"If only they would follow the process. That's what I would like you to do, encourage them to just follow the process we have set out for them"
As a freelance consultant I have heard this statement, or something like it, many times over. A company hires me to resolve an issue or to increase competitiveness. My first job, if I get the gig, is to interview employees to find out more about the issue from my initial brief. Very often, not always, I am confronted with the above statement. The issue is not the business processes within the client organisation but the fact that people do not follow them.
In many of these cases, not all, I find that there are very good reasons for not following processes. The issue can often be the gap between the strategic and operational levels of an organisation. The result may be that the subversive short-cutting of process is, in fact, an honest attempt to meet the strategic objectives of the organisation. Resistance might be a good thing. Let's take a look when resistance is fertile.
The process doesn't work
A principle I have learned is 'just because the process is broken doesn't mean the operation won't work efficiently'. Why is this? Because experienced people know how to get things done anyway. Usually this requires very high levels of team-work. But that is OK, because people are often better at working together than following a process. If you think about it, that makes complete sense. Human beings have evolved to work cooperatively. In high performing teams, the accomplishments that can be achieved through people are truly astonishing. Team capability can often more than make up for deficiencies in process.
An example of this is the misuse of zero inventory or other lean philosophies. Some companies apply the philosophy a little too zealously, insisting in having very little stock in inventory. But if these companies are involved in high-reliability operations, this policy can become counter-productive. In these operations redundancy is critical, even though it comes at a cost. I have witnessed some situations like this and marvelled at workers' ability to overcome the constraint of an overly lean supply chain. Usually this situation leads to widespread caching of inventory and a kind of 'black market' for stores. Basically, when a spare part is needed and it isn't in the warehouse; it will be produced after the necessary negotiations. Is this subversive? Not really because the work force understand and maintain the high-reliability operation, even when strategic decision makers fail to apply lean principles correctly.
Top-down leadership is not very fashionable but it has its uses. However, one big drawback is that it is very poor at obtaining bottom-up feedback. Any decision making system is reliant on feedback. In Matthew Syed's book 'Black Box Thinking' a system deprived of feedback is likened to a golf player driving golf balls in the dark. The player could hit a thousand golf balls without improving her game unless she can see where the balls are landing. Direct feedback tends not to happen in top-down structures, no matter how much it is encouraged or genuinely valued. However, short-cutting processes and getting things done anyway is one way workers can follow top-down edicts whilst subtly signalling how things might be improved. A consideration which should not be excluded is re-working the process map or scheme to reflect what workers actually do. It might not always be the case, but there is a fair chance experienced operatives are already meeting strategic objectives, in the most efficient way. In other words, before ordering everyone to simply follow the process, ask yourself why they are not.
Management By Walking Around is my favourite leadership tool. Simply walking and talking to colleagues is the best data gathering exercise one can do. It allows leaders to find out, or witness first hand, where resistance is happening. And it allows leaders to harness the productive power of resistance. Give it a try.