5 Ways Process Is Killing Your Productivity

If your team spends its days asking for permission before executing, taking an hour to complete expense reports or time sheets, attending redundant meetings, or answering irrelevant emails, you’ve got a problem.

Processes are supposed to help organizations scale up, improve efficiency for new hires and existing employees, and so on—but they can quickly get out of control.

In a study of U.S. and European companies, The Boston Consulting Group found that “over the past fifteen years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed...has increased by anywhere from 50 percent to 350 percent.” What’s more, in the most complicated organizations, “managers spend 40 percent of their time writing reports and 30 percent to 60 percent of it in coordination meetings.” No wonder people feel like they can never get any real work done.

Why do we love process so much? It offers a way to measure progress and productivity, which makes people feel more efficient and accountable. When used correctly, processes should standardize and simplify the necessary tasks that keep business running smoothly. They should enable organizations to undertake complex work, particularly as an organization grows. Expense reporting, for example, should have a process that every single employee follows every single time—that’s just common sense. Smart processes encapsulate bundles of organizational knowledge. And that’s a good thing.

But it’s not a good thing when there are so many processes in place that they restrain the people they’re supposed to help. If your team spends its days asking for permission before executing, taking an hour to complete expense reports or time sheets, attending redundant meetings, or answering irrelevant emails, you’ve got a problem. Exactly when are employees supposed to find the time to innovate when every task or topic is labeled “urgent” and every deadline is ASAP? Something will eventually give, and that something is going to be the part of the job they can keep pushing off until later.

Here are five ways process can kill production: 

  1. Empowering with permission—but without action:It’s not empowering when people are given more responsibility, yet must still obtain an unreasonable number of approvals and sign-offs to get anything done. This signals a lack of trust.
  2. Leaders focused on process instead of people: In an effort to standardize and sanitize everything we do, nothing at work is personal anymore. Leaders look to processes, not people, to solve problems—and it doesn’t work. Where’s the inspiration, the vision? This signals a lack of humanity.
  3. Overdependence on meetings: “Collaborative” and “inclusive” are corporate buzzwords, but productive teamwork does not require meetings for every single action or decision. People become overwhelmed and ineffective when they are always stuck in meetings. This signals that politics have taken precedence over productivity.
  4. Lack of (clear) vision: Great companies need a grand vision and important goals. Too often, companies have vision or mission statements laden with jargon but devoid of meaning. This signals a lack of purpose.
  5. Management acts as judge, not jury: If the purpose of a meeting is to think, create, or build, management has to stop tearing people down when they propose new ideas or question the status quo. This signals a lack of perspective and openness.

Over the years I’ve encountered organizations, large and small, that have essentially allowed process to become their culture. I’ve also seen businesses suffer when they assumed that if a process worked well for one division, it would work well for the company overall. Good processes can turn especially dangerous when they creep from manufacturing lines and finance departments into brainstorms and research labs. Some of the worst offenders have been companies that implemented overarching processes like Six Sigma, a rigidly data-driven quality-management program originally designed to tackle manufacturing problems. Fifty-three percent of the Fortune 500 have deployed it and of the Fortune 100, 82 percent have used it. Despite its manufacturing origins, Six Sigma has been used across many industries and sectors, and proponents claim it saved Fortune 500 corporations nearly a half-trillion dollars since its inception. If so many successful organizations are using it and saving money, what’s the problem, right?

Again, it comes down to priority. When we shift such a huge amount of an organization’s focus onto standardizing everything, other areas inevitably suffer. According to a BusinessWeek article called “Six Sigma: So Yesterday?,” the program ultimately did more harm than good when it was implemented at Home Depot: “Profitability soared, but worker morale dropped, and so did consumer sentiment. Home Depot fell from first to last among major retailers on the American Customer Satisfaction Index in 2005.”

