The Process Trap

Do your processes help or hinder your employees’ ability to deliver great service to customers? When an employee makes an exception to keep a customer happy, is that rewarded or does the employee feel obliged to hide that from his manager? When you design a process, which is more important: Ensuring that nobody can be blamed for a mistake as long as they did what the process said they were supposed to do, or maximizing customer satisfaction? And when a process exception is made, do you have a methodical way to handle it?

Many companies have awesome, dedicated employees who want to do what’s best for the customer. And, confronted with the decision of whether to make a customer happy, or follow the letter of the process, most of them will end up opting for helping the customer. Many organizations, even the most rigidly bureaucratic ones, celebrate those above-and-beyond efforts.

But there’s an important difference in the way that companies handle these process exceptions. Some companies are good at recognizing that people will exercise autonomy, and that systems should be built to handle exceptions, and track why they were granted and what was done. Other companies like to pretend that exceptions don’t exist, so when employees go outside the allowed boundaries, they simply do stuff — the exception is never recorded, and nobody knows what was done or how or why, and if the issue is ever raised again, the account team turns over, or someone wonders why this particular customer has a weird config, nobody will have a clue. And ironically, it tends to be the companies with the most burdensome process — the ones not only most likely to need exceptions, but the ones obsessed with a paperwork trail for even the most trivial minutia — that lack the ability to systematically handle exceptions.

When you build systems, whether human or machine, do you figure out how you’re going to handle the things that will inevitably fall outside your careful design?

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Posted on January 19, 2009, in Industry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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