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Duplication Without Reason

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Just because a company is growing at a record pace does not mean it is immune to bad process. One amazing story comes from W.E. Peterson, a co-founder of a multimillion dollar organization.

In the 1994 book Almost Perfect, Peterson writes:

With everyone solving their problems by trial and error, we had all kinds of inefficiencies creeping into the organization. The orders department, for example, always seemed to keep a copier running full time. When I looked into the reasons, it turned out they were making a lot of extra copies of invoices so they could file them by invoice number, by customer, and by product. When asked why, they were not sure, except that it had always been done that way. To make a point, I threw one full set in the trash and told them to call me if they ever missed the extra copies.

There’s more than one insight in this anecdote. Consider the culture of a department which feels it needs to create three copies of every document. A business process which enables multiple ways to access the same information assumes that every case is highly likely and that speed is essential. Somewhere, a stakeholder is more concerned with ease of looking up data than they are with the cost of paper, ink and labor.

Process Improvement - Photocopier

© Flickr user Alan Cleaver

The management response—to discard countless hours of work—is bold and decisive. Unfortunately, Peterson’s narrative does not discuss employee feedback to his actions. Most people would feel slighted if one-third of their contribution was chucked into the garbage and instantly deemed worthless. Their inability to explain why duplicate copies were maintained does not mean that no valid reason exists. Rather, this ignorance indicates how employees can enable themselves to complete a task without understanding the actual value of that work.

Finally, the quoted paragraph offers some standard advice about traditions. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper says it best: “The most dangerous phrase in the [English] language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” The author uses this notion as a justification for quick action. However, Peterson’s snap judgment is in itself, an knee-jerk response. He assumes that since no one can provide a reasonable rationale for the procedure, he can safely destroy the extra copies. In a sense, he falls victim to the very fallacy used to support his actions!

Great management requires more than swift decisions. Great employees must do more than be diligently obedient. In fact, all stakeholders should understand both how and why work is done. This degree of engagement generates true productivity and satisfaction, and builds a platform for resource optimization. Before you throw out reams of work or make another duplicate file without understanding why, reach out to the consultants at AccelaWork. We care about tactics, stakeholders and productivity.

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