Advice from a Work Management Expert: Mary Ann Erickson, Workflow Systems Engineer at Allianz Partners

Work Management Mary Ann Erickson

Join us at Leap 2019 in Dallas, Texas to hear Mary Ann Erickson present about best practices for implementing work management. Daniel Pink, author of Drive, and Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone will keynote.

Mary Ann Erickson is the Workflow Systems Engineer for Allianz Partners, a global insurance company. She was originally hired to implement and manage new products in a technical capacity, but once Allianz Partners discovered and partnered with Workfront she was tasked with implementing the software for the creative services and compliance teams, training them on the software and work management best practices. Since then she has grown the internal user base from 5 to more than 500 and the application usage to 18 departments in 3 countries, including product management, business intelligence, regional market management, and regulatory and corporate compliance.

She is the first ever Judge’s Choice Workfront Lion Award winner and an accomplishing finalist in three categories. In this interview we discuss her views on work management, process improvement, best practice development, being a trainer, and more.

Tell us a little about your career and how you got to where you are.

It seems that I have always been working in a project management capacity — both in a traditional and non-traditional sense. I started out as a project coordinator for a large chemical firm in operations and materials handling. Since then, I’ve worked in manufacturing running a production line, in banking as a resolution specialist, in commercial and federal construction as a project manager, and in a large technical firm as a consultant. Throughout my career, I’ve always found myself defining, designing, and leading work.

I typically also functioned as a PPM application expert in several of these companies at the same time I was doing my traditional job. I never officially applied for that kind of role, yet it continually presented itself to me, and I quickly became passionate about it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but work management was natural to me. Stepping back, I now see that I was helping to grow project management in each of those organizations from its traditional function of start-to-finish to a more work management type model with steady and consistent deliverables, continuous learning and improvement. The coolest part was becoming an expert on the applications that helped us do just that.

When did things start to take shape for you in terms of training people in work management?

Things really started to take shape for me when I was working as a software application expert and trainer several years ago. Being a trainer was a truly enlightening experience for me. It allowed me the opportunity to learn how people process new information and handle change.

I found that when people are having a tough time understanding or accepting a new concept, they need help getting out of their own way and allowing themselves to find the root of the problem. As an empathetic problem-solver, I help users focus on the end goal without getting frustrated with the natural human tendency toward fear. And once they get it, that’s when the excitement really starts for me. Watching the light bulb go off when a concept finally clicks for someone that I am working with fulfills an innate desire within me. I enjoy bringing clarity to confusion. Even more than that, I am driven to find non-traditional solutions to a problem.  I don’t think of them as “workarounds” — I think of them as ways to “get it done.”

What do you find most appealing about work management and process improvement?

The evolution of the process. Watching it grow — the people, the teams, the workflows, the productivity, the efficiencies — and seeing it start from a seedling and develop into full bloom. I enjoy helping folks find the why and understand the true goal behind the work they are doing. I help them see they can’t know they are doing well if they can’t measure against the goal of what they were hoping to accomplish.

From there, they begin building upon it – defining how they are going to get it done, and done to the best of their ability. Next, they have to empower people to function as a team, allowing each team member to have a moment to shine and demonstrate their value, all the while encouraging them to understand the true goal of the work and develop an agreement of getting it done as a team.

Once this process starts to gain traction, the sprouting begins. Yes, you will have some weeds along the way, but you have to deal with them, pull them out and keep moving forward. The goal is to get to full bloom and to maintain that consistently. We could go from bloom to fruit producing, but we’ll save that for the next interview — that’s a whole other level!

In the operational excellence model I work with, this is defined as the path from reactive to optimized — all the while understanding most of us are most comfortable in what I’ve coined as the “GSD” model — getting stuff done (though what the “s” stands for often changes, depending on the day). We want to make sure we are focused on building something scalable – allowing for the continuous opportunity to grow and mature.

What challenges did you face when you first started this process?

My title and job role was relatively new to the organization. It was understood that it was needed, but yet to be defined as to how to get it implemented, followed by how it would function and then actually produce measurable improvement. It was tough having to sell the idea of work management as an enterprise level solution.

Starting out with single team investments, increasing those to collaborative work environments, breaking down long-standing silos, helping teams to understand that the way it has always been done may not be the best way to continue doing it — this was a lot more than just installing a new software application.

What successes led you to where you are today?

One significant accomplishment was reducing the SLAs of compliance review and approval from 15 days to 5. In addition, 80% of our approvals were getting turned around in 24 hours. In the process, we eliminated a lot of the work steps that weren’t necessary — steps that had just been part of the traditional workflow, yet weren’t essential.

Getting to the heart of what was valuable to the organization and being able to show measures of that value within the application, this prompted new teams to want to get on board.  Throughout the first two years of utilizing Workfront, we went from being a ticket management solution for creative services to being the work management solution of choice across the organization.