Another oft-cited example of Six Sigma’s negative effects occurred at 3M. When former GE executive James McNerney took the helm in 2001, he instituted a rigorous Six Sigma program, which meant slashing costs, training thousands of employees to become program experts, and requiring extensive reporting on new products in the R&D pipeline. In the short term, especially in the eyes of investors, it seemed to work. Costs were brought under control, production speed increased, and operating margins rose from 17 percent to 23 percent by 2005. But researchers in the labs were stifled by the demands of the new metrics. 3M had a century-long history of innovation, but now R&D had been cut and inventors weren’t given adequate time to tinker with products before having to demonstrate successful commercialization. “We were letting, I think, the process get in the way of doing the actual invention," said Dr. Larry Wendling, staff vice president at 3M's Corporate Research Laboratory. 

After McNerney’s departure for Boeing in 2005—just four years after joining the company—3M began to reevaluate Six Sigma. In addition to the friction it caused among staff, its long-term growth potential appeared compromised and there were concerns that 3M had become “a less creative company...a vitally important issue for a company whose very identity is built on innovation.”

In recent years, 3M has significantly changed the way it uses Six Sigma. The company acknowledges that the program adds value in its factories, so it’s still utilized in manufacturing operations. Researchers working in the labs, however, are no longer beholden to the metrics and rubrics of Six Sigma. The shift has been successful—and there are metrics to prove it. One of the best measures of innovation efforts is the percentage of revenue that a company derives from products introduced in the last five years. At 3M, this number had traditionally hovered around 30 percent, but had dropped to 21 percent after Six Sigma’s introduction. In 2010, the number was back up to 30 percent and may soon surpass 35 percent.

I don’t mean to vilify Six Sigma unfairly. It’s just one example in a long list of top-down processes that people mistake as a silver bullet to improve their entire business. TQM, Lean Six Sigma, ISO, etc.—they all entrench organizations in policies and procedures, minimizing the organization’s innovation potential.

Today, managers are especially in a bind. They’re expected to efficiently produce outstanding short-term results, but the innovation they’re supposed to pursue could very likely hurt their careers. A 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey summarizes the quandary:

“Those in middle management... found innovation disruptive to their day-to-day activities and felt it got in the way of running an efficient operation—which is what they were paid to do.”

When people’s jobs depend on meeting metrics and maintaining the status quo, can you fault them for their reluctance to expend any energy toward creation and invention?

Reprinted by permission of Bilbiomotion. Excerpted from Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution, copyright 2012 Lisa Bodell. All rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user Deja Photo]

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11 Comments

  • Mike Carnell

    I am actually very glad to have had the opportunity to have read this article. It gave me just enough insight into the way the author thinks to avoid wasting any money on purchasing her book. The best we see is citing someone elses study and wrapping a few anecdotes around a point she chooses to make rather than prove. Glittering generalities on topics she obviously understands at a very superficial level.
    Let's go get another anecdote about Timothy Tyson when serving as CEO of Valeant Pharmaceutical considered Proces improvement in R&D so critical to the business he chose to be the Champion for that division. If you choose to do anecdotes it becomes a game of "last liar wins."
    Unfortunately Fast Company has digressed from a very cutting edge publication to this type of drivel. Another good intention gone bad.

  • Phick Steven

    Process as well as procedures depends on various factors some of which helps gain the productivity where as some helps them to get followed up by degradation. basically the official management system led to production in a prominent manner among which the exact management of the systematic structure is the most striking.

    Lets take an example of one such system - the expense management. Mostly the expense management needs thorough support on the management part and that is some what gonna be ahead in terms of the expense management system which helps the process to go in a procedural manner and that is some what helps manage the expense reporting go in a smooth manner heading towards a successful output for the company. More likely the expense reporting today has touched up the advanced features for the expense reporting system. As with the competitive industry we have managed to keep track of our company's expense reporting with the help of the expense reporting tool from Replicon - http://www.replicon.com/olp/ex... that is cloud based and helps manage the expense reports with a hassle free experience giving a way ahead to the productivity standard.

    Way ahead with this particular online web based tool we have even managed to save a lot in terms of our expenses. Like wise some other softwares and tools also helps manage the productivity rise in a precised format provided the latest technology is to be deployed.

