Thursday, May 20, 2010


Process. Damn I hate process. Process is evil. Oh, I know that it's alluring - it even seems like a Good Idea. When you see some problem that's been caused by human error, you think "there should be a process in place to catch that", because after all, that's what we've been told for so long. But it's a Trojan horse. For all the human error it catches, it also creates obstacles, artificial impossibilities and just plain stupidity.

These process-induced disasters come about because process is the ultimate slippery slope. It starts out as an innocent routine. Something needs to be checked on a regular basis, so you make it a thing you do each morning, or at month end. Then you start to see similar mistakes being made more often than you'd like, so you make up a rule that says every time you do A, you need to check B. Perfectly sensible. Then you start to notice that miscommunication is a problem, so you create a form to minimise the possible ways people can express things to help overcome language barriers and local phrasing. It just makes things easier. Then you notice that the people who used to do all this stuff don't really need to think much, because all they have to do is follow the schedule, follow the rules, fill out the forms, enter the form data, so it would be much cheaper to employ less skilled people.

At about this time the CEO is looking at the bottom line and he's* pretty pleased with it all. The company is declared "efficient", possibly even "quality assured". There are bonuses (not for the unskilled staff, of course), there are options, Capitalism is pleased.

Then one day a customer calls, and they want something that requires the schedule to be modified slightly, or the rules to be broken, or gods help us, an answer that isn't available on the form. Those low paid, unskilled staff are not too interested in working out how to accommodate this customer, so they just say "no". Customer goes away and grumbles.

As this happens more often, CEO decides they need more sales staff to improve revenues. CEO spends some real money on sales staff, Capitalism approves of paying sales staff Good Money. A sales person goes out and talks to the customer and finds out what they need. It seems pretty sensible, there's no reason why the company can't do that. They sell the product to the customer. The customer then gets sent back to the same low paid staff who were uninterested in the Problems of Process the customer presented the first time, and is told "no" again. This time, the customer doesn't go away and grumble, this time the customer gets very upset. They've paid for this product, they've been told they can have it. They are told by low paid staff that what they want is Impossible. The customer knows perfectly well it isn't really impossible, but equally, the low paid staff know that from their perspective, it may as well be.

And now we know that process is really in place. And you can pretty much guarantee that no mistakes will be made by human error, because human error requires human input.

So next time you hear someone say "It wasn't human error, we need to look at the processes we have in place" as though this is a Good Thing, throw rotten tomatoes at them, or at least say loudly and clearly that you are perfectly willing to accept human error, but that if processes are making mistakes, the Powers That Be have failed utterly in their management roles.

*God yes, he's a "he". There may be CEOs for whom the pronoun "she" is appropriate who make these kinds of decisions, but they've never crossed my path.


  1. Amen, Sister!

    Process can be fantastic. It can ensure that essential steps are followed and boxes are ticked - not just by low paid staff, but also by highly paid staff who have had a bad day and a really over thinking about this damn thing they've been asked to do yet again God why am I doing this on my pay scale I'm so much more important than this I wonder what Vanuatu is like at this time of year.

    The problem is, as you so clearly state, that organisations try to create "The Process". Singular. This is the magic catch-all panacea that can be handed to the first person on the dole queue who isn't dribbling into a bucket so they can do the job as well as the seasoned professional who will shortly be the next person on the dole queue.

    (Actually, forget the excluding bucket dribbler. We can print the process on a A4 sheet and laminate it. Good to go.)

    The concept is that with sufficiently research, investigation and creative thinking, every possible outcome can be addressed and a worked solution provided. This is, of course, possible - but requires a similar million monkey million year scenario to get the complete works of Shakespeare. It becomes more expensive and time consuming to create the process for the edge cases that the actually undertake the work. Furthermore, the process document becomes comparable in size to the complete works of Shakespeare, and as incomprehensible to the untrained eye. Suddenly, you need Sir Patrick Stewart up the front of the room reading from the document to keep the audience awake for long enough to make it to the end.

    The upside is that a million monkeys now have work, which makes their Union very happy.

    The issue partially arises from the widely-adopted but now outmoded school of Human Resource Management that states that all jobs can be codified. Modern HR theory is much better for handling modern fluffy jobs, but appropriate training would drag many HR managers away from their core role of organising the annual picnic.

    Process can work if you are running a classic Taylor-codifiable production line soldering capacitors onto a circuit board. No so much if you are trying to develop a $10M IT infrastructure solution to support a global corporations core data mining operation.

    So, to me, the issue isn't process itself. The issue is scope. Every process has a range of applicability, into which the query or task must fit. It has a prequisite assumptions that must be met before it can be applied. Finally, it is a tool to achieve an (and God forgive me for using the word) outcome. This output is what is important to the business.

    I really hate the "but I'm just following process" excuse. It's just another way that mindless drones can invoke the Nuremberg defense.

  2. Thanks for your comment MT. I agree that there can be a use for process, if it could be kept under control. And if someone could come up with a process to help us all engage with those people who "dribble into a bucket" and allow them to utilise the abilities many have, I'd be a happy person.

    I also completely agree that human resources (the name itself belies the disaster that the field unleashed) is a significant cause in this mess.

    I don't entirely agree with your last paragraph, though. I do understand where you're coming from. On the whole, I think the mindless drones are employed, and paid, to be just that. The consequences of them not following procedure are, in most cases more significant than for doing so. I think the customer not getting what they want is, generally, less significant than the employee losing their job and livelihood. The problem, as I see it, is that management think that it's better for a bad outcome to have come from bad process than from human error. They are, as you say, chasing an impossible dream. If they just accepted that mistakes happen, and sold the dream as people doing their best to help you, and occasionally having a slip up, less people would be expected to be mindless drones, customers might remember that the world is run by human beings, and that errors, within reason, happen and they should just suck it up. In essence, we could go back to dealing with one another as people, instead of resources.