Does your organisation get things done in spite of poor processes rather than because of good ones?

Has your organisation undertaken numerous process improvement exercises and yet the process maturity of the organisation does not seem to have improved?

Have you ever had an issue with an organisation only to find someone who went above-and-beyond to resolve it for you? Do you recall that experience more than previous ones where you experienced no issues?

If you can associate with any of these scenarios, then read why I think this is, why it may be a predominantly Australian/New Zealand experience, and what to do about it… 

The process maturity of many Australian enterprises remains relatively low even though they have mapped their processes and deployed process improvement methods, tools and projects numerous times. The performance of key processes in these enterprises relies on highly engaged and knowledgable employees – ‘process heroes’ – who are able to ensure good outcomes in spite of poor processes.

This is unsustainable and risky. It drives a vicious cycle that sees process maturity remain low (around Level-2 on the Capability Maturity Model scale).

“Brilliant process management is our strategy. We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes. We observe that our competitors often get average (or worse) results from brilliant people managing broken processes.”

Mr. Cho
Vice Chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation

This is, at least in part, due to the cultural differences between Australian enterprises and those from which the predominant process improvement methods and tools have derived.

The Australian Archetype of ‘Quality’

Since the mid 1980’s a number of cultural archetype or imprint studies have been conducted internationally and domestically that conclude that ‘quality’ (or good performance) means different things to different cultures. Key examples from the studies concluded that quality is characterised as follows:

Cultural Archetypes of ‘Quality’

“Australian Cultural Imprints at Work: 2010 and Beyond” – IBSA (2011) p.8

I have long hypothesised of the implications of this and conclude that the sustainable improvement of process performance in some (many?) Australian enterprises is constrained by our primary focus on relationships over tasks. Something that many deployments of process improvement methods do not consider enough.

This manifests as:

Enterprise perspective: Employees operationally overcoming poor processes is more recognised than strategically improving the processes.

Customer perspective: A good recovery from a bad process (with the right employee) is often recounted as a more positive experience than getting it right the first time!

This represents a risk to many enterprises who are then dependent on heroic individuals rather than documented, repeatable, scalable and robust processes.

It is noted that all processes are not the same – some are highly repetitive, are easily formalised into procedures and are potentials for automation; some processes, however, rely on the specialist skills and knowledge of people where decision-making is more complex. It is the latter processes that present a potential constraint for mature enterprises who have relied on such individuals and have not documented, formalised or systematised the processes they manage.

Japanese ‘Perfection’

Japanese process improvement methods and systems are distinguished by a set of philosophies and practices in a wholistic system of performance. Importantly the practices align with and are enabled by inherent cultural (and enterprise) philosophies – wholistic, long-term, continuous, collaborative, sustainable… Such concepts are well documented in many books including those about the successes of the Toyota Motor Corporation (see for example: https://www.ih-consulting.com.au/toyota-culture/ ). Such books provide some insight as to why Australian enterprises find it difficult to emulate Toyota’s success through their methods and tools without first having established a strong culture of continuous improvement.

The implication is that we tend to reward and recognise heroic efforts of employees who overcome poor processes over the ability and effort required to improve (and continually manage) the processes so that ultimately such heroic efforts would not be required.

“In the West we have taken the tools of Kaizen, Lean, etc. and tried to transport them into our mechanistic industrial problem-solving cultures without the holistic context in which they were meant to operate.”

Hegedus, Scrivens et al.
“Business Process Management – Strategies to Improve Performance” p. 83 (2012)

This can lead to a cycle of dependence on specific individuals that significantly constrains process improvement efforts and their sustainability – ultimately compromising process maturity.

Process Heroes and Process Maturity

When enterprise processes are immature, managers rely on staff with specialist knowledge, skills and/or determination to get things done. This is often appropriate for enterprises in their early lifecycle stages, though more mature organisations or functions where this is the case, suffer from an inability to sustainably improve their processes.

This over-reliance on specific individuals exposes the enterprise to risks including:

  • Key Person risk:

    – Cycle of ongoing and increasing reliance on key individuals.

    – Burn-out of the individual.

  • Scalability risk:

    – Inability to induct staff based on standard processes.

  • Repeatability risk:

    – Inability to train staff on standard processes.

  • Performance Risk:

    – Process performance decreases when the person is on leave or leaves.

We reward good employees who overcome poor processes rather than focus on improving processes to enable those employees to focus on higher value (and ultimately more rewarding) activities.

While there are many complicating factors, the general cycle seems to be something like this:

  1. No cross-functional (e2e) process accountability;

  2. Functional (silo) improvements ensue sub-optimising the e2e process;

  3. Process performance is maintained by skilled specialist overcoming poor processes;

  4. We reward and recognise such individuals (the ‘process heroes’).

Each of these reinforce each other with an end result that:

  • Process Maturity remains low.

Relationships are built between customers and hero employees who are required to step in and overcome the inefficiencies of functional silos and poor enterprise processes. As a result, getting it right first time is sometimes less valued (or at least less talked about) compared to an employee who can recover well (in spite of the enterprise processes) the second time round. It is often because of a person rather than a process that we experience positive outcomes.

Breaking the cycle

This vicious cycle may be broken in a number of ways and Business Process Management (BPM) looks to address the social and technical dimensions – creating a virtuous cycle.

Vicious and Virtuous cycles of process maturity

At the heart of it is the need to engage the processes heroes in documenting the current-state (what is it they do to compensate for poor processes) and engage them in any future-state design activities and training of other staff as required. These individuals may be hesitant to participate as they may see they will lose some of their well-recognised role and kudos so valuing their contributions in the change process and ensuring they can contribute in better ways (for them and the enterprise) in the future-state process will assist here.

“A process or system is perfectly designed to produce the outcomes it does.”

…and now there are Process Victims

So, operationally – when things go right in spite of the processes/ system we look to reward the heroics of the employee(s) who overcame the process shortcomings to produce a good outcome.

Conversely, when things go wrong publicly &/or on a larger scale – we look to blame the processes/system as being the root-cause – the enterprise leaders are now adopt the role of ‘process victims’.

Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a news story where leaders of various industries (government, banking/finance, telecommunications, racing, hospitality, …) refer to “systemic failures” and “issues of process” – avoiding accountability for not having designed and managed good processes in the first place.

With both ‘process heroes’ and ‘process victims’ – the root-causes are largely the same as is the vicious cycle. In both cases there is a lack of accountability for process design, documentation, standardisation and management. Importantly, there is a lack of appreciation for the cultural implications of managing change.

A model for sustainable change

In many ways, Process Heroes and Process Victims are the ‘social’ results of applying ‘technical’ solutions to complex systems – our enterprises.

Taking the disciplines and practices that worked in a different culture that had different philosophical foundations and trying to deploy them in a different social (philosophical and cultural) enterprise simply will not work.

…enterprises are complex socio-technical systems and must be respected as such…

The technical Disciplines (Frameworks – Systems) and Practices (Methodologies – Tools) must be context within the social Philosophy (Theories – Concepts) and Culture (Values – Behaviours) if they are to be successful.

socio-technical requirements for process management and improvement
Source: “BPM – Insights and Practices for Sustained Transformation” Hegedus (2008) p.9

To increase process maturity, we must broaden our process management and improvement efforts from methods and tools to the broader philosophical and cultural dimensions to ensure our enterprise culture will support and not reject the improvements we are seeking…

Written by Imre Hegedus


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