From the monthly archives: "October 2010"

Outdated and ineffective processes can cost employers time and money, but many persist in enforcing them, says organisational psychologist Joshua Wood.

Sometimes managers implement a process and then walk away. But if key aspects of the business change, and the process doesn’t change accordingly, “what was great six months ago might be out of date”, he says.

If the organisation has no system for review, it could become “stuck in bureaucracy that doesn’t make sense anymore” for months, or even years, before anyone realises.

Striking the right balance between standardised process and flexible practice isn’t easy, Wood says.

“In very target-driven sales environments, it’s tempting to say, ‘As long as you get the results, I don’t care how you do it’, but in the long term that can create problems.”

Processes for recording staff actions and client reactions might initially demand more of people’s time but later reveal patterns that can be addressed and improved.

A standardised process can also help employees who are job-sharing or doing shift work to communicate important information, allowing one worker to pick up where the other left off, Wood says.

“In highly regulated or risk averse sectors, protocols and standardisation become crucial. For example, procedures for sterilisation and hygiene are likely to be indispensable in the medical profession,” he says. “Banking is another industry where there is great risk and also a lot of government regulation.”

Although “a little bit of process can be good in a lot of situations,” sometimes process will stifle spontaneity, creativity and a timely response, he adds. A racing car driver needs flexibility to exercise judgement and skill, and react in the moment – as do some managers.

“It’s really getting the balance right for your organisation, for your people, for the service it’s providing and for the level of risk,” he says.

A process for changing the process

Sometimes the issue is not so much the lack of process, but the lack of a “process for changing the process”, Wood says.

It is important to ensure workers are able to make suggestions to create, remove or improve processes. “They might be wrong sometimes, or they might not see the bigger picture, but they might have a really good point. And people who create the processes higher up don’t always realise the inefficiencies they create, or the repercussions.”

The process for suggesting change needs to go beyond an informal conversation where a worker says, “I want to change this”, and the manager says, “No, this is the way we’ve always done it”, Wood says.

At the same time, it needs to be user friendly. “I’ve talked to people in very large organisations who have wanted to make a positive change to the process, but it was so much work and it went to a committee… it was so hard that they never tried it again. You’ve got to make it easy.”

Best-practice involves a system where workers can put in a request, “almost like an appeal”, to have the process changed, he says.

Regular re-evaluation

Existing processes should be re-evaluated regularly. An important starting point is to ask various teams:

  • Are there any processes that are making it difficult for you to do your job? and
  • Are there any processes you’d like changed or added?

“If something’s bothering people, they’ll talk about it. They just need the invitation,” Wood says.

“Consulting carefully with people at the coalface rather than just dumping process on them is really important – and it needs to be followed through,” he adds. “There’s nothing worse than getting people to spend their time telling you what’s wrong and then nothing’s done.”

When Wood’s organisation, Adaps, set about re-evaluating its processes, he asked staff to list the benefits of first increasing, then decreasing, levels of process and standardisation.

Conducting this type of exercise forces employees to consider both sides of the equation, and makes them more open to change, he says.

“Initially it can be a little bit of work,” particularly if processes are being introduced rather than scaled back, “so that can be the challenge – helping people lift their gaze towards the horizon and look a little bit more long term”.

In terms of monitoring and maintaining a process, it helps to have someone who is naturally process-orientated to “champion” the cause – if no existing staff member is keen, it could be worth recruiting someone especially, Wood says.

First published in HR Daily 13th October 2010.