If you work on enough corporate change programmes, before too long you will encounter someone who believes that process improvement is the answer to everything. Meg Peppin has just met one:
Oh the desire to manage the human side out of the equation. I arrived one day to find a senior manager fuming. She had been at a systems thinking meeting where the culture change – which is what the staff had called the work – had been dismissed “Culture doesn’t matter if the processes are right.” Oh – really? I sigh.
It is understandable that people should take such a stance. Simplicity and repeatability make for greater efficiency. Designing out complexity makes sense. The trouble is, in service organisations, designing out complexity all too often means designing out the people.
Most of the techniques used in process improvement come from manufacturing and they have been very effective in reducing manufacturing firms’ costs. But service processes differ from those in manufacturing in that the customer is actually part of the process. People are unpredictable. Their behaviour and their requirements will always be slightly different in each case. While a process might look the same on paper, it is never quite the same for each customer. It will vary each time depending on how the customer interacts with the service provider. Service processes, therefore, are rarely as controllable and predictable as manufacturing ones.
Take, for example, something as simple as checking a patient into hospital. The process steps will be the same each time but the patients will be very different. The calm well-informed person can be processed relatively quickly. The distressed patient with poor English will take much longer. That neat box marked “Admit Patient” could take anything from a few minutes in some cases to an hour in others.
So, in service organisations, it is almost impossible to just ‘get the processes right’. The efficiency and effectiveness of the processes is as much about the how as the what. How employees carry out the processes, their attitudes and the way they interact with the customers and their colleagues determines whether the processes will work or not.
Which brings us back to organisational culture. As the great Edgar Schein told us a quarter of a century ago, culture is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions” which determines the way we think, feel and behave in certain contexts. If your processes look good on paper, they still might not be effective. The way in which people interact inside those boxes on the process map is what makes the process succeed or fail.
No-one is quite sure who came up with the saying ‘Culture eats Strategy’ but the prevailing assumptions in an organisation can derail even the most elegant management plans. If culture eats strategy it can eat your beautifully designed processes too.
If I had to place my stakes somewhere I would place it in culture over process
So would I. If people’s attitudes are in the right place, they will make bad processes work. If they are squabbling and disengaged, the best processes in the world will fall apart.
I can understand why people concentrate on processes and try to bypass messy stuff like culture. It’s easy to show that you have done something when you have redesigned a process. But, if you ignore an organisation’s culture, it will eventually jump up and bite you (which is why it usually gets the blame when things go wrong). As Schein also said, organisational culture might be complex and difficult to define, but you ignore it at your peril.