  • Koushik Radhakrishnan

    What is the alternative? Is there an optimal mix of process versus risks of lack of motivation and innovation?

  • KDS

    Love the article!  I expand on this to ask the question: "Can your process get to be too good?":

    http://social-biz.org/2013/05/...

    A theme I have seen recently is the idea that organizations can become "fragile" when their processes are too tightly controlled and managed.  Organizations are naturally flexible and adaptive, and strong process management works against that.  Innovation is one form of such flexibility.

    Thanks,

  • Mathew Jacob

    I think the author seems to
    have confused a few things –

    1.      
    She’s equated process with bureaucracy. Process is a value neutral
    term – anything that has a beginning and end linked together with a series of
    steps is a process. Hence there is no situation at work where there is no
    process – everyone has some process or the other that they use.

    2.      
    The issue at stake is about how codified processes get and there
    are two extremes here. One extreme is to treat everything as a one-off case and
    hence every situation calls for reinventing the wheel – and this is a recipe
    for chaos and incredible waste, lack of rigor, measurement, reliability,
    predictability, and discipline. The other extreme is seek to codify everything,
    and whenever something goes wrong create a new layer of process to prevent that
    from happening (rather than understand what went wrong and solve it), and to do
    everything by the book by checking for precedents in the documented process
    architecture – that’s really bureaucracy. The author seems to be speaking about
    this latter extreme and calling it process. The dysfunctions of bureaucracy
    have been well known and studied for half a century now.  There is a
    middle path that works wonderfully.

    3.      
    Process as learning. There is a way to think about process as the
    way an organization builds and continually enhances its learning and knowledge.
    A company that has done this exceptionally well is Toyota – the essence of the
    Toyota Way is this dynamic interaction between process and learning – the
    interplay between their PDCA and SDCA cycle.

    4.      
    The author then takes her limited view of process and lays it on
    six sigma – seeming to indicate that six sigma is about building process
    bureaucracies. She couldn’t be more wrong.

     

    5.      
    Again the author actually displays some ignorance of what six sigma
    is as well. She cites the two examples of 3M and Home Depot as criticisms of
    Six Sigma. Both those instances were of GE leaders (McNerney and Nardelli) who
    lost out in the Jack Welch succession race, who went to other companies and
    tried to impose a GE way of working on them without sufficient understanding of
    their business or culture.

     

    6.      
    Six Sigma is about using process as learning. It builds the process
    architecture by constantly learning from two voices (the voice of the process
    as in quality and defects, cost, cycle-time, delivery, variation, and process
    capability and the voice of the customer/market as in customer satisfaction,
    competitive differentiation, market dynamics, customer needs and requirements).
    It then builds measurement architecture around these two “voices”, and
    establishes an improvement architecture to act on what comes out of the
    measurements. In essence, Six Sigma is designed to tear down bureaucracy.

     

    7.      
    Six sigma obviously can be done well or badly – but that’s the case
    with any corporate initiative including “innovation” which seems to be antidote
    prescribed by the author.  Microsoft with a $6bn investment in innovation
    and comparatively lighter process architecture or bureaucracy has continually
    failed to create real breakthrough innovation in mobility or search – the two
    fastest growing markets in the technology space over the last 10 years!

     

    8.      
    Finally, her five ways in which processes kill production are more
    about poor leadership and management than about process.

    Mathew Jacob

  • Tanya

    This article is about "Procedures" not "Process". Process is about understanding how to remove waste, hiring correct skill sets, and enabling people to think through real customer value. Like you said: "procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed"... Too many procedures without a good business process manager will kill a process and introduce waste.   

  • Adam

    Processes are supposed to help organizations scale up, improve efficiency for new hires and existing employees, and so on--but they can quickly get out of control. << No, processes define methods to enforce consistency. They have no impact on any of your stated goals. >>

    In a study of U.S. and European companies, The Boston Consulting Group found that “over the past fifteen years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed...has increased by anywhere from 50 percent to 350 percent.” << Is this cited as a good or bad thing? This data has no reference. >> What’s more, in the most complicated organizations, “managers spend 40 percent of their time writing reports and 30 percent to 60 percent of it in coordination meetings.” << Again, is this being cited as a good or bad thing? What ‘do’ managers then do? Aren’t reports and meetings the key functions of management? >> No wonder people feel like they can never get any real work done. 

