Wednesday, November 08, 2006

An Important Idea

When designing (or re-designing) processes, you might find that individuals often insist that their way of performing a set of tasks is the best way. Having systematized their workflow over the course of months or years, you’ll uncover all kinds of process innovations that personalize the workflow to accommodate individual preferences. This is perhaps the biggest single impediment to process improvement initiatives: the idea that an individual’s performance of certain activities related to a process, no matter how evolved, documented or automated, most effectively contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of the process as a whole. Likewise, the “perfection” of individual processes within an organization does not guarantee the organization as a whole is operating perfectly. Said another way, a set of local optima do not produce a global optimum.

This idea is terribly counterintuitive to the average process participant. Having meticulously tended to the tasks with which they are daily charged, how can an apparent step backwards in the conduct of their workflow contribute positively to the betterment of the organization?

The seemingly intractable integration issues that plague enterprise system deployments are firmly rooted in precisely this notion. Autonomous work units yield incompatible methods and inconsistent data structures that simply do not mesh. Bringing them together is plausible, but only with substantial effort that is made only more distasteful by the compromises (i.e., changes to an individual’s “best” known way of doing things) required to fulfill the larger objectives of the organization.

Real leadership is called for to overcome this quagmire. Only a strong vision, widely communicated and reinforced with the appropriate acknowledgments (e.g., aligned compensation) will bring staff together to work in lock-step, purposefully marching toward the fulfillment of objectives larger than their individual interests.

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