In honor of Veteran’s Day, I thought I’d share an example of a way to organize your portfolio, using the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as a case study. We’ll talk about a way to approach understanding the current state of a complex system, connecting the as-is to a to-be state, and using that knowledge in a simple graphic to identify gaps and guide a conversation about what to focus on next.
The VA is an enterprise that provides a variety of benefits and services to those who have served and sacrificed to protect our country. Its mission is,
To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.
To focus change efforts, the U.S. government agencies set Agency Priority Goals every two years. Two of the VA’s recent goals were to improve the customer experience and increase virtual access to VA benefits and services.
Right now there are thousands of touchpoints both online and offline, each with supporting paperwork, processes, regulations, and organizations. It’s difficult for any one customer to keep track of everything required to receive the benefits they’re eligible for. For that reason, non-profits like Veteran Service Organizations have been created to help customers navigate the system (kind of like how tax consultants can help you prepare for tax season).
How can we simplify the touchpoints between such a complex enterprise and the people it serves? How can we reduce the cost and time required to transform? Where should we start and what’s left to do?
These are the questions that we’ll start to answer in this article. I’ll share an approach for looking at an enterprise and organizing the solutions at a holistic level so you can make better architecture and design choices. This is a representation of what the VA self-service portfolio could look like, and doesn’t necessarily correlate with the actual roadmap. I’ll stick to publicly available information, so you can cross-check and practice creating your own representations.
We’re going to look at the VA portfolio from three perspectives:
- The customers the VA serves
- The products and services it provides
- The capabilities that could be built to improve electronic touchpoints in the processes to deliver products and services to customers
This type of approach could be helpful for any type of business or non-profit. Swap in your offerings for the products and services, and the key touchpoints in the process for the capabilities that your solution could play a role in. I’ll be discussing this from the perspective of transforming an existing large system, but that doesn’t mean that you need to personally have control over each section. You can also use this as a tool to drive conversations outside of your sphere of control.
The types of customers the VA serves
- Business to consumer (B2C): These people are directly able to receive benefits and services (such as compensation, physical goods, or healthcare) to improve their lives.
- Family members including spouses, children, and parents
- Note: Some customers play multiple roles (ex. Veteran married to another Veteran)
- Business to business (B2B): These groups and individuals are involved in the process to provide benefits and services to the consumers listed above. They operate on either a non-profit or for-profit basis.
- Veteran Service Organizations, attorneys, and agents
- Private physicians
- Funeral home directors
- Note: Some receive direct compensation or reimbursements, others provide further evidence in support of a claim, and in the case of people acting as power of attorney, they have the ability to view and submit information on behalf of their client.
The types of benefits and services the VA offers
By benefits and services, I’m talking about what customers or their survivors ultimately get, not how the VA provides it. In most cases, there are many interim steps and groups involved in the process to deliver the final outcome, whether it’s medical care, money in the bank, or coaching.
- Medical care
- Mental health services
- Prescription medications
- Hearing aids
- Disability compensation payments
- Pension payments
- Adapted housing and vehicle grants
- Tuition, housing allowance, and stipends for books and supplies
- Vocational rehabilitation coaching
- Home loans
- Life insurance
- Travel reimbursement
- Memorial services
- Burial plots
- Burial markers
- Burial allowances
- Note: Family members are also eligible for versions of many of these products & services
Self-service capabilities (ie. electronic touchpoints) that could be in place
This list starts to define how the VA could provide the services. It can be created by first looking at the end-to-end value streams for delivering products and services. Then identifying the key points where information is transferred between the agency and the customer (or between customers), and defining generic names for those touchpoints.
For example, multiple business lines require information about the customer, like contact info, medical conditions, or military history. That could be simplified into a profile management capability. These generic descriptions can allow you to focus on creating capabilities that address as many products and customers as possible, so all that’s left is to add any specialized data fields and interfaces. Your resulting capabilities list could be a mix of existing capabilities and new ones that would add value to customers and the enterprise.
- Profile management: View and update information about yourself, including personal information, health, employment, education, and relationships.
- Manage benefits and services: Indicate desire to access new benefits, make updates to current benefits, appeal decisions, and submit any new information that’s required.
- Status tracking: Check the status of any pending updates.
- Document management: Upload, share, and view documents.
- Permission management: Determine who is allowed to view or edit your profile or submit documentation on your behalf.
- Preference management: Choose notification preferences and interests to customize your experience.
- Messaging: Send and receive messages from people within your network, including third parties and VA representatives.
- Customer history: Review actions taken by yourself and others on your behalf related to your benefits and services.
- Appointment management: View and schedule appointments and meetings with VA employees including physicians and coaches.
- Knowledge management: Learn about benefits, rules, and processes.
- Recommendations: View customized recommendations and next actions.