    Why do we love process so much? It offers a way to measure progress and productivity, which makes people feel more efficient and accountable. << No, processes define methods to enforce consistency. Metrics and reporting measure progress and productivity they don’t make people ‘feel’ anything, they make people accountable. >> 

    When used correctly, processes should standardize and simplify the necessary tasks that keep business running smoothly. They should enable organizations to undertake complex work, particularly as an organization grows. Expense reporting, for example, should have a process that every single employee follows every single time--that’s just common sense. Smart processes encapsulate bundles of organizational knowledge. And that’s a good thing. << Wow, yes. >>

    But it’s not a good thing when there are so many processes in place that they restrain the people they’re supposed to help. If your team spends its days asking for permission before executing, taking an hour to complete expense reports or time sheets, attending redundant meetings, or answering irrelevant emails, you’ve got a problem. << This is the basis for LEAN Six Sigma and the “5 Whys.” To identify “irrelevant” tasks..>> Exactly when are employees supposed to find the time to innovate when every task or topic is labeled “urgent” and every deadline is ASAP? << If ‘every’ task is labeled the same and due at the same time, is the process covering the criteria for setting status and deadlines being followed or need improvement? >> Something will eventually give, and that something is going to be the part of the job they can keep pushing off until later. << There is a management theory that enabling this type of endless task delay is a good thing as a way of identifying irrelevant tasks, and that never reading emails older than two-weeks and never getting to that 2-year old project, is an effective and simple, ‘poor-man’s’ Six Sigma.>>
    Here are five ways process can kill production: 1.Empowering with permission--but without action: It’s not empowering when people are given more responsibility, yet must still obtain an unreasonable number of approvals and sign-offs to get anything done. This signals a lack of trust. << This is the basis for LEAN Six Sigma and the “5 Whys.” To identify “unreasonable” tasks..>>2.Leaders focused on process instead of people: In an effort to standardize and sanitize everything we do, nothing at work is personal anymore. Leaders look to processes, not people, to solve problems--and it doesn’t work. Where’s the inspiration, the vision? This signals a lack of humanity. << What ‘processes’ are these ‘leaders’ using to solve problems? Does she mean thoughtless addition of procedural steps to existing process? Then yes, adding multiple layers of Quality Control verifications to a process to solve quality issues is the antithesis of 6S. The 6S goal is to have process never allow the opportunity for error so that you don’t need to validate the output. Six Sigma is a process used to solve problems; using interviews, measures, brainstorming, reports, and tollgate meetings. Six Sigma maximizes inspiration, focuses vision, and facilitates change. >>3.Overdependence on meetings: “Collaborative” and “inclusive” are corporate buzzwords, but productive teamwork does not require meetings for every single action or decision. People become overwhelmed and ineffective when they are always stuck in meetings. This signals that politics have taken precedence over productivity. << True, but what does this have to do with process? This is a culture issue. >>4.Lack of (clear) vision: Great companies need a grand vision and important goals. Too often, companies have vision or mission statements laden with jargon but devoid of meaning. This signals a lack of purpose. << True, but what does this have to do with process? This is a management issue. >>5.Management acts as judge, not jury: If the purpose of a meeting is to think, create, or build, management has to stop tearing people down when they propose new ideas or question the status quo. This signals a lack of perspective and openness. << True, but what does this have to do with process? This is another management issue. >> 

