Tag Archives: operations

Warning: Innovation isn’t Comfortable

Nearly every organization I have worked with, either as an employee or as some form of consultant, wants to be known as “innovative.”  Organizations want to produce innovative products or services, or they want to be on the leading edge of <insert area here>, or they want to be innovative places to work such that they draw the greatest talent to their doors.

So nearly every organization wants to be innovative, but truly, very few ever achieve innovation.  Why is that?  Why is it so difficult for an organization, of any size, to be “innovative?”  After years of working with and for several organizations, I finally have seen the recurring patterns that thwart innovation.  I believe I finally have found the answer.  Are you ready?

Innovation isn’t comfortable.  Innovation doesn’t follow the process.  Innovation is chaotic.

That’s it.  No need to read further.  Okay, for those of you with time on your hands, a bit more explanation, by way of example.

When it’s time to hire in new senior level employees, organizations are often inclined to hire “outside-of-the-box” thinkers.  These individuals are energetic, hard-working, and have an internal passion for the business, whatever it is, that no typical worker can understand.  They tend to come into an organization with a bombastic flair and go forth breaking all the rules.

For the first few years, the typical workers who manage the processes tend to “chuck it up” to the short tenure of the innovative-driven hires.  These innovators simply don’t know the processes.  Why in no time at all, think the process workers, the innovators will conform and fill out the paperwork and wait in line just like the others.

As the process workers tire of the unprocessed innovators, the apple cart upsets.  The process workers refuse to move forward unless the process is followed strictly.  The innovators refused to move backward to processes that worked well for the last generation of customers, but that won’t work for the next generation of customers who too, are beginning to tire of the old product or service and looking for whatever is new and exciting.  Internally, the process-driven are at odds with the innovation-driven, and someone must win.

Along comes executive management.  What do they do?  The most common reaction I have witnessed is that executive management continues to shout “innovation” while holding tightly to the reigns of process.  What follows are closed-door meetings and sensitivity training and team-building exercises.  And in my experience, it never works.  The end result typically finds the highly-mobile innovator moving on to the next organization where the executive management there is also courting innovation (and the scenario often repeats itself).  In addition, the departing innovator leaves behind legions of supporters who got excited and stuck out their necks in the name of innovation wondering what the repercussions will be.  Will the process workers punish the innovator-supporters?  Or will the process workers simply relish their victory and go back to dotting their “i’s” and crossing their “t’s” leaving the innovation-supporters to grieve the loss of their innovator?  And how will executive management react?  Will they again seek an innovator or will they find it more comfortable to put their heads down and just follow process?

The morale of this story?  Executive management – it is up to you to turn the dream of innovation into a reality.  You’re either for it or against it.  In this case, there is no middle-ground.  If you truly desire to be an innovative organization, beware.  Innovation is uncomfortable, and by definition, it upsets current processes.  In fact, sometimes, innovation turns processes upside-down.  It creates chaos and if your organization is not set up to be comfortable supporting and managing chaos from the top down, innovation may not be your thing.

Not every organization needs to be an innovator.  Arguably, most are not, yet non-innovative companies can still be profitable by exercising whatever the competitive advantage is that they maintain.  Non-innovative companies can still be good places to work.  It’s exciting to be an innovative organization, no doubt.  They get all the press in the trade rags and their employees are often on the conference speaker dockets held in exotic places.  But it’s more comfortable adopting innovation slowly and tweaking processes.   So what’s it going to be –  comfort or chaos?  Pick one.

Customers Don’t Care about your Processes

A few years ago, I opened my credit card statement to find a huge late fee and interest charges.  Being neurotic about avoiding such fees, I tend to take care of my payment expeditiously after it is received.  Immediately, I called to check whether the check had been cashed, and indeed, the automated banking system indicated it had cleared some time ago.

I then called customer service at the credit card company.  After making me listen to content I had no interest in hearing (my balance, my next payment due, my cash forward balance, and a few other things I never use), I was put in the queue to speak with a representative.  After a short hold, a live voice came on and asked for the card number, holder name, and a few security questions.

