On Sustainable Strategies for Times of Transformation | Denise Doyle

One phrase that’s followed you throughout your career is process reengineering. How do you typically go about diagnosing what’s broken within a process and deciding what to fix first? 

Whether I was working in the legal or financial services industry, I’ve always found that people are quick to tell you what’s wrong if you’ll listen. If you ask a colleague what everyday frustrations are driving them up a wall, they could spend a week detailing their specific pain points. That feedback, ideally captured in structured surveys and forums, usually tells you enough to know where to start.

You also need to be aware of the organizational priorities a process is serving. Is it something with a direct link to cost savings or revenue generation? If not, it may be more difficult to gather the support and create the enthusiasm you’ll need to sustain a process reengineering journey. Once you’ve targeted a problem worth solving, though, it’s just a matter of applying the correct methodology from your toolbox.

The Lean Six Sigma framework has been kind to me throughout my career and it’s usually my go-to for a broken process. If you need a way to identify waste, remove roadblocks, or reduce defects, that system is hard to beat. If I have the opportunity to build something brand new, however, I tend to prefer Agile development.

How did you think about prioritizing your plans to balance short- and long-term needs? 

My guiding question at the start is usually “where is the data?” When I started working with the Telstra legal team, I wanted to know how they evaluated what type of work was coming in and how it was being completed. My first realization was that we didn’t have a central operating system collecting data — in the way financial accountants have a general ledger, for example. The full story was scattered across individual inboxes, documents, and shared drives. 

I decided to run a data collection exercise asking all the lawyers to start tracking their time for a set period. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that escaping timesheets was one of the big reasons people move in-house in the first place. I’m sure it also didn’t help that the request was coming from someone who was six weeks into her job. 

There were some valid concerns driving their pushback, though. What would I be using the data for? Is this something we’ll be doing forever? In the end, I probably spent more time devising an effective communications strategy than I did designing the actual data collection tool. But it was a good lesson to learn early in my experience working with legal. 

At the time, you also had the added urgency of a new company-wide cost savings mandate.     

That’s right. The introduction of Telstra’s T22 strategy meant Legal now had strict goals. We decided as a team we wanted to control our own destiny, so we took the opportunity to design a new operating model. Our approach was to shift away from business unit alignment to focus on establishing practice areas instead. That way we could continue to support the business without having to constantly reinvent ourselves in response to departmental changes. 

As we set that in motion, I started taking a critical look at our workflow management. It was clear that we needed more consistency for how work comes in, how it’s triaged, and how it’s allocated. So out of that came an RFP for matter management software. 

Next, we forecasted a little farther out and looked at potential operational enablers. What sort of training would the team need to deliver more with less? What capabilities would our lawyers need to match our recurring and emerging business requirements? What type of tracking could help validate whether work was being allocated appropriately?

Once we completed the RFP, I formalized our project governance. To ensure success we established steering committees, a design stream, and a leadership group. I made it clear what each member’s role and responsibility was and why their presence was required. 

Underlying all these activities was that initial emphasis on effective communication plans. I realized there was a lot of change and a range of emotions swirling around the department, so I owed it to everyone to communicate as frequently and transparently as possible. To do this, I started making two-to-three-minute weekly videos with updates on project progress. 

Change may ultimately be constant, but people do like the feeling of a finish line. How did you sustain morale and energy amid all these initiatives?

There’s always at least a spark of curiosity and excitement at the start, so really it’s about finding ways to harness that. In the case of new software, I know I need to allot a few months after launch to focus on helping people embed the tool in their everyday habits. The great thing about software, of course, is that I can literally measure enthusiasm in the form of usage levels. If someone hasn’t even logged into the platform in the last two weeks, then I know I need to reach out and see if there’s any confusion we need to clear up. 

I also acknowledge that peer learning might ultimately be more effective than my instruction, so I like setting up spaces where everyone can share tips and tricks with each other. And as they do that, I’ll shift my focus back toward managing the vendor relationship and sorting out any teething issues on the technical side.  

Projects do need to have an end date, though, so I’m very conscious about ensuring we move from “project” to “business as usual” once the teething issues have been addressed.

Now that data is becoming a bigger part of your team’s vocabulary, where are you seeing its impact?

The first big milestone was getting to a place where our practice leads have a good grasp on what type of matters were coming their way and at what volume. The data also made it easier to identify the deeper capabilities within the legal team. If there’s a contract coming up with a big tech company, for example, we’ll already have a sense of who gives the business the best chance of success in that scenario. 

On an even more practical level, the ability to instantly and objectively see what’s on everyone’s plates has been great for balancing resources. If a lawyer is going on leave, we know where help can be recruited from and how to ensure effective knowledge transfer. 

As for using data as a spend management tool, we’re still near the start of our journey there. We have basic dashboards that help us visualize spend by time period, matter type, and business unit. We’re definitely looking forward to reaching the next layer soon, though, where data is proactively pointing us toward the best decisions. 

It sounds like things are progressing well at the moment, but can you recall any lessons learned from projects that didn’t go according to plan? 

I’ve had this love of data throughout my career, but I haven’t always known the right way to express it. In one of my early roles, I remember working on a project for a global bank analyzing client complaints. Eventually, it came time to present my findings to the managing directors at a leadership team meeting. My slides were perfectly prepared, my delivery was well-rehearsed, but I didn’t account for how my talking points could be interpreted.  

To those in the room, the presentation felt like a highlight reel of all the bad decisions they had been making in recent years. So that’s how I learned – very quickly – the importance of tailoring your message to your audience.

The second big lesson came from a time when I was standardizing financial reporting from several separate business units for delivery to our CEO. We’d uncovered some inconsistencies in the content and volume of reporting — where one team might produce a 50-page brief and another would share a five-page summary. So we designed a new reporting format to which all agreed to in the room. 

I noticed delivery was slow during the eventual rollout but I couldn’t tell why. It turns out there was a bigger debate going on behind the scenes. Several leaders had reservations about sharing info with that level of transparency. Because we were dealing with financial data, they weren’t necessarily comfortable with their peers seeing it at the same time they did. 

So that was a powerful reminder about the need to engage your stakeholders early and often in a process. You never want to be in a position where you’re discovering surprises for the first time in front of a larger audience. Having people politely tell you what you want to hear can actually lead to consequences much worse than a candid, upfront conversation might feel.

As you’ve become more immersed in the corporate legal community over the years, are you starting to notice any areas where you might disagree with your peers?

Having always had an interest in technology, I look to automate a process before I consider outsourcing a process. This comes from my experience with outsourcing processes many years ago when the concept was still fairly new. Don’t get me wrong, there are select scenarios where it may be the right fit, but you have to be mindful of how the relationship is structured. You want to be in a position where there’s good communication on both sides and where you retain enough knowledge of the process to easily make updates if needed.

One issue I speak out about more frequently, however, is the need for legal teams to start evolving their operations before it’s too late. I think we’re realizing all across the business world that a growth trajectory can’t keep extending up and to the right forever. Legal has been largely untouched by technology, though, and teams haven’t had to consider efficiency and productivity issues as intently.

The way lawyers have worked for the last 50 years is not how they are going to work for the next 50. There will be a shift toward automating more low-value work and executing with greater efficiency. I’m not recommending teams run out and buy every new technology, but the legal community at large would benefit greatly by being on the front foot of change.

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