It’s Time To Be an Upstream Hero

Each of us, in our own way, has a bit of a hero within us. If you smell smoke or sulfur in your house, you investigate it, right? Is there a fire, or a gas leak? If you hear a flurry of sirens, you also go and investigate, especially as they get closer and closer to where you are. Is my house on fire? And if you have ever witnessed the action of people trained to run toward danger, it is an amazing sight to see their heroic efforts as they overcome the impulse for flight.

But, these are all reactions to a problem. What about prevention? The pandemic has been so unbelievable; developing a safe vaccine to stop the spread has been a number one priority. But we cannot ignore the need for prevention; without it the problem continues and is unstoppable.

Imagine you and a friend are hiking and your walk takes you by a river that has swelled from a recent heavy rain. To your great surprise, you hear a little voice calling for help – it’s a child in the water. Your friend jumps in and saves the child. Just when you think you’ve recovered from this dramatic event, you hear another child struggling in the water. Your friend jumps in again.

Once out, he starts to hike upstream to see what’s going on with all these kids in the water. Soon, he sees a man throwing children into the water. Here is the root cause.  

Upstream thinking

The first time a friend relayed that story, I automatically said, what’s causing all the kids to be in the water? You naturally think that way in this situation. But, do you think that way at work? Do you look at a perpetual problem and think about ways to stop it before it happens again?

According to Dan Heath, bestselling author, speaker and fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, business leaders should be using upstream thinking to get out of the trap of only being reactive – “responding to emergencies downstream after they happen.” In other words, “exception mode” is better than “reaction mode.” Who wants to put out fires all day?

We often see businesses plodding along and not thinking about how they can change their processes to eliminate bottlenecks, accelerate their work and enhance their productivity.  Understanding the root cause of inefficiency would open the door to modernization, digitization and smarter content management solutions. But that requires the drive to look for a better way to handle the whole process, not just the perceived problems that erupt at the end of the line.

“Every system’s improvement starts with an insufferable frustration.”

–Dan Heath, The Importance of Looking Upstream, Podcast. 

The paper problem

We see frustration when businesses are still using manual, paper-based processes. Staff has to deal with the paper by either retrieving documents from a file box or waiting for the mail to obtain the information they need. They then need to rekey it into their line-of-business systems just so they can use it.

Limited information access is a significant frustration for workers who want to be more productive – if only they had an easy way to search for the information they needed. The same is true if a process requires a match between different documents, such as a packing slip and an invoice. The time spent executing these manual processes is also a source of frustration.

The tunnel mindset

While he envisions employees getting buried under a lot of paper, Heath sees the “Tunnel Mindset, where “reoccurring problems that are not fixed from their origin get sloppy workarounds, leading to more reoccurring problems. We do whatever is necessary to tunnel forward and get trapped in that tunnel because we work around it and don’t solve it.”

In the world of content management solutions, another frustration is when systems don’t integrate. While there may be a process to get a purchase order number, if that information is not linked to the accounts payable system, the disconnect means more manual intervention and a chance for delay or for something to get lost.

In many cases, process disruptions that require manual intervention can be solved by utilizing bots. Robotic process automation (RPA) takes a look at tasks that can be automated by bots to tighten up a process or to simply execute a repetitive task.

“Leverage trained bots to quickly and cost-effectively automate routine tasks.”

–Dan Heath, The Importance of Looking Upstream, Podcast.

 RPA/IA/BPO scanning

 Intelligent automation (IA) and RPA are within the content management toolbox because they address a process flow that is repetitive and can save time and money for a business, plus increase end user happiness. It alleviates that ‘insufferable frustration’ that Heath cites.

With advances in machine learning and some lessons learned from the 2020 pandemic, some businesses are more open to some upstream thinking. They saw that lack of action with their manual processes set them back from a smooth transition to remote work. Many organizations are looking to keep a partial remote workforce and downsize their office space – but they are looking at rooms full of paper file boxes to move and take up value space in their smaller office.

Now is the time to take action and look upstream.

WHY DO I HAVE ALL THIS PAPER? Because I have not taken digitization seriously.




Because I don’t have a better solution than to throw more people into the same process.
WHERE ARE THE BOTTLENECKS? In every process because I haven’t taken the time to really see the origin of the problems.

Current state

Failing to notice or listen to the downstream problems means you will never win.

“Upstream Heroes that do the work save other people time – downstream.”

–Dan Heath, The Importance of Looking Upstream, Podcast.

Many of us actually do work backward from a problem to see if there is a better way. But many of us do not have the influence or power to get that problem resolved. We suffer that frustration.  Business leaders have to jump into this digital transformation process to enable the downstream workers to benefit from its favorable affects: “Making the systems move smoothly versus riding the rollercoaster ride of heroics.”

“What we really need to do is get people who are on the front lines who have the power to solve the problems, give them the data they need to success and just remove obstacles.”

–Dan Heath, The Importance of Looking Upstream, Podcast.

According to Heath, the best way to start is to “dig in and find patterns to see what is going to stick – critical for upstream work. When we encounter an organization looking forward to a better Future State – we take the time to assess the problem.” From scanning paper records, gaining digital access to data and being able to route information or getting bots involved with frustrating task, every organization has different priorities for their transformation.

Measuring success downstream

Making the process changes upstream is only half of the story. Seeing the measurable benefits downstream is a critical element to the entire process of transformation. For instance, giving your accounts payable team better access to the information that they need, adding an automated workflow and automating other critical tasks that your business requires means the same staff can handle more work because they are saving time from all the manual work.

Heath calls the need for data and measurement information a double-edged sword because we need to look at our results with realistic and intelligent measurements.

“… and it forces us to admit … there is almost no hope that we are going to succeed upstream without good data and good measurement.”

–Dan Heath, The Importance of Looking Upstream, Podcast.

Whatever metric you use, the greatest value of being the Upstream Hero is making the incredible difference to the people downstream. Transforming from manual to automated and enabling easy access to data is just the start. If you can stop the need to solve the same problem every day, then you really are that true upstream hero.

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is a program manager at Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc. and is responsible for program development with the company’s Business Intelligence groups, including the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) practice. Her responsibilities are to build sales and customer-facing educational and thought leadership insights as well as strategic initiatives for ECM.