Archive for January, 2011


The Problem with People and Process

January 6, 2011

Regularly, I am confronted with badly implemented processes, processes that focus on explanation, clarification, demonstration and documentation. Somehow, the impression that appears to come out of models such as CMMI, ITIL, etc is one that is justifiable when working with public services, such as the US Department of Defense (who commissions the CMMI) and other government bodies. But, when working in a different context, such as that of a private company seeking to offer rapid service to customers, the approach needs to be considered in light of the people, not the standard.

People working in creative, intellectual jobs, such as the ones we are considering when performing this kind of model based improvements are selected based on their intelligence and ability to perform the work with┬áminimal supervision. Yet, when we start talking process improvement, management appears to lose all confidence in their staff and require them to create mountains of documents justifying every choice made. With a little experience, any professional can start identifying the “right” solution or approach to problems based on instinct and very little information. When allowed to do its work, the human subconscious can process information we do not consciously think about and identify what is the most appropriate reaction. This can be┬ádemonstrated very simply by catching a ball.

When forcing the documentation and explanations about the rationale of the choices, we tend to have a lot more difficulty. For instance, if I was to ask you to describe how you caught the ball, what measurements you took, how did you calculate velocity and parabola, how did you estimate the position at which the flying ball was at a future moment in time, how you determined which hand would be most appropriate to catch and what instructions you gave to muscles and sinews in order to place your hand at the right place… Suddenly this all breaks down. When catching a ball, you trust your subconscious to do the calculations. Most of the work performed is right-brained: visual and graphic; when asked to describe how you caught it, even if you do understand the mathematics involved, you are forcing the instinctive reaction into the left-brain, where the language centres are found. The result is that not only do you take ten times as long to explain what you did, but you probably will not be able to do it while thinking.

The same is true in engineering work. We make a number of instinctive decisions and choices. These choices are largely dependent on our state of mind and our abilities. If you make the choice in the wrong context, you may make a choice based on incomplete data or based on prejudice. A significant number of experiments have been made in which the mental status of a person has been changed by the context, making people act in different ways. There are even a number of people who make a living out of forcing people to choose a pre-determined answer to a question – this is a popular stage trick in which the performed “reads the mind” of a spectator, when in fact the spectator was subonsciously prompted to make the predetermined choice.

A similar phenomenon is true in the world of business. The focus of the “process improvement” effort should be to create an environment in which the people doing the work are encouraged and management can trust them to do the right thing. In fact, the opposite is frequently the result: management puts in place procedures and documentation which demonstrate their lack of trust in people, then bombard them with requirements to do tasks that do not help in the actual work, creating a bureaucracy that slows people down and demotivates them.

By focusing on the right things, we can make the people doing the work make the right decisons. By creating top-heavy bureaucratic processes we only kill off staff motivation, and therefore negatively impact productivity and quality.

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