Understanding Processes is Fundamental

At the end of our walk, we entered the hotel and went up to my apartment on the top floor. I opened the draperies to let the sun flood inside, clicked on the coffee maker and opened the chalkboard and flip chart cabinet. Placing some markers on the table in front of Dan, I indicated we were ready to proceed.

Picking up a blue marker and standing in front of the charts, Dan gave me a full-faced smile and said, “Remember, he who holds the marker has control!”

I certainly wasn’t about to challenge him.

“Now, to begin with, everything you’re concerned with has to start at the most fundamental levels of your various departments. It starts with a detailed understanding of how your people perform their various jobs today.”

“You mean, how they use their computer terminals?” I asked.

“Eventually we will look at the roles your computers play, but first I’m talking about the step-by-step procedures of each employee from the moment a transaction of some type is started until that transaction has been completed and accounted for… I mean every little step, so we can clearly appreciate what is involved on the part of each player in the entire process. Only when we have traced and flow charted all of those seemingly routine, mundane functions can we begin to truly understand what our processes are doing for us . . . or to us.”

Tapping the wall charts for emphasis and making certain I was still with him he continued, “And, I might add, we should draw each work flow on big charts like these, pin ‘em on the wall in their proper order, side by side, and have everyone involved look them over together to be sure they’re accurate. You will be surprised at everything that goes on with each transaction. You and everyone else taking part will see — probably for the first time ever — just what each person has to do, how it’s done, and how what each one does affects the others!”

I nodded and he continued.

“I think about such processes sorta like a river that flows from north to south. The water is your information: as it moves downstream, it comes in contact with different people who either help it along or slow it down. Some help keep the water moving, free from impurities, but others slow it down and even pollute the stream with their garbage. When stuff is thrown into the water, guess what happens?”

“Well, I guess it creates problems for those waiting downstream. If a problem is serious enough, it may make those who drink it quite ill,” I replied without hesitation.

“Exactly! And if the stuff as I call it, is big enough, it can even slow down or stop the flow,” Dan pointed out emphatically. ”Worse, when the stuff winds up in someone’s in basket or e-mail reader in today’s world, and is allowed to stay there without receiving attention, the flow is disrupted.”

“You’re talking about the typical bottlenecks we experience in various departments all the time?” I queried, beginning to see where he was going with this.

“Right again!” he crowed. “So, without dragging all this out any further, since you obviously catch my drift here, let’s skip to the bottom line: once we have this charting and reviewing completed, with the help of everyone, we can identify and make any changes needed to minimize the pollution . . . the result should be a more efficient sequence of the functions each person must perform. You see that?”

“Yes, but Dan, you remember I asked earlier how you found your way to working in this park and you said you’d tell me more later. From what you’ve just been telling me and the way you’ve said it, I have to think there must be connection. If you’re where you can, I’d really like to hear what went on after you were no longer with us at WEIXX that led you here.”

Because I had not been willing to take the risk that reminding him of unpleasant memories would cause Dan to withdraw from me, I had accepted his short explanation that morning in the diner and not mentioned it again since. But he had said how contented he’d become with his new life, and it must be true because now he didn’t hesitate to respond.

“You see, when I found myself on the street for the first time in so many years, I quickly saw I wasn’t alone. Far from it! Oh, if you search the want ads, talk with employment agencies, or do a search on the Internet you can find dozens of openings every day. They all look and sound very hopeful until you take a real close look,” he offered.
“As you might appreciate, I heard from our old buddies over at Xavier Instruments, with a very tempting offer. But, you know, while that was sure gratifying and reassuring to my ego, I just couldn’t see myself on their team. Something about crossing over to an enemy I’d fought for so long just stuck in my craw… giving me heartburn as I considered whether or not to take them up on their interests!”

“Yeah, that’s understandable,” I agreed, “But you would’ve been a great catch for them if you’d been at all tempted.”

