I read an article the other day by Stephanie Vozza in “Fast Times”. (https://www.fastcompany.com/3068771/how-employees-at-apple-and-google-are-more-productive ) It was one of their “4 Minute / Work Smart” articles. I normally am not too inclined to read these types of articles, but for some reason I did read this one. While it was ostensibly about why employees at Apple and Google are more productive, there was a passage in it that both resonated with me, as well as rang significant alarms. It captured what I have been feeling, and writing about regarding business and leadership in such a succinct way that I felt I had to address it. In her discussion regarding Organizational Drag, and the associated costs and losses to business due to processes, Vozza said:
“This often happens as a company grows, as the tendency is to put processes in place to replace judgment.”
Wow. I think she hit the nail on the head. Process is implemented to replace judgement. I do think there ought to be a qualifier in ahead of that last statement such as “Most processes, when over implemented…”. Many processes when implemented as guidelines do provide a needed and efficient methodology for accomplishing repetitive tasks. It is when they are over-expanded, applied and relied on for all facets of an organization that they cause drag and sap judgement.
A quick Googling of the word “judgement” provides the following definition:
“the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.”
Let’s tap the brakes here for a minute. Are we really saying that we want to replace people’s ability to make considered decisions, or to come to sensible conclusions with some sort of follow by rote process? Isn’t judgement one of the key attributes of business leadership and business stewardship? And not just judgement, but good judgement.
There are a lot of people who have said something along the lines of:
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”
Will Rogers, the American humorist said it in the 1930s. Simon Bolivar, one of the great heroes of the South American Hispanic independence movements of the early 19th century, said it in the early 1800s. I think you get my point. A lot of people have talked about the need for, and how you get good judgement. We would all like to think we were just born with it, but that is usually not the case.
The primary method of gaining good judgement is to learn it through experience.
So, again let me get this straight. It seems that by implementing so many processes to avoid the potential costs associated with errors and bad judgement, businesses are both creating the incremental expense of organizational drag that Vozzie noted, as well as removing the opportunity for team members to practice and gain good judgement through the experience of learning.
I don’t know about you, but I came up through business hearing the mantra surrounding management’s desire that we take (reasonable) risks in our efforts to improve the business. This is in line with the risk and return economic model. This model would require the use of judgement to ascertain what the contributing factors to the risk were, and did the expected return justify the business decision in question. The process oriented model would remove these opportunities.
Process, when used as a guideline and milestone marker can be a powerful tool. It seems that whenever it goes beyond this and starts generating ever finer detailed steps, is when it starts to generate issues both in terms of organizational drag, and what I think is potentially the greater long term risk, the stunting of leadership growth.
The Fast Times article mentions the total cost lost to organizational drag associated with process at approximately three trillion dollars. That’s a three with twelve (count ‘em, twelve) zeroes behind it. This seems like a relatively expensive price to pay to avoid whatever the number of errors associated with bad judgement (the learning process) and the costs that they would generate. One would suspect that by just flipping a coin one would hope to be correct on average at least half the time.
By removing judgement in favor of process future leaders are no longer able to get the experience (and judgement) that they will need as they move into leadership positions. The process experience that individuals gain in its place may be useful in a more predictable or production line type organization (secondary type economy sector – producing finished goods, e.g. factories making toys, cars, food, and clothes), but as the economy continues its evolution further into a tertiary sector (offering intangible goods and services to customers) I would think that judgement, and in particular good judgement would not only be preferred, but a necessity.
I think one of the ways to deal with the “Process versus Leadership” issue may be to dial back the drive for process just a little bit. I think we have all heard the adage that if a little bit of something is good then a whole lot more of it should be better. I think we are all aware of the fallacy behind that type of thinking as well. But, it appears to be the creeping mind set of many companies as they grow in size and expand across different geographical and technological markets.
It is all too seductive to aspire to manage all sorts of diverse markets and technologies via standardized processes. If it worked once in one place it becomes a goal to make it work every time in every place. Once that process starts it appears to be a slippery slope of incrementing just one more step in each process to take into account each new business or market variation that must be dealt with. The desire for repetitive and interchangeable processes leads to both product and market biases that can result in multiple missed opportunities as well as the organizational drag that has already been noted.
I think leaders may need to start thinking of the drive for processes as points on a scale. On one end of the spectrum there is a fully structured, process oriented organization. This would be an organization where very little judgement is required, the function or market are stable and little variation is required.
Accounting comes to mind, but that might just be me.
On the other end of the spectrum would be a completely judgement based organization where each new opportunity is unique and would require its own new set of potential processes for implementation. I am sure there are other examples, but organizations that conduct search and rescue operations along the lines of the freeing of the trapped Chilean miners in 2010 might be a good example of such a unique organization.
Obviously, in reality most businesses lie somewhere between these endpoints. There will most likely be multiple organizations within the business that are distributed along the process – judgement scale. What concerns me is that as process continues to be implemented in greater detail and into new areas, business run the risk of both alienating their current leaders in that their judgement will no longer be desired, and hampering the development of their future leaders as the opportunities to gain judgment are replaced with the continually more complex process.
Businesses need to begin learning to resist the desire to replace judgement with process, and understand that there needs to be a balance between the two. Just as many organizations seem to have a built-in resistance to change, they also seem to have a built-in desire for predictability which process seems to satisfy.
However, nothing comes without a cost. The implementation of process can create a stable, repeatable, predictable organization, but its costs can be seen in the organization’s inability to quickly respond to changing conditions, the resulting costs associated with organizational drag, and reduction in the use and availability of good judgement.