What goes around comes around part 2: Is standardization still a valid strategy ?

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In a recent post on IT Redux, What goes around comes around, I wrote about the swing between the need for process automation and the rise of workforce collaboration in the enterprise.

And sitting on the train home there was another thought which struck me, two process improvement schools diametrically opposed to one another. On several occasions I’ve come across the single-minded goal to standardize processes across a business as much as possible. Indeed, it seems a chief aim of most Centers of Excellence to have carbon copies of processes replicated everywhere.

Seek and destroy variance

But here’s the problem: creating standard processes also removes the ability to innovate because the goal for most is to seek and destroy variance in favor of the majority. And when an organization reaches the plateau of process improvement and has created volumes of standard processes which can be reused everywhere, what then?

As soon as we implement a rigid cycle as a methodology we lose the ability to continually adapt and change. Sure, the measurement and management information stream of data allows us to monitor and react to the change, but we interpret that information according to the restrictions imposed as part of the methodology.

At no point in these cycles is there a step that says, “stop hacking the process to death and just start over from scratch”. BPM becomes harder to sell and explain the ROI when you reduce the cost efficiencies with each project to the point they become insignificant and the project more costly than the return. But more often than not the business are inclined to walk away and admit defeat (or success, depending on your view of the pint glass) that the process cannot be improved anymore, so it must be optimum.

We need to teach organizations that it’s not bad practice to throw something away entirely in order to achieve the greatest gains.

Jim Sinur wrote last year about Dark Processes, those which lurk around the enterprise conducted by many but defy definition. I suggested that many of these rather than be eradicated actually be exposed and encouraged because more often than not these are the ones that are getting the work done faster and more efficiently than strictly designed activities.

Where does standardization fit?

Which begs the question, if we are moving rapidly towards social and collaborative organizations, with tools that allow free flowing interaction, networking and communication to get work done, what place has standardization got in this future? And where does the likes of Six Sigma fit in now?

I’d say none and they’ll struggle. I’m sure the analysts and purists will disagree, but when you standardize and make something conform to a norm you also lose the thing that made it unique and possible more innovative. There’s a tendency to rush into building standard processes without actually understanding everything as a whole, process improvement has become another silo in itself.

Don’t go blindly looking for the round holes to force the square pegs into.

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5 responses to “What goes around comes around part 2: Is standardization still a valid strategy ?

  1. BPM dies… Six Sigma dies… I’m inclined to agree with you. Actually i’m usually inclined to agree with most of your rants :) , but then what? Process improvement being a silo was bound to happen, because it tries to conform the business to its method (and as in the case of six sigma, can be very singular in its focus). Considering many of these methods were birthed by the manufacturing age, it wasn’t going to be too long before we ran out of ways to stretch its application.

    I don’t think the concept of standardization is completely dead. It has its place, albeit a smaller one. Standardizing is automation, something that should be leveraged only to improve compliance and the back office. This frees people to interact with people, allowing this social and collaborative workflow to occur.

    So my question then is what is our mindset at the outset of a process improvement initiative? The tools are changing, but I think the basic principles remain. Do we just step back and assess the business with a lean mindset, without the trappings of these dying methods? Is our principle focus then creating a system designed for optimal interaction/communication?
    Cheers

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  4. Theo, nice points. Somewhat related to my post that a focus on efficiency can lead to a processes that are efficient (as measured by metrics) but eliminates goals that are harder to measure, such as customer satisfaction or innovation. http://social-biz.org/2013/05/21/can-your-processes-get-to-be-too-good/

    I like your argument here that improvement implies incremental (small) changes, and that would preclude any possibility for larger, disruptive changes. As you point out, sometimes you have to throw it all out and start with a fresh approach. Ironic isn’t it that once you have a process in place, and metrics that prove how efficient it is, this will be a barrier against the sloppier toss-it-out and redesign from scratch. Who can argue against the process with the proven record?

  5. That’s the hard part Keith. Even in the face of doing preliminary design and benefits to prove that a completely fresh approach will work a business will still opt for something that is more tangible for fear of failure. I came across this recently myself, not with a process but with a whole BPM program approach. The reaction was surprising but not entirely unexpected: “If you had told me this 6 months ago….”

    A company finds comfort in knowing it’s following a path regardless of whether it’s right or not, simply because it’s walking it at this moment in time.

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