I’ve recently had a series of discussions with colleagues, clients and other professionals that I respect, on the subject of business processes. They are all strongly in favour of them, and I know why, they:
- systemetise the work flow, making it more predictable and manageable
- assist in delivering consistency
- encourage the right people to be included in decisions
- make it easy to measure performance (and diagnose issues with performance too)
- can prevent individuals making serious errors
- make training new staff (and handling staff turn-over) relatively straight-forward
- allow straight-forward IT automation
and have many other positive aspects that make them ideal for the more straight-forward jobs.
So are they a panacea? Sadly not, as they have serious weaknesses that can compromise more complex types of work. The key issues are that they:
- tend to serialize workflows, slowing them down by introducing bottlenecks
- become inflexible and over-prescriptive to prevent a small minority abusing the system, preventing justifiable initiative being taken
- become over-dependent on IT performance (which is driven by a completely separate budget)
- become more complex to handle extreme cases, causing following them to become a chore that is skipped if possible
- remove the spirit to think amongst some staff
- generate “malicious compliance” amongst other staff
- provoke rebellion from a tiny minority
- become a strait-jacket that prevents business agility
- eventually break when they no longer reflect business needs
People are not machines, and their greatest asset is their versatility and intelligence – watch a plumber at work!
Of course, the greatest free-thinkers of all are the salesmen, so if we can design for salesmen, we’ve cracked it!
A colleague raised a hugely valuable point – what is needed is something that ensures that all aspects are considered, without forcing mindless compliance, while harnessing the best aspects of human behaviour: checklists.
Yes, checklists – so simple, so easy to maintain, yet so powerful – it’s what saved the lives of all on board US Airways Flight 1549 when it crashed into the Hudson River (Thanks, Neil)!
So how can we get the benefits of checklists in lieu of hard-coded business processes? Redesigning ICT to provide real-time decision support around a checklist front end could do the job nicely. I know it’s very “Mission: Impossible”, but with 4G, Internet-enabled cameras, tablets and mobile comms, we really do have the technology to build a real-time decision-supported salesman!
What do I mean?
I mean that the salesman can collect information from the client that is immediately transferred back to base, where the team (and IT systems) analyse that information and offer up both validated options and further information to gather.
Such technology has been available in a limited way for contact centre staff for many years as “case-based reasoning” tools, but we need to include the option of expert advice from real people if the sale is valuable.
Most salesmen can cope with the freedom of the checklist – making sure that they have the right information to correctly tick the box in real time would massively improve both sales and sales quality.
And if it works for salesmen, it can work for everyone.