With the continued increase of the process-oriented approach to all facets of business, a new phrase has found its way into almost every business conversation and lexicon: “How do we fix the process?”. Immediately upon hearing this, it is not uncommon for multiple teams to set up multiple cross functional calls, across multiple geographies and time zones to discuss the problems. Multiple issues will be defined with the process, and multiple action items will be assigned.
We are no longer fixing business problems or issues. We are fixing processes. Much of the generated activity and churn associated with fixing the process might be avoided with the simple act of stepping back and first correctly understanding what the purpose of the process is.
Many times, we all take it for granted that the process is there to help employees perform their required tasks. We associate processes with making things go faster. Making tasks easier to complete. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, however, maybe not. I’ll provide a few generic examples.
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, back when I was relatively new to business, I remember there used to be a very special place where companies, business units, groups, teams, etc., kept a very special resource known as supplies. Supplies usually consisted of the little things that made it easier for employees to do their jobs, such as pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, staplers, tape and tape dispensers, highlighters and the like. When people needed these supplies, they would go find the person that had the key to the supply location, get access to it and select the supplies that they needed to continue efficiently performing their job.
As time passed and costs and cash flows continued to draw greater and greater attention from the company’s financial community, it was decided that this anachronistic way of providing employees supplies was not in the company’s best interest. It may have been efficient for the employee, but not for the company. Seemingly random and untracked amounts of money were being spent on supplies, and then these supplies would just sit idle (reference to the utility of money and cash flow) somewhere, waiting for someone to come by and use them. And then there was no specific process or methodology to be able to track who was actually using these supplies.
Unaccounted for money and expense was sitting in supply cabinets everywhere.
The result was that associated support teams and their supply budgets were reduced. And usually in their place a new process was created where individual employees would then have to access the on-line purchasing systems themselves where they could then order their required supplies.
Now admittedly the preceding topic has created an exacerbated issue in that it does require a change in employee behaviors. In the past, an employee would wait until their pen ran out of ink, or they used their last piece of paper before going to the supply location and getting more. Now they had to take into account the added time and complication of gaining access to the supply ordering system, and the delay associated with the supply provider delivering the desired supplies, and the internal delivery system to get desired supplies from the loading dock to their office.
What used to be a simple walk to the supply location to get any required supplies, had now become a multi-day, multi-system, multi-approval ordering process.
Now a days, if you need supplies, you had better plan ahead. Or you can just run by the office supply store yourself, and buy your own supplies. Either way, the corporate goal of the new office supplies process has been achieved: the amount of money the company spends on supplies has been reduced.
The point I am making here is that the supply ordering process was not implemented to make it easier to order supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount spent on supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount of money the company has tied up in supplies, sitting in some supply cabinet, waiting for someone to come by and get them.
The same can now be said just about any process that involves the expenditure of company funds. Travel approval policies are not there to make it easier for people to travel. Hiring processes are not there to make it easier to hire people. These processes are not put in place not to make it easier, or faster to perform these functions. They are in place for corporate tracking and control.
Just because they take extra time and require multiple approvals does not mean they are broken processes. In many instances it means that they are working as planned.
On the other side of the coin, we can look at those processes that are associated with the provision of the product or service that the company sells in its selected markets.
Sales people inherently understand that the relatively cheaper a product is versus its competition, the easier it is to sell and the greater the probability for a successful sale. Companies that vest too much uncontrolled authority in the sales arm have a tendency to experience lower margins and profitability, as sales tries to press for lower prices.
As proof of this point, would you be willing to go to the gas station across the street to buy their gasoline if it was five cents a gallon cheaper? How about two cents a gallon? There is always a point where convenience and timing can outweigh price differential, but in today’s cost intensive world price always plays a key role in everyone’s purchase decisions.
Sales and pricing processes are then normally put in place to enable business management to have greater influence on pricing in an effort to achieve desired profit levels. These are not processes designed to make it easier to create quotes and provide lower prices. These are processes designed to put checks and balances in place that protect the company’s profitability.
If you are a sales person attempting to compete for a customer’s order, they are an impediment and hindrance to your potential success. They are a broken process that is making it more difficult for you to obtain the order.
They are also probably the result of someone (or multiple someone’s) demonstrating bad judgement. Somewhere, sometime, someone probably knew that a price that was supplied to a customer was probably not in the best interest of the company as a whole, but did it anyway in order to get an order. The individual goal was achieved, but the corporate profitability suffered.
I have said many times that process is implemented as a substitute for judgement. In this case, bad judgement.
Sales people inherently know that the company must be profitable, if it is to continue in business. Margins must be at sufficient levels to meet the numerous business objectives such as paying for expenses, investing in new product development, paying sales commissions and providing a reasonable return to its investors.
Unfortunately, most sales incentive plans are focused solely on obtaining a top line order level. This is the objective that drives sales people to try and drive prices down, thereby making it easier for them to sell. It is also contrary to business objectives listed above.
In this situation there would be two key aspects of the business structure creating friction. The physics definition of friction is:
“… the resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another.” https://www.livescience.com/37161-what-is-friction.html
One trying to move price down, and one trying to increase prices. Process or not, this is inefficient for the company and creates waste.
Instead of creating a process to govern a function that generates corporate friction, which I would liken to the “stick” approach to problem resolution, (removing independent thought and decision making capability from those closest to the customer) I would suggest that It might be better to implement incentives that encourage the desired behaviors, or the “carrot” approach.
What might happen if the company offered the incentive of increased commissions to sales with higher margins, and at the same time offered the deterrent of significantly reduced commissions on sales with lower margins?
Instead of creating a process that can become an obstacle to the desired event (getting office supplies, or generating competitive customer offers and proposals…) which must be dealt with, or in some instances overcome, why not reexamine the event (and judgement point) that is driving the creation of the proposed process? Aligning individual, business unit and corporate goals, with appropriate incentives and deterrents for specific behaviors could be a much more efficient way of dealing with the issue.
With this approach in mind, it might be found that much of the effort that may be currently spent on “fixing the process” can be refocused on solving the underlying business issue and need. This is because, as has just been demonstrated, just because a process is not helping the individual be more effective and efficient at doing their job, does not mean that it is a broken process.