“Yes, well maybe so, but you remember how it was when we first started at Weixx-Corp. We were so proud to be a part of the tradition of that company, surrounded as we were by the veterans who were such pros. They had so many war stories about how they had grown up in the business as the company had grown up around them and we just ate it up! After all, they were doing well, financially, and they dressed the part. They were hitting home runs in their territories and we just couldn’t help admiring them, envisioning for ourselves that one day soon we would enjoy such success…”

His eyes had taken on a distant look as his expression signaled he was no longer seeing me in the present. Instead, I was sure he was seeing himself several years back as he had lived the scenes he was referencing. Seeming to return now to the present, he continued, “So, as we all developed such strong loyalties to each other and to the company, we were immunizing ourselves from ever becoming a part of those other guys! I know you remember how that was – we were trained never to mention competitors by name. And, it went without saying you risked being fired if you ever disparaged a competitor!”

“Oh yes, I do remember, I said. “And, though some other fundamental practices have been altered since you left us, I must tell you that that much about Big W hasn’t changed. Unfortunately, it’s also still the case that most of our competitors haven’t learned how important not talking negatively about competitors has been to the respect we enjoy from our customers. I say, unfortunately because we’ve both seen how disruptive it can be to have a customer’s attention distracted by false or misleading statements, putting us in the position of having to defend and disprove.”

Dan was right with me. “How true that is. And usually, as a result of successfully dispelling such claims, we emerged in an even stronger position with the customer. But, let me return to your earlier point regarding what I encountered once I was forced to join the job market. Unlike what you and I remember from the time we first joined Weixx-Corp, when I was approached by Xavier, some quick research among a couple of their folks I had known over the years, made it clear that Xavier’s practice was to cut overhead by hiring younger people to take the jobs of the more experienced. Like most companies today, Xavier has the reputation of preferring people with one or more degrees, who haven’t yet taken on financial responsibilities for a family, a mortgage, cars, vacations, medical bills, and the rest. In short, people who can work for half the amount paid to those whose jobs they’re being hired to replace!”

Following his drift, I offered, “And the expectation is those people with so little experience should handle the tasks previously performed by you and your contemporaries?”

“Former contemporaries,” he corrected, still showing no more emotion; but the strength of his voice underscored his confidence in what he was saying. “So you go for interviews and show them all the things you’ve done, places you’ve been, and so on. Things that in some cases happened long before those handling the interviews were even born. And, as I said, they never just come right out and say you’re too old. They spell out the compensation plan, talk about the long hours you’d be expected to work, and show you a little cubicle in the middle of a huge room. Everything makes it clear you’d be starting at or near the bottom . . . especially so many years after you’d thought you’d paid your dues and should be doing much better.”

He stopped, looking distressed and pensive for just a moment, before continuing in his earlier upbeat fashion. I thought, Where are people with such pride, such dignity today? Where have they gone? Or, are they still around, just hidden away behind other rakes, tending other invisible fires in countless other out-of-the-way places so society doesn’t even have to see what we’re doing to each other?

Dan must have read my thoughts, because he quickly brought me back to earth. “If you’re feeling sorry for me right now, you can just put those thoughts away,” he said. “When we get off the train, with its constant rushing along, we get the chance to slow down long enough to let the horizon come into better view. It brings some things about our lives into our consciousness in the same way that we sometimes get reminded when we attend a funeral.”

I didn’t move or speak.

Then he continued, “You know what I mean? It’s like we get to rise above ourselves and see where we are, where we’ve been, and even sometimes a glimpse of what’s ahead — and we realize how cheaply we spend our days. Ever had that feeling?”

“Sure have,” I replied. “It lasts just long enough to get me past the trip to the cemetery — maybe a few hours afterward if I spend time with the grieving family,“ I said, speaking to Dan. “So, to paraphrase, you were repeatedly kept out to pasture, is that it?”

“Right,” he said, “but after I had several such treatments from just about everybody I approached for a job, I let myself indulge in some bouts with booze and feeling sorry for myself. Then one day I decided to take stock of my situation to concentrate on just what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be certain I wouldn’t be the subject of some future funeral without having had the satisfaction of doing what I really wanted to do — not just that which was expected of me.”

“Good for you, Dan. There’ve been times I’ve thought about doing something like that. Only I’d lose my nerve when I thought about how much time and effort I’d put into my career. Then, there’s the very real matter of the amount of money we need every month, just to live as we do now.”

