Build Business Process To Last Or Not?

Reading Jim Collins’ Built to Last reminds the reader that great companies (and non-profit organizations) are built around a core of immutable ideology. Yet he is clear in telling us that the same great companies were able to (if not internally-motivated to) constantly improve their processes and procedures. In the name of market development, customer service and innovation, change is embraced by the greatest companies. I love it and couldn’t agree more. However, in the move toward automating basic services such as those found in service and manufacturing sectors, are we losing the capacity for “on-the-fly” process innovation and improvement?

“The System Won’t Let Me”

Have you called a customer service center like that of Bank of America or been to a store like JC Penny and asked someone a simple question or asked them to perform a basic task only to hear: “The system won’t let me?” As a customer, how do you feel? Imagine working somewhere where you have to say things like: “I know that’s a great idea but I can’t do it. The system won’t let me.” My fear is that workflow and business process analysis gives us the tools and methods to improve quality, speed and service yet too much emphasis on automation will force more hard-coding of processes that can fall out of favor very quickly. Keep the method and stay flexible on the application side. If your IT bench isn’t very deep and modifications take too long, your beloved workflow and process-turned-user-interface may come back to haunt you later.

Don’t Automate It All

Leave room in your process, training and performance appraisal systems for employee ingenuity, grace, imagination and stellar service. Collins reminds us of the Nordstrom fanatical service standards. Employees are rewarded for delivering purchases to customers’ hotel rooms! He reminds us how it is that Mariott originally evolved from 9 small restaurants to a global food distributor and hotel chain by first packing lunch boxes for the passengers of a local airline despite the fact that it wasn’t in their strategic plan. If we remain too rigid in our standards and too dedicated to our plans (a la Project Management), we lose the opportunity to act in positive and rewarding ways when the moment calls for it. Evolution consists of golden moments when variation from the norm produces very good results!

Seize The Moment – Keep The Core, Change The Process

It may sound like a radical departure from standards and requirements, rules and workflow, however inspiring your brilliant people to make recommendations and pursue the greatest outcome when the need arises is absolutely critical to your success. Fundamentalism in business leaves no room for creativity and problem-solving.

How can you pursue both process standardization (inherent in automation) and innovation? How can it be done in a smaller organization that lacks IT and programming depth if you hard-code all the work you do? What is your expectation for process improvement cycle-time in workflow and systems? Is that the same as allowing over-rides and exceptions to the rules? Can your people get away with saying: “Despite the system, I CAN do that?”

Tell me, how do you maintain that kind of balance and become great?

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