    Over the years I’ve encountered organizations, large and small, that have essentially allowed process to become their culture. I’ve also seen businesses suffer when they assumed that if a process worked well for one division, it would work well for the company overall. Good processes can turn especially dangerous when they creep from manufacturing lines and finance departments into brainstorms and research labs. Some of the worst offenders have been companies that implemented overarching processes like Six Sigma, a rigidly data-driven quality-management program originally designed to tackle manufacturing problems. Fifty-three percent of the Fortune 500 have deployed it and of the Fortune 100, 82 percent have used it. Despite its manufacturing origins, Six Sigma has been used across many industries and sectors, and proponents claim it saved Fortune 500 corporations nearly a half-trillion dollars since its inception. If so many successful organizations are using it and saving money, what’s the problem, right?Again, it comes down to priority. When we shift such a huge amount of an organization’s focus onto standardizing everything, other areas inevitably suffer. According to aBusinessWeek article called “Six Sigma: So Yesterday?,” the program ultimately did more harm than good when it was implemented at Home Depot: “Profitability soared, but worker morale dropped, and so did consumer sentiment. Home Depot fell from first to last among major retailers on the American Customer Satisfaction Index in 2005.” << Should I read the BusinessWeek article to determine why 6S hurt Home Depot or should I just take her word as hearsay? >>Another oft-cited example of Six Sigma’s negative effects occurred at 3M. When former GE executive James McNerney took the helm in 2001, he instituted a rigorous Six Sigma program, which meant slashing costs, training thousands of employees to become program experts, and requiring extensive reporting on new products in the R&D pipeline. In the short term, especially in the eyes of investors, it seemed to work. Costs were brought under control, production speed increased, and operating margins rose from 17 percent to 23 percent by 2005. But researchers in the labs were stifled by the demands of the new metrics. 3M had a century-long history of innovation, but now R&D had been cut and inventors weren’t given adequate time to tinker with products before having to demonstrate successful commercialization. << The measures didn’t cut R&D they depicted them, management read the reports and then management took away the ‘adequate time.’ >> “We were letting, I think, the process get in the way of doing the actual invention," said Dr. Larry Wendling, staff vice president at 3M's Corporate Research Laboratory. << Process wasn’t in the way of ‘actual invention,’ management cost-cutting was. >>After McNerney’s departure for Boeing in 2005--just four years after joining the company--3M began to reevaluate Six Sigma. In addition to the friction it caused among staff, its long-term growth potential appeared compromised and there were concerns that 3M had become “a less creative company...a vitally important issue for a company whose very identity is built on innovation.”In recent years, 3M has significantly changed the way it uses Six Sigma. The company acknowledges that the program adds value in its factories, so it’s still utilized in manufacturing operations. Researchers working in the labs, however, are no longer beholden to the metrics and rubrics of Six Sigma. The shift has been successful--and there are metrics to prove it. One of the best measures of innovation efforts is the percentage of revenue that a company derives from products introduced in the last five years. At 3M, this number had traditionally hovered around 30 percent, but had dropped to 21 percent after Six Sigma’s introduction. In 2010, the number was back up to 30 percent and may soon surpass 35 percent. << This is simply a factor of management adjustments having been made to the research budget and has no relevance to 6S in any way. >>I don’t mean to vilify Six Sigma unfairly. It’s just one example in a long list of top-down processes that people mistake as a silver bullet to improve their entire business. TQM, Lean Six Sigma, ISO, etc.--they all entrench organizations in policies and procedures, minimizing the organization’s innovation potential. << No. This is so wrong I’m not sure how to respond. >> 

  • W. Michael Hsu

    Lisa - thanks for the knowledge share here. It is always a tricky balance between too much process and too little. An organization will be hard to scale if all of our employees are free roaming and performing a ton of one off operations - yet it's hard not to let the tool (process) that's suppose to help us get in the way of doing real work. It takes a great team and good leader to find that balance - and I've found that by understanding (and always having a clear vision) of the results that we are trying to achieve - it keeps the processes (tools) in check. Like everything else in business though - constant learning and iteration.

  • Nigel Collin - Thinkativity

    Hi Lisa, Great article - thanks. I'd like to add that my experience is that processes are often seen as linear, you do this, then that, and then this. However a great process that inspires ideas needs to be non-linear at times. For example, setting up mechanisms which trigger and stimulate certain behaviors needed to fulfill an objective, (ie thinking time or open collaboration). In this way a process becomes more a framework of checkpoints.