“Didn’t take much courage,” he laughed. “Necessity — that’s what made me do it! Didn’t have much of an alternative, so I put aside everything I’d been doing on my previous jobs and made a list of the things I really liked to do but didn’t do too often. Wasn’t a very long list, as it turned out, but I remembered all the times that usually made me feel the best: times that I often thought about trying to repeat when things got tough at Weixx-Corp. I remember sitting on the porch of that big house we had out in Winchester. You remember being there for my fiftieth — we had the pool, lots of trees, and several acres to walk around with our kids and our dogs, but you could do so without meeting anyone outside the family.”

I nodded, vaguely recalling a few drinks on the pool deck that night. Couldn’t really remember much else, or even when that had been. My mind just wasn’t working well these days – no doubt clogged with too much of the here and now.

“I came to realize how often I had sat on that back deck and longed to be out in one of those cabins we sometimes slipped away to in the hills. It disturbed me when I thought how often I had been on the big home place wanting to be in those hills among the trees enjoying a simpler way of life, but I had never once sat out there in the hills and longed to be back in the rat race in town! At that moment, I shouted loud enough to create an echo: something’s gotta change here! Something’s not right when I work day and night to keep up so many seemingly tangible things, leaving so little time to do what I really want to do. Of course there was no one else there to hear it, but I later thought that that was my way of being sure I didn’t forget such an important self-discovery. So I decided to turn my intense interest in nature into my full time vocation, and spend every day out among the squirrels, chipmunks, the birds and trees, with just enough people contact to satisfy my social tendencies, but not so much as to get me over-exposed. I also teach a class twice a week at the community college and when we add what they pay me to the money and benefits from the park, Carol and I have enough to live in a three bedroom bungalow out in Forrest Park. We drive a couple of cars that get us there and back, eat a pretty healthy diet, see a play now and then, and we’re quite content.” He paused and smiled at me. “Maybe that’s more than you wanted to know, but I feel better anyway.”

Satisfied with his performance, Dan sank to the ground and gave me the most contented facial expression I had seen from him since all this dialog had begun.

“Sounds like the kinda situation everyone I know wishes they could be in.” Nothing else needed to be said on that subject, so I turned the conversation to what I hoped would be a welcome direction for Dan. “The real reason I wanted us to meet now was to see if an idea I’ve been working on makes sense to you.” As I heard myself beginning, it occurred to me I was wound tight, ready to carry my thoughts through to some conclusions in much the same way as Dan had been allowed to do earlier.

“Over the past few days I’ve been thinking some more about my challenges and the things you and I have covered since that first day in the park. You know how you reminded me of the straightforward techniques to tackling problems we used in earlier times? I say we used to use because whether we were talking about applying data processing to solve problems or simply analyzing production problems to eliminate bottlenecks in manufacturing — or other situations confronting us in the business — we often used logical flow diagrams. Sometimes we’d write our notes on flip chart paper. We even called the results the Before Picture the way you did, and used it for comparison against the After Picture to identify gaps in our processes requiring decisions for change. Where needed, we also used our own versions of decision trees to help us reach conclusions at various junctions in each segment of the operations. It has all come back so clearly now, and I thank you for jogging my memory so effectively.”

“Glad to do it,” Dan said. “Tell me, what do you think is the most important difference between the way you all have been approaching these matters in recent times versus the way we used to approach them?”

“For one thing, I said, “I don’t believe we went deeply enough into the processes to get all the needed details out on the table before starting to draw conclusions that led to decisions. By that I mean . . . well, consider those in management today. How many of our bright, well-intentioned young managers have ever been given the firsthand opportunity to get a thorough understanding of what really happens in the progression of activities required to conduct our business? With rare exceptions, we have hired kids right of college and given them some initial indoctrination in the company philosophies, policies and practices. Then, we made sure they understood how they were to be paid and their entitlements to benefits. Finally, too often we turned them over to someone who had only a few more years in the business than those to whom they were responsible for providing on-the-job training!”

Dan was with me. “That’s true. In times of rapid growth, some of those expected to do the training had been with us no more than a year.” he said.

I continued, “So, as long as the needs of the business could be met by the processes they inherited, things went along fairly well. What we lost under such practices were the types of improvements one would expect from employees who better understood the functions they were performing. As a result, I’ve seen examples of where you could go back to an old job you had helped design years ago and find that it had not changed at all. It was not unusual to find the original set-up instructions with your handwritten notes of explanation were still passed from one operator to the next.”

