5 Reasons Process Is Bad

I once volunteered to lead a "Kaizen" event. (In Lean Manufacturing a Kaizen event is a big get-together re-engineer a bad process.) The event failed miserably. The proposed solutions were larger than the problem, did little to address the problem, and had no hope of being implemented. 

Process problems have fascinated me ever since. After years of trying to “fix” bad processes, I have found the solution for ninety percent of them: do not create them in the first place.

Good processes are designed for work that is highly repetitive and that requires very little thought. If fixed output and fixed quality are the goal, a well-designed process is in order. Where people’s brains are employed, though, process is usually bad, and here are some reasons why.

1. Process Confines Strategy.

A good business leader helps us all understand vision and strategy. Then the rubber hits the road and we have to do something about it. Each time we encounter a new problem, our lizard brain says, “Create a process!” So we do.

Then we take it a step further. We build a tool to facilitate our process. It might be a spreadsheet or an access database. Maybe we buy a software package and customize it beyond recognition. Now our process is enshrined in a tool.

Fast forward. The leader announces a strategy shift. As the shift trickles down through the operation, what do we start to hear? “That’s not our process." "Our tool won’t let us do that.” And so the process, created in response to a tactical issue, threatens our strategic maneuverability. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you might be the author of many complex processes of which you are very fond.

2. Process Punishes Innovation.

I once worked for an IT organization that found itself under new management. The new management had a process for everything. The outputs of these processes were predictable. So is the output of a Rube Goldberg machine, but who needs a bowling ball, dominoes, a flame thrower, and a flock of carrier pigeons to flip a light switch? As anyone can guess, the innovators in the IT organization immediately began streamlining or bypassing processes in favor of speed and effectiveness. Question: Did IT praise them for their innovate spirit or condemn them for breaking rules? Answer: They all found their way out of the organization.

3. Process Rewards Unproductive Compliance.

A new Director of IT once restructured our operation to focus on trouble ticket resolution. It involved new processes, new rules, lots of meetings, and threatening language. Those who closed many tickets quickly were to be lauded and those who did not were to be punished.

Amazingly, turnaround time on tickets improved drastically. As an added bonus, the number of tickets closed nearly doubled! How did were those results achieved? It was simple. Employees who added little value immediately figure out the new program. They turned every customer call into two or three tickets and closed them fast, whether resolved or not. The gains in trouble ticket management were vapor, and everyone knew it except the IT Director and his SLA charts. Senior, project-lead-type folks were marginalized and bottom feeders were lionized. Compliance trumped productivity. People who thrived on productivity left.

4. Process Stunts Accountability.

One of the most subtle, yet profound ways that process impacts an organization is the way that it reduces or eliminates accountability. When you point "A" players in the right direction and empower them, they feel accountable for their results. Process, on the other hand, is a vampire feeding on the blood of the "A" player. It says, “Don’t use your best judgment, employ your talents, or think too hard. Just do what you’re told.” For “C” players, this is a boon, because they can focus on output rather than outcome. Maybe it’s no coincidence that “B” players like writing processes and they like to hire “C” players.

5. Process Creation is a Form of Elitism.

When people create processes, they usually create them for other people to follow. Apparently the creator of a given process is so adept that he or she can outthink everyone else, and the process is so good that it will work for everyone. This elitist view never delivers excellence; it rarely even delivers adequacy. When the process doesn't deliver, it's creator will always blame others for not following it. (Wanna know a little secret? People who create processes have trouble following them, too.)

Next time you’re trying to solve a problem, if your first impulse is to create a process, ask yourself the following questions:
  • Are you more interested in solving the problem, or implementing your process?
  • Will your process enhance the creative power of those who use it?
  • Do the people to be affected by the process think it’s a good idea? Do you care?
  • Will your process encourage results, or just compliance?
  • Can the process change easily when needs change?
  • Could you accomplish just as much by merely setting guidelines?

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Today's Providers Look Like Tomorrow's IT Managers

In "What IT Needs To Change To Survive" I mentioned some things successful IT leaders need to do going forward. The good news is that IT leaders have a great role model to look to. All we need do is look at our favorite service providers, consultants, and vendors and we know where we're going.

It's remarkable to compare the relationships that many senior IT managers have with their vendors to their relationships with their own companies' executives. Let's try it.

1. Our vendors make it their job to know what we are doing, what our problems are, and how they can provide value to us. They are constantly tracking our project wish list and our budgets. They know what our major initiatives and our big challenges are. We, on the other hand, always complain that we're the last to know. We ignore relationships in favor of processes. We would rather comply with ITIL than take our peers to lunch and pick their brains. This is not going to work going forward. Failing to establish relationships will spell doom for IT management in the near future. Companies will not be content to simply dislike IT. It's no longer an all-or-nothing outsourcing proposal--they'll go elsewhere one application at a time.

2. We expect vendors to keep us up to speed with the latest options. Especially where consultants are concerned, we expect them to know more about what's out there than we do. Do we provide that same level of intelligence to our companies? Pretty soon (i.e. already) our BUs are going to realize that we don't provide that degree of insight to them. If we are to remain relevant, we need to be fluent in the external offerings that can solve their problems and meet their needs. If not, we'll be like mainframe experts making big data pitches.

