Work Backwards

Process Reengineering and Process Transformation seem to be the new popular catch phrases for business these days. We continue to evolve and place more emphasis on the “process”. We like to define them, and map them, and engineer them, and reengineer them, and transform them. We even now have global “Process Owners”. The goal of all this additional and incremental work that is being applied to the process is to make the process more efficient. I understand the almost obsessive approach to processes that businesses are exhibiting these days. I am just not quite sure yet whether or not I agree with it.

This approach seems to be consistent with the idea that the most efficient process to build a staircase is to gather a number of previously defined and constructed steps and start to assemble them until you reach your goal, whether it is the second floor of a house or the top floor of a high rise building.

To me the simple definition of a process is a way to get something done. We used to want to standardize the way we got things done in order to be as efficient as possible. This was particularly effective when we were primarily a manufacturing / production oriented economy. We have continued to change from a production based economy to a product / services / knowledge based economy for quite some time as the production function has been moved to lower cost environments.  We are now trying to standardize the process – the way we get things done – for this new service / knowledge based business environment in much the same way we did for the manufacturing and production based structure. The new catch phrase for standardizing Service and Knowledge based processes is to “Industrialize” them.

Here is where I think we may start to run into trouble with this industrialization approach to processes. For quite a while we have strived for a diverse workforce. This diversity is a very good thing. Different people think differently. The diversity of thought and approach that results from having a diverse workforce helps prevent the group think phenomenon from happening, where similar people all see things the same way. If everyone saw and did things the same way there would never be any way to improve the process because everyone would see it the same way.

So now we are looking at trying to industrialize a process in order to make it more efficient, which if we are fully successful at will make it difficult to ever modify or improve in the future because we will all be doing it the same way. To go back to our steps and staircase example, if you are going to standardize on only one set of steps, you will only be able to make one type of staircase.

A further complication to the industrialization drive occurs when we look at the variations in service and knowledge that are to be applied either internally to the business, or externally to the customer. Manufacturing efficiency was driven based on a relatively few sets of variations to the end product. You used to be able to custom order your car with the specific sets of options that you wanted. Can you do that anymore? The last time I looked most car models came in approximately three option package variations: Standard, Enhanced and Luxury versions.

Because the knowledge and service needs of each specific customer will be unique to that specific customer, it may be difficult to fully industrialize the process of satisfying their wants and needs.

I have always been a goal driven individual, even when it comes to the processes that I must use. I have found that if I know the goal, I can begin the process of decomposing it into sub-goals or milestones and from there into logical tasks and steps. You can use this approach differently for different goals and that will result in a somewhat different process, and in different tasks.

If we have a goal and know what we need to get done, then we can work backwards from it to break it down into the steps that need to be taken to achieve it. This method of work definition provides a general framework or process to work from, but also enables individuals to see and do things somewhat differently in the pursuit of the goal.

As long as there are guidelines that are known (example: Bank robbery is not an acceptable solution to increasing the profitability of a customer engagement….) and responsibilities and ownerships (approval levels, etc.) are defined this generic process of working backwards from the end goal can provide a flexible framework that will enable the multiple variations of deliverables that customers require, while also enabling the business to efficiently and effectively adapt to each customer engagement.

The current push to industrialize and define each step of a process can be very useful if all you are going to do is provide straight staircases. This approach will work very well if all every customer wanted was a straight staircase. It starts to have real problems when you try to apply it to circular, elliptical and spiral staircases. These types of customer engagements while having the potential to utilize some industializable aspects of the process normally need to be customized to each specific engagement.

The final ingredient to a successful process is ultimately going to be the people using. We need to work at creating the ability within our people to recognize and adapt to each new engagement, to build the appropriate stairs and staircases that our customers want and our businesses need, instead of trying to industrialize a process to the point where all they can do is to try an assemble a predefined set of steps, in the hopes that it will more efficiently meet each new set of business and customer needs.

Get Off the Internet

For any of you who have read my past articles you might suspect that I have a slight bias away from the ongoing development of the total dependence on electronic communications as the sole means of communicating and conducting business. I have similar slight biases to bleeding from gunshot wounds and jumping out of airplanes without a parachute. This may seem funny since I am using that very medium to communicate to you. For me the medium is something more of an electronic soapbox from which I get to make my observations and suggestions, most of which are based on my non-electronic experiences. Please bear with me for a moment. I promise I’ll get to the point.

It seems that that many people however have evolved to a full dependence on the internet. This was brought home to me by of all things, the evening news.

The various news programs have been lauding the improvement in the economy and the relative reduction in the unemployment numbers down to approximately 8.4%. They then went on to examine some of the individuals who have been termed “long-term unemployed” or people who have been searching for work for more than 6 months. Without exception they showed images of these individuals dutifully sitting at their computers, pounding away at their emails and talking about how they have sent out “over 200 resumes” without a response.

Wait a minute. Here comes the point I promised I would get to earlier. Let’s do a little Internet Math here.

If job seekers are flooding the internet with 200 resumes each, it is no wonder they are not getting responses. We have seen only half the equation. How many resumes are hiring companies receiving for each job opening? The obvious answer is: Too Many.

If everyone is sending out 200+ resumes that would logically mean that every job opening is receiving at least 200 applicants. This number is probably higher for certain types of positions. How can these hiring companies sort through and interview 200+ people per position? Again the obvious answer is: They Can’t.

Speaking just for myself, when I was trying to fill a position I always tried to interview 4-5 people for each position, after I had the initial cuts based on just the resumes submitted. With 200+ applicants, 4-5 interviews means based purely on probability and statistics (and I will quote Mark Twain regarding statistics later) there is roughly a 2% chance that any one resume will be chosen / be the perceived perfect match for the position. Unless your resume is truly differentiated from all others (Nobel Prize laureate, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, $100 Dollar Bill attached to it – particularly difficult to do electronically, etc…), I would think that these statistics would hold true.

That means that to improve your chances from 2% to 100% that you would get an interview, you would need to apply to and send resumes to 50 times more opportunities. That means that instead of sending out just 200 resumes, you would need to send out 10,000 resumes to statistically assure yourself of getting an interview.

Mark Twain said “There are lies, there are damn lies…and then there are statistics.”

I am pretty sure that applies here. I have tried to illustrate with a little hyperbole that sitting at your computer punching out emails, and in this case applying for positions, is not a very effective form of communication. It is not as good as making a phone call and communicating real time with a real person. It is nowhere near as good as getting up, going somewhere and meeting someone face to face to have a conversation.

Sitting behind the computer may be more efficient, in that the costs expended in communicating are much lower (how much do bit cost?), and the number of people that you can theoretically contact is much higher (how many friends on Facebook, or connections on LinkedIn?), but as the numbers show, it is nowhere near as effective as the old school methods of actually meeting people and talking to people.

In today’s day and age it is indeed the fortunate few who have not had to look for a new position. Some of us have had to do it multiple times. All of my successes in this area have come as a result of making personal contact with someone. I would like to think that I am reasonably well educated and experienced, but I also recognize that there are a lot of other well educated and experienced people out there. While a resume might be able to provide some insights into an individual’s potential job qualifications, the only person that can differentiate me for everyone else, is me.

The only way I or anyone else can provide that differentiation from everyone else is to get off the internet, and get out and make real time contact with people. Otherwise, you are relying on some pretty long odds and statistics.