Work Processes: Boring but Important
Back in the 1960s, the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi used to receive letters containing plays designed for the Green Bay Packers. The plays were drawn by a man who had been committed to what was then known as a lunatic asylum. In organizational terms, they could be described as elegant and revealed a certain genius. He may have been a management consultant before being locked up. The man promised that the plays would produce touchdowns for the beloved Packers. Unfortunately, in addition to being elegant, the plays were totally convoluted, overly complicated and sometimes had the same player going in three different directions at the same time.
Football plays are work processes. They are different from processes in normal workplaces mostly in the sense that there is a group of people – the other team – that is actively trying to mess them up and disrupt them. Other than that, they have the same potential to produce success or failure that other organizational processes do. In this respect, they are a key part of the overall function of execution or implementation.
Another football coach, whose team was in the process of being slaughtered, was asked what he thought of his team's execution. The coach responded, "I'm in favor of it." Lots of managers feel the same way. They are constantly frustrated by breakdowns in the process of delivering goods and services. These breakdowns cannot be attributed to structure, the declining intelligence of the workforce or problems with the organization's culture, although these sometimes play a contributing role. Unlike structural issues, which are interesting because we can see who has power, authority and status – or cultural issues, because they reveal the most interesting things about the organization – process issues are boring to most people.
In basic ways, a work process equals a flow chart, and plowing through work flows is grinding and detail-oriented work. It can be threatening to people when it is discovered that a function that they perform only takes five minutes rather than the half-hour that everyone has assumed. The "re-engineering" craze also made many people wary of revisiting their unit's basic work processes. Re-engineering – and its consulting gurus – generally overstated benefits and understated levels of disruption and cost. Re-engineering sometimes alienated managers by imposing onerous changes and it certainly antagonized workers by being used as a cover for major staff cuts, many of which have proven to be ill-advised from any standpoint.
So one can see why getting a receptive audience for process change is difficult these days. This difficulty, however, does not negate the importance of doing it. Let's take an example. It is easy to pick on the Virgin Islands in the area of processes because the Territory's government can fairly be described as work-process hell, or at least one of the lower levels of work-process purgatory. For example, motor vehicle registration and inspection – basic work processes – have been problematic functions in most jurisdictions, but few more than in the Virgin Islands.
My favorite example was always "Inspection Lane." It was amusing to me – but not to my friends – when they told me that they were going to take a day off, give up their vacation or consider suicide because they had to have their car inspected. Registering a car and getting a driver's license were also nightmares. In New York, there were similar situations, though none as extreme; there were occasional fights at the Motor Vehicles office, and I once remember a man diving over the counter to try to kill the clerk. (Those of us on line determined that it would have been justifiable homicide and voted to give the assailant the Medal of Freedom.) But none can compare to the excruciating pain of Inspection Lane, which combined long delays, rudeness, indifference and convoluted approaches that we thought were limited to the old Soviet Union.
Why do these things happen? These are straightforward processes: (1) send notifications/applications to drivers; (2) review applications for accuracy; (3) if necessary, verify information or instruct person to make corrections, etc. (4) approve and record, and so on. Everybody knew what an inconvenience it was. So what went wrong? Why didn't this simple process work? Here are some of the most important reasons:
— Lack of alignment: The process is not aligned with the mission and goals of the organization. Inspection Lane was not organized for the convenience of the vehicle owner, but for the convenience of those inspecting the vehicles. This happens a lot, especially in public bureaucracies with little or no accountability. If the number one priority were serving the customer, would anyone have created the Inspection Lane process that existed? Obviously not. The same could be asked for many other organizations, public and private.
— Accretion: Processes become more complex and sclerotic over time. This is one reason that re-engineering was a good idea: It cleaned up the accumulated mess. Prisons are an interesting example of this phenomenon. A new state-of-the-art prison is designed for optimal security and inmate flow. Then there is fight or incident. A gate or barrier is erected to prevent a future occurrence. Something else happens, and another barrier is erected or a policy instituted that runs counter to the values in the original design. After a while, someone steps back, looks at the whole thing, and says, "Nobody could have designed this." The same thing happens to work processes. Repeated incremental changes and corrections produce a process that nobody designed, one that has way too many moving parts and chokepoints.
— Resistance to change: Nurses have complained about the burden of paperwork since the early days of the profession. In working with nursing departments, I would regularly say, "Okay, let's take a look at the forms and reports with an explicit goal of getting rid of unneeded ones and simplifying those which are overly complex." Great up until this point. While asking a single, simple question – "What bad thing will happen if we get rid of this report or form?" – we work through them, looking for, and always finding, the proverbial low-hanging fruit. That's when the trouble begins. Having previously complained about paperwork, the nurses now find great hidden value in formerly despised forms. To close the deal, the final agreement is to get rid of a form for one month, and if anything negative occurs, to reinstate it. I cannot remember one ever coming back. There are many other examples of this kind of resistance, and they are hardly limited to nursing.
— Investment in complexity: The most common reason for managers to tout the complexity of their work processes is that it seemingly elevates the importance of their role, and it's interesting to see how annoyed they get when you tell them that this process is – or should be – quite simple and linear. Excessive complexity is often a function of exceptions that unfortunately became the rule and resulted in adding a person. This means that someone's job is now in question, creating another source of resistance to change. Additional transactions and "handoffs" have been built into the system, and fewer people have a full understanding of the whole process and its flow. These are all bad things that everyone has gotten used to.
— Fear of disruption: Managers fear that changing processes will produce disruptions, which will make things even worse. In many organizations, re-engineering produced a "never again" attitude among managers at all levels. What is interesting about this one is that implementing change is a work process in itself, one clearly designed to account for and reduce to an absolute minimum any disruptions. We know through vast experience how to do this. The alternative is the French
politics model of organization and management: We want to implement all of these changes and improvements with the sole prerequisite that everything remain the same.
— Lack of front-end investment: People stick with overly complex, dysfunctional, customer-unfriendly and inefficient processes because they have a static view of the organization. In part, this is a result of a lack of front-end investment in communication, training and the tools that people need in order to change. Change has to be made palatable, and people have to see the benefits rather than just the costs.
What are some simple tools for and approaches to looking at this issue? First, start with a basic assumption that if you have not looked at the organization's core work processes in the past three years, there will be an inevitable payoff in doing so. Like barnacles on a ship, there are things that have been added that unnecessarily complicate, slow or choke the process. Here are some simple approaches:
1) Think negative: The goal here is to eliminate and simplify. We are looking for things to get rid of, combine and clarify. If we stop doing X, what will happen? How can we reduce the number of moving parts, transactions and communications? How can we make people's jobs easier?
2) Think linear: What is the straightest path from here to the outcomes that we are seeking?
3) Focus on the most basic work processes: Most organizations, whether businesses, public agencies or nonprofits, have only a few basic work processes. Target the most important ones.
4) Use simple flow-chart methodology: Starting at the front end, flow chart each action, transaction or communication. Who does what? What is the action? What is the documentation? What is the communication or handoff? How is it communicated? What can we fix or simplify at any stage?
5) Focus on ownership: If we assume that some changes will be made, the most effective way of achieving and implementing them will be to involve the people who will have to execute the changes. The manager's role in doing this is to guide, challenge and be alert for the desire to hold onto the status quo simply because people don't want to change.
Remember the man in the lunatic asylum at the beginning of this piece? Don't be surprised if he hasn't slipped a few plays into your playbook over the years. It's invariably worth the time to get them out and replace them with the simplest and cleanest way of getting from A to B.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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