Mapping & Extending Happiness in Business Processes at Blue Sky Catering

It is not about the journey of the produce or the service per se, it is about the flow of emotional value between people connected by the process.

expanded from an interview Bill Aronson – author of Turning Up for Life – conducted with Jeremy Scrivens for Bill’s new book Metastorm ProVision 6 made easy


BA What is appreciative inquiry?

JS Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an organizational development approach that engages individuals within an enterprise in its renewal, change and focused performance. AI is based on the assumption that organisations change in the way they inquire.

An Enterprise that inquires into problems or difficult situations will keep finding more of the same, but an organisation that tries to appreciate what is best in itself will find/discover more and more of what is good.

The only way to create ownership is to involve people in creating the product, the service, the solution, the breakthrough. Meg Wheatley, who is one of the world’s most progressive organisational systems / management thinkers, says that this does this does not mean that everyone has to be involved in every aspect of business change but it does mean that everyone has to touch into it.

Meg’s Principles for Engaging People in Business Change are very useful here. If I can draw from some of these (See Meg Wheatley’s Principles – thanks to Chris Corrigan’s excellent summary at

People don’t always do what you tell them to do; they do what they feel engaged to do.

A fundamental act of leadership is identifying the things that matter to people. If people don’t care about it, it doesn’t matter how engaged you’ll hope they will be, they won’t be. Are we working on an issue that gets people’s attention? Are we working on as issue that they care about?

We have always talked together to think well together. Problem solving techniques have demoted conversation. We have tended to think that conversation is too casual, it doesn’t go anywhere, and it’s nonlinear and messy.

So we go back to the flipcharts, we go back to the project planning techniques but it’s important to remember that it’s only through conversation that people discover what they care about. They discover shared meaning and they discover each other.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘How often are we confident enough to use conversation as a legitimate problem solving thinking process together, rather than using these very technical processes which not only bore us, they disengage us, and they separate us from one another?’ It’s also important to notice where your conversations happen. Are they legitimate? Do they happen inside meetings or do they happen in the parking lots, bathrooms in the hallways or on email late at night. Conversations always happen; the question is can we use this process? Can we legitimize it so that we strengthen our relationships as well as develop much better thinking?

When we focus on what’s wrong people get depressed and disengage. Of course that question is what we all ask, we do it in order to seem responsible and open and we want to know what’s wrong so we can fix it. But when you’re in those meetings you realise they’re very depressing.

The right questions are what works and why? – When have we been happiest at work? – When have our customers experienced exceptional service? – If we discover and built on who we are being and doing at our best what’s possible here and who cares?

When we ask those questions what we’re actually releasing or inspiring is human creativity that can do attitude. Let’s get on with it. We inspire our creativity. In Margaret’s opinion this is a hard principle to enact: we’re brought up to be analytical, to complain, too worry and we think that we just need to focus on what’s wrong. But once we focus on what’s right, what’s possible and what we can do, although it seems fanciful, all the things that are wrong actually get fixed. We don’t energise ourselves by focusing on those negative questions.

This is a taste of the Appreciative Inquiry approach

JS A few years ago when I was working with Blue Sky Catering we mapped the current process backwards from the time that the passenger consumed the food.

BA Let’s talk about that.

JS The focus of our mapping was to recognize that every action in a process has to have value for the customer. There are two types of customer. The internal customer is where we are serving each other. In this case, there were fifteen different people involved from the time when the food was cooked, assembled and taken out to the aircraft to it being served and consumed. We identified all the different relationships and we focused on the connections between people.

We also recognized that everyone needed to be aligned to one common purpose, which was that the end user had the best inflight catering experience that they could get. So there was this notion of aligning a process to a shared purpose between people.

So the first questions we asked around purpose are:

Who are we?

What are we passionate about?

What do we do better than anyone else in the world?

What is our purpose that we share together?

Who are we being at our very best; when we feel that we are in the zone and deeply connected to

our work?

That then leads into the question, ‘Who is our true customer?’ Our customer is the person who uses our product or service. We mapped the ‘as-is’ and to rebuild it. We included the flight attendants as they are obviously part of the process – part of the connection between people who share the same purpose – which is to delight the passenger. At the time, the flight attendants didn’t see themselves as part of the inflight catering process even though they were the ones who served the food. They are the final supplier in the process.

Mapping it backwards was a breakthrough in terms of focusing on line of sight to purpose. The other thing it did was to create this idea of the customer pulling value through rather than having it pushed onto them. If you model a process from the start then you end up with a push conversation. If you reverse it then you have a pull conversation.


BA Please explain what you mean about the difference between push and pull?

