As a business grows, it needs to develop procedures for routine activities. But there’s one group of people you absolutely must talk to whenever you define a process.
These people are the stakeholders who are directly affected by the work itself.
That might sound simple, but it’s rarely done. How often does some new edict come down from management? It’s a frequent topic here on The Methodology Blog, from the story of the nuclear launch codes to issues with telephony and document management software. And a piece from the Harvard Business Review, titled Don’t Set Process Without Input from Frontline Workers, suggests that we should “bring thinkers and doers together.”:
You know those guys with the clipboards and checklists? Those annoying folks who drone on about compliance and procedure? Those sticklers who find reasons why things can’t be done? Every large institution has them. They are the process nerds. And within many companies, a tribal war is raging between these nerds and everyone else. But the world’s best organizations are calling a truce: They are learning how to turn the potentially destructive power of process and procedure to everyone’s benefit.
The guys with the clipboards are an easy target for mockery and disdain, but there are great opportunities buried in those flowcharts and manuals. There’s no arguing with the onward march of process. The challenge is to bring the nerds back to the front line and to make process design a distributed activity. Only then can we get systems that work properly and intelligent compliance.
That article shares a couple of examples of how frontline employees were excluded from decision-making procedures that directly impacted them. But a broader question might be: why don’t we talk to the people doing the work when we’re defining the work?
I think there are handful of reasons why this happens:
Organizations Are Hierarchical, But Customers Are Not
The saying goes that “everybody has a boss.” But in many companies, there are layers upon layers of management. Each person reports to someone, who reports to someone else, and so on. According to Forbes contributor Steve Denning:
The opposite of top-down is not bottom-up, but outside-in. GE’s Jack Welch once defined hierarchical organizations as places in which ‘everyone has their face toward the CEO and their ass toward the customer’… The focal point is the customer who defines the organization’s purpose and thus the value work that it exists to carry out.
We want to treat every customer like they are special and unique and important, but we tend to treat lower level employees as, well, “low level.” Therefore, upper level people tend to define processes and procedures for lower level people, thus reinforcing the problem.
We Classify People Into “Thinkers” and “Doers”
That phrase “thinkers” and “doers” comes from the subtitle of the article in the Harvard Business Review. While this might seem like another way to represent hierarchy, it goes deeper. Businesses have “exempt” and “non-exempt” workers. There are employees and contractors, or labor vs. management, or temps and permanent team members.
Everyone has to think at work, and everyone has to do at work as well. When managers roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work themselves it helps people feel more connected. And when front-line workers are asked their opinion, that’s a key step in the advancement of their careers.
Respect Is Not The Highest Corporate Value
We teach children to have respect for others, we hold doors for strangers, and we announce that “people are our greatest asset,” but too often it seems that we don’t actually respect our employees. You can tell this in the tone of signs hanging on the wall. You can see it when employees rush out when the clock strikes five or are afraid to head home early. A lack of respect is everywhere.
Since we apparently don’t have much respect for the people who work for us, why would we ask their opinion? But of course, we should find out what everyone thinks. Because, we should respect everyone who is part of the business. Changing that will change everything else.