Processing the simplification process

By admin, January 19, 2010 8:33 am

There is a danger with outsourcing and process streamlining that if you turn it over to people who don't have a vested interest in actually making it more streamlined or simpler, you get processes that are more massively complex than what you started with, costing more than they did in the first place. There is a certain kind of mind, when presented with a new challenge such as "simplification" that somehow sees a need for creating reams and reams of detail and process to serve that goal, never understanding that, in fact, "simple" means a reduction of those things. Creating a "simplification process" or tracking "simplification metrics" appeals to the structurally oriented among us, but the existence of such things mocks the very idea they supposedly serve.

We all love Dilbert for its ability to illustrate this sort of inevitable, blind corporate contradiction in three panels or less:

This comes up today because a major airplane manufacturer that has been historically (but decreasingly) located in the Pacific Northwest has instituted new all-electronic procurement systems that are outsourced through Wipro. Wipro has been making huge inroads in business process outsourcing recently, an excellent business move in this economic climate. But the difficulty with trusting process specialists is that they come to love the process, and not the objectives.

The practical engineering solution (not coincidentally advocated by Scott Adams in his book "The Dilbert Principle") would be to just give individuals credit cards with a limit on them and count on the whole boss/employee thing to keep excesses in check. Even excesses in such a system can be cheaper than massive process re-engineering and management in a more complex system. A lot of executives don't like it, because they don't trust employees (particularly at this company, where management/union feuding is both legendary and public), and can't be made to trust the numbers.

I am as much a fan of process articulation as the next consultant, but I am reminded, watching a client go through the time and trouble of enrolling in this new procurement process (and raising their own rates accordingly; hidden costs of the implementation that Boeing will never account for on its own books), that sometimes the best way to serve process is to eliminate or reduce it. The idea that everything we do in a business can be systematized and described is good and useful. To keep it useful, it's important to remember that something systematized does not have to be complicated, and that description doesn't need to devolve into a level of detail that is counter-productive. To paraphrase Adams in "The Dilbert Principle," it's not a bad thing to have a budgeting process; it's a bad thing when that process becomes more important within the organization than the line-of-business processes it is meant to serve become secondary. It's no bad thing for an airplane maker to outsource the procurement process; making airplanes is the appropriate focus, not managing vendors. But you'd better be careful who you outsource to, or the savings could evaporate very quickly.

Photo source lrargerich

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