Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pick-up sticks

Cleaning up a tangled mess is probably not uncommon.  Partially collapsed buildings must be carefully deconstructed in order to avoid damage to their neighbors.  Failing companies are routinely broken down and sold in as profitable a fashion as possible.

Maintaining the status quo in terms of performance while making corporate changes can be difficult.  It’s easy to overlook the value of unwritten knowledge.  Even if processes are properly documented it can be difficult to understand the relationships between processes without having experienced them first hand.

Many service workers are unable to fully document what they do because much of they do is dictated by intuition.  While recently reviewing a process which was performed by another employee in the past, I puzzled over why her results were so different from my own.  Why did customers seem so responsive in the past, yet so lackluster today? 

The answer is simple, straightforward.  Her experience indicated that unless she prodded customers, customer response would be low.  Her process included an unwritten step during which she would contact customers who did not respond in a timely fashion and offer to help them along in the process.

Another situation recently occurred which came from a similar cause: a missing, non-intuitive piece of information which made the difference between a successful project and a disastrous one.  What is the role of this intuited knowledge in an evolving company?  How can companies avoid faltering amidst the redevelopment of internal processes?

When employees will not or cannot become parties to process improvement, they may become liabilities; their mere presence will increase the cost of doing business.  Replacing them will also certainly cause a temporary increase in the cost of doing business, and will create a short term lack of corporate improvement as corporate knowledge is reacquired through accelerated experience.

Improvement is cumulative.  Without a solid foundation, future improvement is jeopardized.  Broken processes were almost certainly created in shortsighted haste, and avoiding the same mistake in the future can only take place by refusing to take the easy way out.

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