This year my wife was very ill. For about six months she did not have the muscle strength to walk up stairs or even stand for very long. She was bedridden for about six months. Toward the end of that time, when we were feeling very hopeless that local medical system could help, we decided to drive to Rochester, MN and go to the Mayo Clinic. So as not to keep you in suspense, my wife recovered over the summer and is doing much better now. But I want to share something I observed while at Mayo that reminded me of an important practice that every design firm should adopt. It was the necessary wall between control and communication.
Before I describe this important dynamic let me just provide you with the amazing contrast we experienced between our local medical system in Durham and what we experienced at Mayo. Here at home it took almost five months for us to get appointments with specialists, to run test after test, and to follow up with various specialty clinics. None of these, although all part of the same system, followed up with us or communicated with each other. It was an exasperating and frustrating ordeal. That’s part of what drove us to Mayo.
At Mayo, in stark contrast with our local system, what took almost five months here was accomplished in five days! What an astounding contrast. It’s hard to believe such a thing is even possible.
There are many aspects of the Mayo Clinic system that are inspiring and much to be learned from their extraordinary success, but I want to describe one practice that reminded me of something I had learned and applied in my former firm that makes a huge difference. That is, building “a wall” between the control systems of a firm and its delivery systems–between it’s pricing and scheduling controls, and its client interface roles.
Building the Wall
At the Mayo you can go to any clinic, at any time, to see a specialist–even without an appointment that day. You can go and wait “on standby.” They call it being “a checker.” If go, and you’re willing to wait there, if they can get you in that day, if there is an opening or a cancellation, they will get you in. But the receptionist–the client interface person who you check in with–cannot tell you if, or exactly when you might get in. They are very friendly and helpful but they do not have access to the actual working appointment schedules. Only the doctor’s administrative assistants, who literally sit on the other side of the wall behind the reception desk, have access to and control over that information.
Now you all know how computers and networks function. There is no technical reason why the reception desk could not access these systems. But at Mayo they are intentionally blocked from them. The information being controlled, right behind them, is not made available to them. This may seem odd, maybe even unnecessary, but it is a secret that is absolutely necessary in order to enable them to maintain their amazing efficiency.
A patient interface person really wants to get you in. They want to get as many patients in as possible. But they know that unless they leave the actual access decisions up to the assistants behind the wall–that they would end up getting fewer patients in. You see it’s their very compassion, sympathy, and empathy–which makes them very good at their role–that would be inclined to push people through, squeeze people in, and make promises that would actually impair the overall system. It’s in their nature to want to help–and they do help by talking reassuring, explaining, and helping patients to navigate the system–but they don’t control the system.
On the other hand, the ones who do control it, the ones right behind the wall, they are not patient facing people. They are working with calendars, schedules, and with their peers–the other assistants throughout the system–as they all work together to balance the available resources for the entire Clinic in the most efficient manner possible. To do this they need to remain dispassionate, focused, and balanced. They are the control tower of the clinic. And when they work at peak efficiency, they can land a lot of planes.
How the Wall Functions in a Design Firm
How does this relate to a design firm? You need to build a wall between your client service team and your budgeting and scheduling functions. Okay, maybe not a literal wall like at Mayo, but the roles must be separated. You need two different roles designated to perform these two related but distinct tasks in order to maintain optimal efficiency in your firm.
You see, your client facing project managers or account managers are going to always feel the pressure and the desire to say “yes” to their clients. They are, or ought to be, sympathetic and they should be wired to advocate for their clients. But if they also have control of deciding the budgets and establishing the schedules the resources of your firm will get crunched.
But if you empower your more analytical employees with the tools, the information, and the authority to price work and establish delivery schedules you will have a much more balanced firm. More will get done, and that in an orderly, professional, effective and profitable way. The separation between the two roles is crucial.
The patient interface personnel at Mayo know that they can’t make appointments happen and so they can remain compassionate as they help patients navigate the system–knowing that in the end the patient will be well served–far more effectively than if they pushed things through on their own authority. And this separation of control and communication makes it much easier when they have to tell a patient that there will not be an appointment that day, since it’s not their decision. It would be much harder to maintain a sympathetic posture if they could get them an appointment, but wouldn’t. When the control and communication is separated they can simply explain, or if necessary “blame” these decisions on “the people behind the wall.”
Can This Work for a Freelancer?
Suppose though that you’re a freelancer, or you aren’t a large enough firm to dedicate someone to the control role. You can still make this work by being rigorous about not indicating pricing or schedule on the spot. Instead have “a system” that you use, a system informed by real time data, and send quotes and schedules from “your system” rather than from your personal willingness to meet their needs.
The “people behind the wall,” though they need to remain dispassionate as they focus on each available minute, maximizing resources every day, they are real heros. They’re the reason why my wife was able to see five expert specialists and get through over a dozen specialized tests in one week rather than five months. And if you build a wall and empower the right people with the tools and authority to control the resources of your firm, you will come to see them as heroes too. They might frustrate an individual client now and then, or disappoint a project manager from time to time, but on the whole your company will be be able to produce more, provide better service, and become far more profitable–if you build the wall.