Once we allowed our work management tool to execute a more consistent automated workflow, our processes improved dramatically. All our work teams increased their productivity; completed projects per team more than doubled each year, and team sizes were growing by more than 400% from one year to the next. That’s a significant amount of growth and a great challenge to maintain pace. The true accomplishment came once we were able to get all of those employees on-boarded and functioning together in a collaborative way — allowing, for the first time, cross-functional and cross-regional work environments.

That’s really impressive. What are some key steps you took to be able to reach that success?

One key step we took was helping people understand that other teams were facing the exact same issues they were — and that they could employ similar solutions as a result. To see that something as simple as a work request queue could be streamlined across the company meant we didn’t have to waste a lot of time training and retraining people.

We’ve had a huge reduction in email. People receive far too much email today, and work requests via email can’t easily be managed and tracked. Now we have a single environment to easily reference and pull data. Reporting has become so much easier. Being able to give live status updates and transparency of the work back to our requesters has significantly improved adoption.

Another step we take is making processes simple and unified, rather than customizing the process for every potential exception. We help people see that more often than not the best way forward — the happy path — is one that works for everyone. This leads us to dramatically simplified work requests. When an ad hoc request arises, we may make exceptions in the moment, but that doesn’t mean that our process needs to be adjusted for each of those ad hoc items. We find that simplicity goes a long way.

What advice do you have for young people who are just starting out in a career in work management?

Learn to listen, not wait to speak. And yes, there’s a difference. Allow yourself time to understand what is really being requested — understanding all of the parts, the what, the why, the who, the how, the when — that will make it successful.

Trust yourself and consistently try something new. The greatest benefit of work management today is that you can try a new way of doing something, find that doesn’t quite work, make adjustments and improve upon it rather quickly. In the words of Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Focusing on clarity and understanding the goal. It reduces chaos and resistance. It helps each person feel comfortable and excited about the change. It allows for more trust.

Knowing that methodology is not equivalent to function. Understanding the pace of change; recognizing that people aren’t always being lazy or resistant, sometimes they are exhausted in maintaining the level of willpower needed to accept the change for which they were not quite ready or prepared.

And finally, understanding that this is an art.  It takes not just a tactical or a technical mind, but a creative one to excel at this type of work.  The art of project management is in creating a plan of how to get things done – the art of work management is in doing it.

What is the single biggest think you think people who aren’t in work management get wrong about work management?

Helping the departments and teams see that they shouldn’t always be in competition with one another. It’s been rather challenging for us to get away from long-standing silos in work management. In fact, most of the time, we don’t even comprehend that we’re working this way. I’ve found this same scenario at most of the companies I’ve worked for. In each case, departments tend to be very team focused — as if we are two sports teams playing against each other for a win, versus two professional teams working towards the same goal of producing value for our organization.

I understand the motivation behind these silos. We tend to get focused on performance reviews and having others see the all the great things we accomplished. But at the end of the day, the goal is to get to that deliverable product, to add more value and revenue to the company. If we could learn to see accomplishing that goal as a personal win, a measure of the value that we bring to the table, we could overcome one of the major hurdles in implementing a work management solution.

One of the things we’re doing on a lot of our teams is get rid of SLAs when they’re not necessary. In the past, one team would have seven days, one team would have three days, and one team would have two days to complete their part of a project. I came in and asked, “Why do you need seven days? Why do you need three days? Do you think two days is enough?” No one really had an answer. So we got rid of the SLAs at the team level and just said, “The whole workload is ‘this many’ day venture.”

It’s a very different mindset to communicate, “I’m less concerned that I’m not going to meet my allotted seven days, and I’m more focused on helping my teammates get their part done as well as my own.” We’re working together to get it completed. The final goal being that the end product is ready to go in the defined number of days.

We are producing a more agile-minded, team-focused mindset. It’s about promoting collaboration and cooperation. I think that’s the part that people forget about when they start talking about collaborative work environments. Collaborative is one thing; cooperative is quite different.

What advice was most helpful to you when you first started out?

Identify the end goal and work with the end in mind. Do not be limited by, but work towards, the vision – making modifications as necessary. The goal for my work is to consistently define, design, and follow the happy path in our workflow process, understanding that there will often be exceptions and necessary accommodations. It is our goal to coach those exceptions and accommodations out of our workflow as often as possible, not allow them to become the norm.

That’s terrific advice. Finally, what books have been particularly helpful in your career?

I am an avid reader and I recommend a range of books including: Good to Great by Jim Collins, Deep Work by Cal Newport, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Principles by Ray Dalio, The E Myth by Michael Gerber, Switch and The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Impactivity by Tracy Higley, Creative Change by Jennifer Mueller and anything by Daniel Pink (who I’m excited to see at Leap) and Simon Sinek.