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Why processes at work fail

August 27, 2008

I once asked a Ceo if he thought management was a science or an art. “Science,” he replied without hesitation. Chatting further, it was obvious that he saw the business as an intricate process map. There must be a process for everything, he said, from strategic planning to making a cup of tea. Step 1, do this. Step 2, do that. And because every process is measurable, he meticulously places KPIs (key performance indicators) at various checkpoints which he looks at monthly.

I don’t know why but I immediately thought of plumbing. If you work in a soda pop factory you’ll see an intricate web of pipes that transport and mix different fluids together. How the stuff flows is determined by how and where you lay your pipes. You can put flow meters at strategic points and have it trigger an alarm if something isn’t flowing right.

Once set, you only need to worry about 2 things: what to pump in at one end and what comes out in the other. The system takes care of the rest. Thats the beauty of processes. It simplifies and makes consistent. Its fantastic when everything’s in the right place.

Except life is anything but perfect. In the real world, ISO process-certified companies do shut down. Some consistently roll out horrible products, suffer inconsistent practices and low staff morale. There’s one ISO certified MNC that takes 3 months to print their staff’s business cards. 3 blinking months for something I can do in 30 minutes. Sure, one can think of many reasons why this happens but they all point to a fact:- processes don’t guarantee results. Why? Because behind every process sits a fickle, unpredictable creature called the human.

And humans notoriously fail at that one thing so critical to any process: compliance.

And how does non-compiance kill a process? Oh I forgot to do something! I’m too lazy. I’m pissed off at my boss so I refuse to do it. I didn’t know it was that important. No he didn’t inform me. So these things happen every day and in their wake processes fall like stacks of dominoes.

So no matter how fancy your process is, you just can’t run away from humans.

That initial question about whether management is an art or science is revealing. If you are a creature of logic, you’ll praise the almighty process. Your world is a mass of pipes and wheels moving in clockwork precision. People are just dots in the background, incidental organisms that aid the process. Your attitude is people are replaceable.

On the other hand if you are a creature of emotion, your world is a realm of feelings, color and people conflicts. Work is a result of passion. Process and machinery are just dots in the background, incidental tools to aid people. Your attitude is machines are replaceable.

You’ve no idea how funny it is to see a scientist try to run a fashion house and a fashion designer try to run an inherited biotech research company. Their DNA is just… incompatible. Yet it happens.

Personally I’m convinced that management is as much art as it is science. One does not overwhelm the other.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. LC Teh permalink
    August 27, 2008 2:59 pm

    The chicken and egg argument.

    Production always demand a detailed SOP (std operating procedure) before they do anything. Then they want poka-yoke (fail-safe or idiot-proof) everything designed into the process. Engineers always say, workers must also handle the responsibility, otherwise why do they get paid? Finally we say they should just hire chimps to do the job.

    It’s for this argument that we consistently have to propose changes to production machinery from manual to fully automatic. But in the end we just can’t justify the heavy expenses if the output demand is too low.

    You’re right, it’s still an art/science and people can’t be tuned and set to precision. You press the wrong button on a machine, it simple doesn’t work. Nothing much happens. Try pressing a wrong button on a person…

  2. Damien permalink*
    August 28, 2008 7:54 am

    Manufacturing requires precision so standard procedures are understandable. Its SOPs in sales and marketing that raises my eyebrows because you deal with people not machinery. I’m still in awe this marketing co that has a procedure manual for everything, plus a manual to interpret the procedure manual, plus a 3rd book to explain the philosophy behind the whole thing. Anyone who breaks a rule is punished, sometimes sacked. The company has been in the red for 5 years and they still don’t dare touch the ceo.

  3. LC Teh permalink
    August 28, 2008 12:12 pm

    Pathetic isn’t it? They always think people can be programmed and kept in control. It’s basically this kind of mindset that keeps consultants in business.

  4. Damien permalink*
    August 29, 2008 8:51 am

    The desire to create, program and control things in one’s image. I call it the god complex. Its in every one of us.

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