JS Push is where, at the start of the process, the supplier says “This is what I am going to make. I am going to do that because I want an outcome for me.” So the customer is really serving me, so I get my outcome and stuff you; you have to process what I send you when I chose to. Take what I give you.

What was happening at Blue Sky was that the chefs were estimating the amount and types of food that would be needed on the flight. That’s OK but they weren’t talking to the people who assembled the food, took it out to the aircraft or served it. They were not talking to their internal customer to know what they wanted or when they wanted it. Nor were they talking about why they wanted it.

They were doing was batching up large amounts of food in the name of efficiency. Rather than making what their immediate customer wanted, in this case, tray assembly, they were making what they, the chefs, wanted to make. The result was that the system was trying to push large quantities of food through the downstream processes. The chefs had the attitude, ‘You guys should be serving me. I am the one who is making the food. Now you have to assemble it. Now you have to eat it.” That was the attitude. That was the culture.

When we listened to the stories of when things worked really well, the passengers had the selection of food they wanted and food was prepared at the latest possible time, so that it was fresh. The process started at the last possible moment to get the food to the aircraft on time.

BA This is very interesting. If I ask you to say the alphabet forwards, you can just rattle it off. If I ask you to say it backwards, you have to stop and think. So modeling a process backwards is a good technique for discovering steps that might otherwise be missed. But you are looking it at from a completely different perspective.

JS When I had this insight about nine years ago, it completely transformed the way I looked at it. When you start at the front end, you focus on the how and the what. As Simon Sinek says, most people know what they do. For example I produce product ABC with these features. That’s what it is. Buy it off me. Some people know how they do it; the process. Very few people know why. Why are we doing this? Why are we here?

By mapping the process backwards, it goes immediately to the why question.

Who are we serving?

What does a great experience look like for the passenger?

When were the passengers happiest and most engaged with the service they got from the flight

attendant who serves them the food?

The passengers don’t differentiate Blue Sky Catering from the flight attendant. If the food is good the flight attendant’ service is good; if the food is bad, so is the service from the flight attendant. When the passengers are happy, the flight attendants got positive feedback and they felt good; they felt engaged. In turn if the flight attendants were able to serve good food to their passengers, they felt good about the Blue Sky truck drivers who ferried and delivered the food from the catering facility to the aircraft. Son we asked the flight attendant’s to tell us stories around the best service they experienced from the truck drivers.

We didn’t focus on what was wrong or the times when the food was bad or the customers complained or the truck was later. Rather we looked to identify for bright spots or stories of peak engagement and those bright spots were always stories about how people felt when they were able to see meaning in their work because everything flowed smoothly. Please here this – at its best flow is both ways – it involves a great customer experience but it also involves positive feedback from the customer to their supplier around how their day, their journey etc. has been made better because of the great service they have experienced.

The stories are emotional and deeply meaningful for both parties. Emotional flow is not linear in a process; it is actually a completed loop and it about both the supplier and the customer experiencing both rational and emotional value. I call this mapping the “emotional white spaces in the process.”

So we mapped the emotional white spaces – not when they were broken – but when they were emotionally engaging for people in meaningful relationship with each other; for the truck drivers as customers of the tray assemblers; for the tray assemblers as customers of the chefs (which was a complete cultural shift where chefs had been gods with their tall hats and the assemblers merely “hired hands”!) and the chefs as customers of the airline people who set the menus.

If you map forwards you get a “me-centric” perspective. If you map backwards you get a “I am here to serve you” perspective.

BA Apple, and other companies, who take this perspective, say that if you ask a customer what they like, they will come back with improvements or embellishments on the existing product or service. They will never come back and tell you that they want a quantum leap up in quality or offering. That is why, when Steve Jobs designs the iPad, he creates it and then he creates the market for it. In your view, how does the customer know what they want?

JS They will tell you if you ask the right questions and let people engage with you. Usually it comes down to three things. The first two are around what I call the two A’s. I want the food to be what I expect. The customer is expecting a certain kind of meal at a certain time. When they get it their expectation is met. The second expectation is around availability. When their choice is not available, then customers switch off and get disengaged.

The two A’s stand for accuracy and availability. The research from Gallup and others shows that, whatever service you are talking about, asking customers what accuracy and availability means to them and really listening to their answers can give you tremendous insight into the basis for trust. That is what the real definition of quality is for me- gaining trust.

Yes, you can create new and innovative products that the customer may be unaware of, that you can then sell to them. However, if your delivery is not accurate and available, you can’t create that market. It’s the basis of your relationship with a customer. We are interested in what works for the customer, because that is what builds trust.

