to understand and have you think through five steps right from the moment the question is asked, the request is received. I need you to think in five steps, you receive the request, you triage it, you assign it, you remediate or respond and you close it. And the last thing, I want you to do is tell me, bucket your type of response and if we can achieve this and you can clean your backlog in the next week as a result of our Kaizen blitz. I think we'll be in good shape.

So, teams got to work, each pod had a pod leader, and the teams came up with fantastic ideas on how to improve their process. And the reason I did this is because again I had a very good mentor, a fabulous master black belt back in my career and he told me something that I'll never forget, he said “it could be an ineffective process, but as long as it's consistently applied then there's hope”. And that's very important because if you have a different approach on any given day and every person on the team has a different approach to solving a problem, then it's very hard to turn around. But if the approach is the same and it's consistently applied, then you have a huge improvement pathway ahead of you.

So, we got to it. Each pod came up with fabulous results, they understand their vendors, right? They understand the kinds of challenges their vendors have and the nuances that are associated. So, they came up with to reduce the backlogs. There were great stats, so Kaizen blitz was really working, people were happy, employees were engaged, all that's great. The process metrics were great.

But what are the outcome metrics? Where can we go with this? How transparent can we be if we need to get audited and so on. Everything is an email, right? And pod leaders, if they hit the lottery, what happens? How do we knowledge ship? What kind of patterns exists in these that we could further improve these processes? What about capacity? How well are these individuals working with each other in the pod? Is there room for cross training? Is there improvement that you could benefit from? How do we compare to best in class?

I mean, there's so many questions that we still had an answer, right? The fabulous job pod-wise, each individual pod-wise and this is where I was talking about that concept of Kaikaku right? As a practitioner of Lean and Six Sigma, you have to celebrate the wins, but you must be able to envision where is the next big win? How much more can we do? And a different part of the organization that I worked for had this tool and I think you refer to workflow automation, right? There's a low code, that was like the wage.

So, I was learning a lot about it and the promise of that is that it allows for all those challenges that we could kind of take these processes to the next level. And you had talked about breaking it into bite sizes, so we also had a special pod created for high acuity cases or high-risk cases, or large payment cases. Questions with that, or certain vendors that we really wanted to be very close to and manage them. So, we had a special pod for them.

But net-net, we brought workflow automation in, we built a standard interface for these vendors to use. We had the triage being done by the pod leaders. They assigned team members of their team to various kinds of questions that were coming in.

Teams were building their knowledge base and responding to them. And everything was within this workflow tool, and I think what helped was build a sense of accountability, build the sense of pride leaders knew, they were on top of who was working on What, with status like how many were sitting in triage versus assignment phase versus how many were closed that day and what kinds of patterns were coming out of the closure? Are we doing more of cookie cutter kind of questions or are we doing some really heavy-duty questions? There's a lot that comes from using workflow automation, but that wasn't the end, right?

Once we had the tool, we had reporting, we had transparency. Senior management could log in into the dashboard at any moment and see how things are going. Pod leaders had daily huddles because we didn't have to spend enormous amounts of time. It's just a pod leader gets together every morning, it's 10 minutes with their team, teams can self-identify and say this is where I'm having challenges, how can I move forward? So it kind of raises the morale of the team, it also allows for remote working, right? Because if everything is within a secure kind of framework, it allows for people to have that flexibility and so people were taking up training because they had more time, it just allowed for so much more in terms of the intangible benefit.

So that's an example I usually love to share, but I'll take it one further step. When we got to that point, we started realizing that we could probably use some NLP tools because certain kinds of unique identifiers that are used usually are certain kinds of like a structured field that has a certain like 3 alphanumeric followed by X number of numbers followed by X number. So, there's a pattern to a unique ID, so if we find that we could find other cases that people had solved.

if things were stuck that we could help these case processors with similar kinds of cases so that pod leaders weren't the only kind of experts that provide expert opinion. Of course, pod leaders do quality assurance and make sure that these patterns are detected and they're spending time on that but were allowing case processes with more information to self-serve in some ways, so I hope that was an example where I kind of shared Kaizen is building the culture.

You can never replace knowledge, through all the workflow automation tools and all the knowledge bases always will reside with the human. But at some point, improvements will kind of hit a saturation point and it is the duty of senior management that makes those tools and allow these teams to progress and that's where you can use some disruptive technologies. Some disruptive methodologies, workflow automation, natural language processing, AI-this is where they come into effect. Now again, I don't want to hype up and tell you that these tools are like guaranteeing success because they have their own challenges. But I'll leave that for a later time or unless you really want to talk about that, we can talk about that.

Priya Keshav:

No, you kind of pretty much led me to the next question, or maybe answered the next question, which is how will technology help in building these programs? And how have you leveraged technology to solve these problems. I do agree, I mean somebody once mentioned knowledge isn't something that you can well, we're not replacing humans, but what we're doing is making them more efficient by helping them reach their potential.

But there is a lot you can do with technology to streamline things to make sure the right information is available, so you already shared, but if you had other examples that you'd like to share on how technology has helped you in some of these process improvement projects, it would be great.

Priya Gopinath:

Oh sure, actually we did go very far with this project so I could share a little bit more about how technology helped shape this project even further and technology is a great ally, but we must remember that anything that we are enabling, we are responsible for how we use it, right? Whether it's social media, whether it's anything, any benefit, any technological advancement. We at the end of the day are humans and we have abilities that these technological tools don't have right? So let me share some examples.

So, what we did with this project is we decided to automate some of the very routine kind of work that was going on because a lot of these case processors were receiving requests for confirmation, like did my request meet all your needs? Am I going to get paid on XYZ day? So on and so forth. Very repetitive but I don't think humans were designed to spend most of their time logging into systems, keying in a case number or unique identification number and looking up a status of whatever activity. In this case, payment and responding and saying, yeah, everything worked out, good luck, it's on its way. That seems like a very repetitive task or that your payment should come through in two to three days. Everything is good, it looks like it's going well.

