Down Under: Processes – the Solution to Resolving an Issue or Dumbing Down Staff?

As a manager, when something goes wrong, my instinctive re-action is to develop or resurrect a process that addresses the issue at hand. In my head this action miraculously provides the ‘enchanted’ solution that will eliminate the error so that it will never be repeated again. It keeps management and potentially even staff happy that a workable and timely solution is now in place.

Reality, logic and experience, however, tell me that without fail, the error (or another) will recur, and once again I find myself reinvigorating, reminding staff of, or developing a new process as the solution. The cycle is repeated.

As a manger, it concerns me that whilst I engage this strategy I potentially do two things:

  1. turn to ‘process’ as the answer without any evidence that this is the correct solution; and
  2. by doing this I introduce the potential of systematically ‘dumbing’ down my staff and putting barriers in the way of working efficiently and effectively.

Is providing staff with detailed step by step process and work flow solutions, when things don’t quite go as expected, making them think less, become reliant on someone else to do the thinking, the remembering, running the risk of errors and developing a breed of process junkies?

My staff are smart, educated, self-starters and thinkers! But why do I automatically have the compulsion to use processes as the solution when something goes wrong or when an error is made? No matter if the consequence of the error is:

  • reputationally damaging;
  • financially disadvantageous;
  • life threatening;
  • catastrophic in nature; or
  • just an event that has low impact (although annoying) and a nuisance as it is recurring,

the solution is the same – “develop a process – implement the process – make sure it doesn’t happen again”.

So I ask again why, after advising staff of the error, don’t I trust in the staffs’ abilities to implement corrective actions without developing a new process or revamping an existing process to mitigate the risk of the error happening again.

Should we assess the risk and identify the issues of doing nothing first and then make an informed, planned and calculated decision if in fact the solution is the development or redevelopment of a process?

Of course we should, but perhaps we should first look closely at each issue and evaluate it on its own merits.

Let’s use the example of a shared services department within a large organization. The issues to consider include:

  • does the shared service department ‘own’ the process in question?;
  • if the shared service area ‘owns’ the process, then by all means, consider the option of improving or changing it;
  • does the process only function within the shared services department, or does it span across other areas of the business;
  • should the staff be encouraged to just use the existing process (no changes) – just use it better?;
  • if you create a new process to solve the issue you may be duplicating a process that is ‘owned’ by another area. For example, if you are having issues with the procurement process, both the shared service area and the finance area could have their own procurement process. This is an example of where a process taxonomy (via a Process Asset) would be useful;
  • perhaps you should be empowering staff to provide feedback to the owner of the process, and if you and they believe that the process is unclear, outdated or, if a new process is indeed required, say so.

As managers or business owners when an issue is encountered we automatically default to ‘solution mode’ and try and resolve the issue at hand. Before we do this however there is a fundamental question that must be asked: Does the issue need solving at all?

This will depend upon the likely impact of the issue and the risk to the business. For example:

  • can the risk be mitigated by other means (not via a process)? This could include education or staff self-corrective actions;
  • with higher level processes, or processes with low risk, low business impact, ensure that staff clearly understand the objective of the process, and leave it up to them as to how they achieve the required outcome;
  • for high business impact and high risk processes it is usual to develop strong processes. Perhaps these could be automated; strengthened or updated; or an education strategy implemented; and
  • will implementing corrective action actually cost the organization more? For example, a processing error costs a company about $3,000 per occurrence (by way of a payment to a customer). The error, on average, only occurs twice per year costing the organization $6,000 per annum. To implement the changes to prevent this error it will cost the business about $50,000 per year – i.e. changes to processes to correct this will add processing time per transaction. In this example the cost of implementing corrective measures exceeds the cost of the error.

While processes have their place we should never under-estimate their value or the intelligence of our staff. Staff are the ones closest to the process and will usually have the best ideas on how to solve an issue that needs solving.

John Jeston & Gina Craig

John Jeston & Gina Craig

John has serious experience getting things done—the right way. For over 30 years he has covered Business Process Management (BPM), business process re-engineering, project management, systems development, outsourcing, and general management. He has held the positions of Financial Controller, Divisional Manager, Company Director, HR Director and Chief Information Officer. John is internationally recognised as a key opinion leader in BPM strategy and implementation. He has provided these services to significant organisations throughout Australia, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, the United Kingdom, U.S.A., Singapore, Mexico and Brazil. He has authored a number of books and more than 20 articles on BPM and high performance management. He is a regular speaker at conferences and a Master Project Director, with the Australian Institute of Project Management and is a Chartered Accountant. John has authored or co-authored: Business Process Management: Practical Guidelines to Successful Implementations (2006 and 2008), Management by Process: A Roadmap to Sustainable Business Process Management (2008)—the only book to provide a roadmap to sustainable BPM and High Performance Management, and Beyond Business Process Improvement, On To Business Transformation (2009). He also writes a regular Column in the international BP Trends Monthly Update. He can be reached at Gina has 30 years experience as an adult teacher, trainer, facilitator, designer of training courses, writer and senior manager. Gina has provided these services to the higher education sector, private enterprise and large and complex government agencies. Gina has proven expertise in the creation of, and transformation to, an extremely large and complex shared services environment. She then demonstrated that the new entity was designed and structured correctly by successfully managing the largest team within that entity. She also leaned the processes within the entity to find work and workforce efficiencies. Gina has also been a lecturer and tutor with University of New South Wales, Australia where she lectured and tutored economics, calculus, statistics and accounting; managed and supported a Learning Management System and Learner Content Management System; lead and managed large teams of 100 plus staff; and managed numerous projects some of which resulted in $10’sm in savings. Gina’s consulting, communication and relationship skills enable her to successfully manage and mentor individuals and teams.


One response to “Down Under: Processes – the Solution to Resolving an Issue or Dumbing Down Staff?”

  1. Sometimes we forget that the original impetus to process improvement was to empower the worker, to leverage the expertise and experience that resides in the front line staff…not in the supervisor. It was an attack on the hierarchical command-and-control model of management. Quality circles was essential “Ask the staff what they think”.

    Now with the advent of automation and elaborate graphic capabilities, we seem to be trying to replace the worker or at least constrain the worker. We need to rediscover the value of empowering the front line.

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