- Alerts and notifications: Receive text messages or push notifications about key updates.
- Workload management (for third parties representing multiple customers): Prioritize and assign work to other individuals.
Note: This is a key step to simplifying the overall design. Another way to change the experience would be to look at the products & services individually and create separate online interaction points for each product & service. For example, you could create a new online form for each paper form. Following that approach would require a lot more work in the long run than understanding what the shared goals are and building shared capabilities to provide them. Since VA business lines share customers and often require similar information to complete their tasks, a decentralized and piecemeal approach is not the optimal strategy.
Creating the matrix
After assembling the lists, plot your products/services in the rows and capabilities across the columns, creating a matrix. Pick a customer base to start with. Then decide what questions you want to ask first.
Going cell by cell, you can:
- Color code what has already been built vs. is in progress vs. still needs to be created vs. not applicable. That will highlight progress along providing a complete experience for one product or addressing all of the needs within one capability.
- Color code based on customer or business needs. For example, you could color code existing sections by customer satisfaction scores. Or create a heat map of the product and capability cross sections that would help the most people, address the needs of a vulnerable customer base, or help the business deliver products & services faster.
After creating a chart for one customer base, try creating different charts for each customer type to highlight gaps in coverage or inconsistencies. For example, comparing a chart of existing online capabilities for Veterans vs. spouses can start to reveal where it can be confusing if you’re a spouse trying to complete work online, or someone with a joint Veteran/spouse role. For another example, since someone with power of attorney can complete almost all of the tasks a Veteran can, you’ll want to consider multiple roles as you build out your design and role-based access controls.
Using the chart
Evaluate where you are
This visual can be a good diagnostic for your current organization, especially if customers are confused about what you want them to do. It’s likely that you’re working with a lot of existing features and systems that have been built over time and could use some refactoring. You might have also felt pressure to keep making progress along multiple dimensions to address the varying needs of customers and stakeholders. All of that can lead to a design that doesn’t fully address anyone’s needs. Creating and sharing this visual can help you identify gaps and inconsistencies in the current state to address in the future.
Create a plan for the future
This type of chart can help you avoid major rework later on by identifying areas of synergy across products, customers, and capabilities. This simple visual can help you make architecture decisions by highlighting areas that can be combined or conversely, designed and deployed separately. Each cell doesn’t need to represent its own module, feature, or screen, but it’s a starting point to have that conversation. After creating this chart you could run Enterprise Design Sprints and user tests around the rows, columns, or cells to explore how you want to structure your user experience and information architecture in relation to the business and technical architectures.
For example, if many products and services require a capability, maybe you could create a shared module. Or maybe you’d rather architect them as separate components that serve similar functions. Or completely decouple business, technology, and UI design decisions so that you can more easily customize each level vs. having the business, technical, and information architecture mirror each other. The decisions involve short term and long term tradeoffs in value, cost, delivery, maintainability, and flexibility.
You might need an architecture transition plan if you’re not able to invest in the most modern setup from the start. Maybe you can find an off the shelf solution that addresses all of your capabilities, or maybe you need to custom build something. Your choice could also be heavily influenced by the maturity of the enterprise architecture in your organization. Given your role in the organization, you might be able to influence the direction of the enterprise architecture. Or you might or need to adapt your application architecture to what’s available in the short term, and evolve as the enterprise changes.
The point of this post is not to get into the details of how to make architecture decisions. Only that making architecture decisions without this matrix as input could lead to unfortunate oversight and unnecessary rework and investment. For example, designing an architecture that works best for low business standardization and integration is wasteful when your business lines share customers and could create standardized touchpoints.
Once you identify which capabilities are desired for a given product or service, you’ll effectively have defined some major components of your end vision. Create roadmaps representing the work left to do along each row or column. These roadmaps would show either the order of (a) capabilities you want to add to support a given product or service, or (b) the products or services to be represented within a given capability.
Profile Management Roadmap: Phase 1: Contact info (impacts all benefits & services), Phase 2: Military history (impacts the majority of benefits & services), Phase 3: Employment history (impacts some education, employment, and compensation benefits), etc.
Vocational Rehabilitation Coaching Roadmap: Phase 1: Indicate interest in career coaching, Phase 2: Complete profile online, Phase 3: Schedule appointment with career coach, etc.
This type of chart can be very helpful to determine which roadmap to move down next, ie. which theme to focus on for the next iteration. Do you want to complete an end-to-end process for one product? Or would you rather build a capability that covers all products and customers before moving on to other capabilities? Taking a haphazard approach will be confusing for your customers and less effective for marketing. People won’t necessarily know where to go to address their particular need.
Update the chart over time and refer back to it as you learn more about customers and make further decisions, such as adding new products and services or tweaking the definitions of your capabilities.
Does your organization follow a similar approach? If so, what were your major insights?