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There’s Not An App For That November 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
Tags: , , ,

I’ve been in a few CIO briefings of late that have revolved around the topic of business process management.  There is little doubt that much value can be found in formally capturing, defining, and managing the hundreds of processes that keep our companies running.  Even the simplest processes can have costly inefficiencies that can make a big difference in delivering good service and maintaining efficient operations.  A good BPM exercise can find and eliminate those issues and yield a good return on the effort.

For many of these initiatives, much time is spent selecting and implementing the right tool.  Certainly, having a sound workflow system to drive your processes helps.  The right system can automate mundane tasks, track all sorts of things, and make sure people know who needs to do what when.

As with most tools, however, it is easy to get so wrapped up in the tool that you lose sight of the real goal: creating a better process.  While it may be fun to connect lots of boxes with lots of lines, you’re creating a monster, not a better way.

I was once a party to just such a monster, several years ago.  As part of a workflow design team, we were tasked to formalize and automate a process within  our company.  This process had several gates, at which point someone could reject the item and stop the process.  This had been a bit of a sore point in the past, so we were careful to design in ways for rejected applicants to appeal their rejection.

This quickly escalated into a multi-level appeal process, with committees and advisors and automatic hearings.  It looked great on paper and took seven pages to draw out all the various options and choices that could occur.  We were pretty proud of this “better” way of doing things.

Finally, we all came to the same conclusion: this was a disaster in the making.  First, it would be extremely difficult to implement.  Second, it attempted to automate tasks that really needed to be handled by people.  And third, it would cause confusion and chaos among the users.

The real answer to the problem was far simpler: when an item was rejected, the rejecting party was expected to call and explain the circumstances to the rejected party.  The whole group realized that actual communication had an important place in the automated workflow.

That lesson hasn’t changed.  Tools are useful, but they can only go so far.  We cannot automate the most important part of any business: the interaction between team members as they get work done.  We need to use tools to remove the drudgery so that people have more time for the high-value interaction that really counts.  Freed from mindlessly shuffling paper (or email), people can actually discuss issues and work things out.  Communication is the most important thing we do; unfortunately, there isn’t an app for that.

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1. Susan Mazza - November 30, 2009

Great lesson! A long time ago I was in charge of training purchasing and accounting people to use a new system. It became abundantly clear they were convinced the other was trying to make their life difficult and were hoping the system would fix the problem. As part of their training I had them each get trained to use each others part of the system so they could understand what happened behind their respective “black curtains”. They complained vociferously all the way through. Until the light bulbs went on that they were each just following their part of the process, not trying to make each other miserable after all. They started talking that day and shortly after began collaborating with the vendor to make significant changes to one of their products. Not only can we over-design systems but we can also hide behind them. Amazing what happens when people actually start communicating! There is no certainly no app for that, although there are some great models and practices that can make communication actually work!

2. Wally Bock - December 1, 2009

One of my life’s richest learning experiences was the time I spent around Harold Washington, who headed public housing in Oakland, CA. Harold spent a lot of time visiting the buildings, talking to residents and staff and checking on things. One thing he said to me echoes this great post: “There’s no computer program in the world that will do a good job of telling you whether the eighth floor landing is getting swept properly.”

3. The Most Important Thing We Do? « A Dime a Dozen Small Business, Tech and Talk - January 6, 2010

[…] as Chuck Musciano states; Communication is the most important thing we do; unfortunately, there isn’t an app for […]

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