Having made it through the security process, the representative politely asked me how she could help.  I described the problem and reported that my check had cleared, etc., etc.  I heard some typing and she reported back that her records showed the check had cleared their system the day after it was due and therefore, that these charges were legitimate.

I informed her of the date the payment was placed in the mail which from my recall was one to two days after I received the bill.  I heard more typing, and indeed, she was able to find another date indicating when the envelope arrived to their processing center.  I of course informed her that the arrival date was well before the posting date and the due date.  She then went into the description of the process of receipt, posting, and clearing in their process.  It takes two days for this, and two-three days for that, and you should allow seven to ten days for the mail, and another two-three days for this.  I politely informed her that the number of days she just articulated would indicate that I need to mail in the payment before I receive the bill.  She then informed me that in addition, there was a hiccup in the processing system during this cycle as there was a note in her records.

After hearing this, I suspected that she would immediately take the charges off my bill.  But the offer did not come.

I informed her that the only part of the process I can control is my ability to receive the bill and promptly put it into the mail.  As for the rest of the process and any internal delays, I have no control and cannot be expected to be held responsible for it.  In short, “I don’t care about your process.”  And, I need you to take the late charges and the interest charges off this bill and any interest charges you might be thinking about charging me in the next cycle.

She warned me that I get only one “grace” removal of charges per year and if I used it now, I could not request another for a year.  My urge was to inform her that if this happened again, I’d be removing my business entirely.  It wouldn’t be hard as I just need to open one of the three credit card offers I receive in the mail each day.  However, I refrained, knowing that she was simply following the script in front of her, and the script did not allow for the insertion of common sense or problems with the processing system.

Now this isn’t an uncommon problem in business, with either external or internal customers.  Having been in a few organizations, there isn’t one where I have not experienced a failed process that has impacted my ability to get my job done.  And in each organization, I receive the narrative about the functioning of the process, how it is supposed to work, the forms I need to fill out (often with some indication that I’ve filled out an outdated form and I need to fill out the new form to really make the process hum), and of course, I’m informed of the value of the process to me.

And though I deliver the message, most times, with some tact, the message is still the same: “I don’t care about your process.”  What I care about it is that my expectation was not met.  The promise you made to me as an internal/external customer was broken.  The deliverable has not reached my desk, is not working or it is causing me extra, unplanned work.  It is compromising a deadline for the clients I serve or is further stretching my resources.  I don’t care about the forms or the fact that a box wasn’t checked because the software didn’t recognize my click on the box and the individual decided not to contact me to ask about the box, but rather to let the project sit until I checked in to see why I saw no progress or wasn’t receiving my deliverable (again, no insertion of common sense).  I don’t care that now there is a new form or about the hours of committee meetings it took to develop the new form or about the position of the form in the newly revised process flow chart that took still more hours of committee meetings to rearrange.  I don’t care.  I don’t care.  I don’t care.

Customers care about the product or service they are receiving.  How it goes through your system and the quality of your system, not so much.  They care about quality of the end-product or service and the deadlines explicitly or implicitly implied.  They want their expectations managed, and if you fail to do so, customers will defect.  External customers will find different suppliers; internal customers will outsource.  And they should.

So the next time you are putting together or refining processes, I recommend two “reminders” during your development phase.  First, articulate what the customer expectation is and write that as your “purpose.”  Is the purpose of the process to efficiently process a payment, develop a technology, receive an order and ship a product, receive a repair request and get a technician onsite?  Secondly, articulate what the cost of failure of the process is to the customer.  Is it unfounded exorbitant charges, late delivery of a gift, no power or phone service, loss of a sale, or loss of a customer?

And as you develop or refine that process, refer back to the purpose and the customer cost repeatedly.  Further, constantly remind yourself that the customer, external or internal, doesn’t care about your process or your forms, the customer cares about the purpose and the cost.  Don’t let the process be your purpose; make the process serve the purpose.

I can almost guarantee that when your focus is the purpose for the customer and the cost to the customer when failure occurs, the process you design will be efficiency-focused (fewer layers and fewer forms), and in addition, it will also include the opportunity to insert common sense.  Now that’s what I’m carin’ about.