“We certainly had our share of those situations in the way we processed orders, updated inventories, and the like,” Dan agreed. “Special needs of our customers — like including their item number alongside our product code on shipping documents and invoices — gave our people fits, often requiring major rewrites, not only to our procedures, but also to our computer software. Yes, I know what you mean.”

Now we were really getting into the heart of the problem and I said, “As you just illustrated, along comes some new requirement for change and we have to respond, or the customer will likely go elsewhere. But when the new breed of managers was faced with such challenges to the way they were accustomed to operating, it turned out most were simply not equipped with sufficient knowledge and experience to initiate the changes needed. In such circumstances, the technologists were more than happy to offer suggestions.”

Once again, Dan knew where the conversation should go. “Speed, accuracy, and flexibility have been the watchwords forever,” he said. “So the existing sequence of procedures would often remain the same, plus some additional fields added to our forms and accounting records, some more lines of programming code were patched in, and the problems would be solved! Technology to the rescue! And since the problems had been so effectively solved in the short run, not enough attention was likely given to either the initial cost of such modifications or the overall cost of added personnel time to work around the patches in the long run.

“So, in conclusion,” Dan said, “We would proclaim we had solved your insatiable appetites for change, and that you should be quite happy, regardless of the price you might have to pay.”

Dan shook his head and laughed bitterly. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he apologized. “I’m getting a little punchy with all this, I guess.”

“No problem. In some respects it’s so distressing we need to try and add some humor to keep from becoming too cynical.” I cleared my throat and picked up on the line of thought. “While those making them often had no real appreciation for just how such minor changes would affect our total systems, you guys in upper management of I/T were apparently oblivious to any of it. For our part, the rest of the executive committee may not have realized it, but we were fat, dumb and happy so long as our quarterly profit objectives were being met . . . and our bonuses kept coming.”

Nodding agreement, Dan added, “That’s about the way it was during the heavy expansions as Weixx-Corp went on its unrelenting growth spurt through mergers and acquisitions. At a minimum, we had to link each new organization into our financial reporting systems so that consolidated statements could be produced as soon after joining the fold as possible. As the scope of our operations expanded, our organization charts seemed to grow without limits. Then along came a new concept that promised to deliver us from such excesses. It was supposed to give us greater freedom to utilize the talents of a smaller number of individuals across departments and units within the overall organization. Thus, Matrix Management was born!”

“Yeah, I know only too well,” John said. “Theory at work again, and because it could show initial reductions in payroll, the CFOs looked like heroes to the emerging breed of bottom-line-at-any-cost CEOs. Swayed in turn, boards of directors went right along with the program in their zeal to dramatically increase stock prices by improving price/earnings ratios! Certainly, our top folks were not immune!”

“But if it’s okay with you, Dan, let’s save that topic for later. Now, though I started out thinking I’d focus on I/T because the new budget requests had triggered our getting together in the first place, it’s becoming clear to me how much more pervasive my investigations need to be. The basic elements overlap each other such that it’s necessary to consider the impacts of our matrix management philosophy on the overall organization structure. The way we go to market is definitely affected, so that sales and marketing need special attention. Product development is necessarily involved. Our financial measurement system comes into play. After all, hasn’t our industrial world progressively improved the processes and tools used to expand manufacturing output? Great emphasis is placed on streamlining the distribution of goods and information, controlling finance, educating and caring for people, and generally improving the operations of business and government organizations. From all these thoughts, it stands to reason our demands on I/T are multidimensional and evolving, and that to fully appreciate what we expect you guys to do requires us to continuously keep our business plans fully developed and up to date. I’ve learned that we must we seek to understand as much as possible about the capabilities and the limitations of information technologies.”

Dan responded quickly, “Yes to all those things. Keeping I/T systems in sync with the evolving needs of the business also requires that we understand how the various functions of the enterprise work. Then we can help translate your information needs into well-developed, easy to use processes that assist everyone in meeting the demands of their jobs.”

Seeking to direct us to a next step, I said, “So, since we both understand what’s basically needed, how about putting a fresh set of eyes on my challenges?” Not giving him time to voice an objection, I drove forward. “I know, you don’t want to get back into the company, and that’s understandable. But, it’s also obvious you haven’t lost your appetite for solving complex problems that involve hi-tech!”

Dan agreed to at least think some more about what we’d been discussing and drop by my office for coffee the following week.

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