So that is the first part. If I am a customer and you consistently deliver accuracy and availability, you give me what I want and then I am going to stay with you. We call this being rationally engaged and it changes the conversation. Until then the conversation is around developing trust. Customers are used to being mistreated and so are suspicious- internal and external. Now that you have proved that you can be trusted they can enjoy your service, free from that suspicion. You also free up time. Instead of dealing with “rework” issues around accuracy and availability, you are ready to have a different conversation. That conversation is about what you want from us in the future, what is possible. That conversation is far more emotional. It is about engaging customer feelings and emotions around dreams and possibilities and it is about creativity and innovation, not the rational / technical conversation around “business excellence” or quality.

I feel that my life is better by being connected with you personally; that is the why of meaningful customer service and business processes. I never knew this to be true nine years ago. When we worked with Blue Sky, we didn’t just bring in the flight attendants; we also brought in real passengers and mapped the flow of emotional value in the process. It is not about the journey of the produce or the service per se, it is about the flow of emotional value between people connected by the process.

We got the drivers, the assembly workers, the chefs, the flight attendants, the passengers all in a room together. What we discovered was that emotional flow always tapped into shared purpose and values between people. It is more about connections around the why, than the how or the what. So much traditional focus in business process improvement has not tapped into the flow of purpose and has been limited to the technical conversations around what we do and how we do it, rather than why we exist and what is out purpose?

When you get that alignment, in this case around a great flying experience, this pulls through the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ in terms of the process improvement.

If we are honest about it a lot of a lot of process improvement is push. Someone outside the team is telling the people who do the work – these are the values, this is the vision: these are given- don’t change or challenge, let alone shape them or own them; just comply. Nearly all the Business Excellence approaches I have seen are push in this sense and they reinforce the predominantly compliance cultures and lack of engagement in our workplaces today. Very few people get this because we have been taught to think in terms of what and how – the technical stuff- rather than the why which is more intrinsic and spiritual.

But when we engage the people who do the work and the customers around purpose and shared meaning, a different story emerges. You can’t engage people if they see you as a threat. When you have a pull approach, it is far easier and quicker to identify and change those things that need to be changed.

BA Do you believe that all processes should be modeled backwards?

JS Yes, but can I qualify that? There is another conversation which is around who are we. Process improvement will benefit from having that conversation. So LEAN, Six Sigma and other BPM approaches often focus on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ which is why they end up working on accuracy and availability – on the rational and technical level- on fixing the problem at the rational level and they never get to the spiritual. Those conversations have too often been tainted by blame. You are designing the system to prevent the bad ball rather than encourage the good ball and you are not allowed to challenge the vision or the values which are a given- an unspoken norm.

Are you designing the system for the one time when things don’t work – or the 99 times when it does? If you have the context of abundance then you build on what works. So if some people in the room are focused on compliance and others on abundance, then there are two different world views. Currently the compliance or deficit view dominates our management systems. Having the “why” conversation up front is a way to bring out these different viewpoints and get alignment. If you do that, then the process goes faster and the result with be optimised.

Traditionally the process improvement conversations have been around ‘what’ and ‘how’. I think we are seeing the emergence of conversations that start with ‘why’. I would build that into all process improvement engagements.

BA I buy why.

JS Yes. Process optimisation or improvement – call it what you like – should be relational. It is about people and relations in a living system- a community. The best process work is about restoring and building community in our enterprises.

BA You talked about Steven Covey’s idea of the speed of trust.

JS Yes. When trust is high, business is fast and costs are low. When trust is low, speed is low and cost is high. You think about that from a process point of view. Are you building a process in which trust is built in or distrust? Compliance processes are by definition distrusting and they are slow and costly.

BA So how do you move from a process where there are lots of checks and balances put in because you don’t trust that it will be done right first time. How do you change that culture? The best, fastest and cheapest way to do a check is to have the person doing the work to check themselves. How do you get there?

JS By moving the conversation from technical business change to discovering and extended strengths. You then release a culture where people on the ground floor select the topics for improvement because they own what they create and they take responsibility when they care.

Enterprises always have a challenge in getting people to take responsibility. By engaging people in reflective conversation around topics they care about; then you can find out the issues that engage them. Once you do that, they will take responsibility because now it is not a chore but a passion. You keep the energy up by focusing on what works, not what doesn’t. Let’s tell stories about phenomenal service, not about what is broken. My colleague David Shaked says “find out when the trains ran on time, why and who cares?” When we do that, the stories become a source of business intelligence around strengths and why things work and can be extended.

Look at the language that we currently use. We talk of decomposing a process. That is the language of death. We look for defects. We look for disconnects. We know now from all the psychology that when you do that, people disengage. If you are an airline, let’s talk about exceptional arrival experience rather than the lost bag horror story.

As Peter Drucker said before he died, “align your strengths – thereby making your weaknesses irrelevant”.