3. We expect vendors to say, "yes." Better? "Yes." Cheaper? "Yes." Faster? "Yes." Moreover, we expect them to deliver on what they say, despite our constant stops and starts, our frequent changes, our late payments, and our endless griping. Yet to our companies we frequently invoke the "no" doctrine. We want them to pay more, give us more time, and settle for what we can deliver within the confines of our standard offerings. We resent their constantly putting things on hold and then rushing them. We don't like project creep, late budget approvals, and most of all, complaints about our inability to work magic.

The problem is that the time is coming when the cloud will offer them an alternative to us. The same vendors that bend over backward for us will bend over backward for our business units. If we fight it and try to pigeon hole our companies into our "service catalog" and our "engagement methodology," they're going to go elsewhere.

Wanna be a CIO in 2020? Start acting the way you expert your best vendors to act.

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What IT Needs To Change To Survive

A week ago I interviewed for a position at a major Life Insurance/Financial Services company in Seoul. The CIO asked me a lot of strategy-oriented questions. I was thrilled to be able to field this one:

"With all the changes in the technology, how does IT have to change to continue to be relevant?"

This question is really important. In fact, its one of the reasons that I have questioned whether or not IT is a good place to be developing one's career these days. This is not a good time for IT leaders to have their heads in the sand. I will mention a few things that are driving changes to IT's way of life, and provide some solutions for forward-thinking IT leaders.

1. Disruptive technologies. It used to be Internet access, then VPN, then Blackberries. Now it is smart phones, tablets, BYOD, social network apps, and smart work. By and large, IT hates new stuff. We are still trying to work out the kinks in our old stuff and figure out how were going to get to the next rev. The problem is that companies need the new stuff in order to compete for customers and employees. In the near future our service catalogs will be out of date by the time we can finish negotiating them. If ITILv4 is yet more static IT operations models, it will be DOA. Think about it--we hate deploying a new service just to have everyone complain because their needs have shifted. Soon that could happen to our entire service catalog. How long can we wait to think about that? What are we going to do about it?

2. The Cloud. Pretty much everything we do internally today exists in one form or another in the cloud. This means that our companies, or even individual business units, are starting to have a choice. How many more upgrades to your Financial System before your department decides they just want to  have it hosted? When will Engineering decide to use hosted resources that can be provisioned on demand? When will our companies decide to evaluate alternatives to our corporate email systems? As more people move to smart phones, tablets, and whatever comes after them, do we think we will be providing the voice and video conferencing infrastructure for our companies? Do we think we will be able to prevent SVPs from shopping our services in the cloud? Would we want to prevent them from doing so? Can we match the level of provisioning time, customer support, mobility, and disaster recovery that the cloud offers? Check out this story on a company that replaced most of IT with cloud-sourced services.

3. The new workforce. The new workforce is not going to be located where we would like them to be located. They will not want to use the tools we tell them to use. They are highly accustomed to the world of technology addressing their whims, and they are very fast at finding what they want. They do not care what the IT management has to say about it, nor should they.

4. New IT recruits. The people that we hire over the next decade will be increasingly dismayed with "old-fashioned" IT. Many of them will have come from start-ups or from hip companies that know how to move fast. They don't want a ride in our Oldsmobile.


First of all, IT leaders have to understand that they are becoming one source for IT solutions, not the source. Most of our companies are already using salesforce.com and have HR applications hosted who-knows-where. Many of our employees use Skype for video conferencing. Email is beginning to fall. Even MS Office is experiencing daylight raids from the cloud. Companies are beginning to embrace choice. IT is only one choice, and our menu is shrinking. They're not coming to our restaurant for cold Chinese food when they can order it delivered from a specialty place with the noodles still steaming.

If we understand that we have become an option, then we need to learn to do two things:

1. Get to know the BUs. We need to know what the BUs want as soon as they do, if not before. (We should be doing this anyway. See this post.) Many of us lack the relationships necessary to do so, which is why we always complain about "being the last to know." In the future, if IT is too busy managing its service catalog to know that a BU has an important need, it will be too late. If we don't build the relationships we won't be providing the services. Period.

2. KnowOwn the options. In the future, much of our value will be in understanding external offerings and knowing which ones to recommend to our BUs. A CIO or IT Director who can't speak the language of cloud-based applications will not survive. But knowing what's out there and how to put it together effectively will be invaluable.

3. Only do what you do best. Focus on where we can knock the ball out of the park. We may be able to reduce our operations overhead and apply more resources to strategic initiatives.  Maybe we're breaking our necks to deliver mediocre satisfaction for a given application. Shouldn't we just let it go? Think about this: the next time the company is complaining about that app, rather than saying we need more people to manage it, why not have a great cloud option in our back pocket?

4. Think "service." How are we doing at onboarding new employees? How useful is the training that we're providing on new applications? Do we provide service with a smile? Or to the contrary, do we wait for new employees to ask us where their laptops are, constantly invoke the "no" doctrine for new "gadgets," and resent that we aren't appreciated? Do we strive to delight our internal customers, or do we believe that a good SLA report means that they should be satisfied? How does that compare to the way the cloud treats them?

The IT paradigm of 5 years ago is becoming out-dated. In 5 more years it will be old-fashioned. Many of us are still clinging to it. We have to change if we are to continue to be relevant.

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