It's very important from a customer service perspective. Don't get me wrong because customers who want to get paid or vendors in this case who want to get paid, they are partners, right? They make our business run. So, it's very important to be in touch and meet them wherever they are. But in this case, it made little sense for a human to do this 50- 100 times a day, so in this case what we decided is let's try to have our human case processors help us understand how well we would fare if a machine did this and it was kind of a game. We piloted a process where we would use NLP to detect the case number. It would automatically, in other words, V-look up against the payment system. I don't know the English word, but can I look it up? And kind of come up with the assessment of what could go out to the vendor, and we had the case processors to do this and we measured things like sensitivity, specificity, false positives, false negatives.

If we've been measuring a lot of things behind the scenes, of course, the case processors knew we were doing this and it was a really fun exercise because it was like, let's see how well we could do with the tools that we had at our disposal. Now, we learned many things, there are some challenges inherent to these tools and we have to be aware of it. But more often than not, it did really well.

It was our technological interventions were helpful, and we were able to move our case assessors towards more complex questions which really humans were able to answer and because if there were multi-pronged questions or scenario-based questions or if it was like this affects that and that affects that, therefore we need to do this. I think that's where humans are terrific. They are amazing at receiving sometimes conflicting pieces of information and discuss or come up with some really good solutions to get people across their issue.

So, we were slowly able to move at least for very simplistic tasks which were highly repetitive, we were able to move away and have case processors work on more high-acuity cases. And as, as far as the automation, we still had the humans review them, because you can't let a tool just run by itself, you need constant oversight to make sure that it's running correctly, that your risk is within the thresholds, and your quality assurance programmes are good.

So, humans were taking on those sorts of roles, more like an oversight role rather than, copy-paste, look up the system over and over repetitively, so technology can be a great ally. But it can't work by itself. Like I said, humans have to oversee it. There are risks that come through the use of technology. We don't want to be naive and saying you could just use technology and it solves world hunger, it doesn't. There are risks that come with it and so in addition to QA and those sorts of oversight controls, there were other roles related to assessing risk. When we implement such collaboration with technology kind of environments, we need to make sure we're very aware of the risks, so we have to make sure that we don't slip on those commitments so there's a lot of different types of roles that were enabled as part of this exercise.

So I don't know if that answered your question, because technology is an ally, in my opinion, technology is the gift, but it has to be used wisely. It’s okay to stop the use of technology if it doesn't meet your needs. One last thing is we don't need to use technology just because it exists. It's just something I've learned. If you have a spill on your countertop, you don't need to go get your heavy-duty vacuum cleaner to clean it up. You can use a washcloth and wipe it up. It is not expensive, it doesn't take effort as much as bringing your heavy-duty vacuum cleaner probably even won't do that job, so it's very important to use common sense in how we use technology. Some people love to use technology for the sake of technology and being kind of on the cutting edge, but I would caution against that, use it where you absolutely need it. If it helps you if it helps employee morale, if it helps your stakeholders, your partners, and only then use technology.

Priya Keshav:

It's a very good thing that we have technology and all the advancements, but it's also important to use it wisely so.

Priya Gopinath:

Yeah, I couldn't agree more because AI is a product of what we make it to be right? I mean actually, I specialized in neural networks back in grad school. I know first-hand that your training set, the diversity of your training set, and the volume and scope of your training set is what determines your outcomes. And the AI model will only spit out what it's been trained on, it's not like a human that has a conscience or has out-of-box thinking or self-awareness or is able to challenge itself right unless it's taught to do that, so I think we're on a journey where AI brings a lot of opportunities.

It can really solve a lot of problems, but we have to do it in a very careful mindful manner, and we have to be aware of the risks involved, the issues. AI is not going to worry unless it's been taught and it's trained in a certain manner about privacy issues, for instance, so to your point, we have to use it wisely.

Priya Keshav:

So, what are some of the biggest challenges in implementing these programs and any tips that you can provide on how you have overcome some of these challenges?

Priya Gopinath:

Yeah, challenges galore. I mean, everybody sees a beautiful success story, but there's a lot of hard work, and I think some key things we have to learn from, at least what I've learned is we have to engage our teams. Some of these tools can produce a lot of fear because people don't know what it means or what it means to them.

So, the first challenge is the kind of work that I do, which is to make sure that whatever you do is aligned with the values that you hold, and that you are true to yourself, and you know what you say in a very authentic manner. Make sure that communications are clear. Make sure that teams are aware of what's going on. Communicate up, communicate sideways, communicate across, that's very important. Some of these challenges can be proactively controlled if they could become challenges only if we let it go right without thinking about it. So, I really encourage people who crack any kind of process improvement which probably is all of us is to consider and constantly think of what might go wrong, because if you get that sort of thinking hat on and you force yourself to think in that way, you can avoid a lot of issues downstream.

Some other challenges are there's always the challenge of not having enough budget, not having enough resources, not having these are challenges that everybody has, it's not just one person or the other. My challenges are not very different from anybody else, but I think as long as we have the will, we can get through.

Priya Keshav:

Well, some great tips that you have shared and thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Priya Gopinath:

I'm so glad to be here Priya and thank you for your really profound, thoughtful questions.

I know that you want to make this meaningful to your audience, so you've put a lot of thinking into this, and it's been a real joyful exercise to partner with you and I'm happy to help in any way, shape or form should you need in the future, and I hope I can lean on you in the same.

Priya Keshav:

Yeah, thank you, I appreciate it.

Priya Gopinath:

Thanks, Priya.

*Views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the view of Meru Data.*


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