Designing Processes That Work

When you start designing a process, what do you aim for?

You might think the answer is obvious, but it’s not. A process can try to be the most efficient at what it’s doing (speed/time/cost), or robust enough to handle exceptions with grace (think: moments of truth), or just be a “process” – a set of rules, where none existed before.

The tradeoffs we choose, matter…

A text message might be the best solution for one situation because it’s instant, easily digestible, cheap and convenient.

However, a hand-written thank-you note on high-quality paper, FedEx’ed overnight from the other side of the world is way more effective than an email because of the discretionary effort and expense involved.

… But most improvements are neither efficient enough to be noticeably more effortless than alternatives, nor inefficient in a way that conveys discretionary effort, thoughtfulness or attention to detail.

Matt Watkinson, LinkedIn

I’ve seen many organizations put words like ‘Customer First’ in their Vision and Values posters. Some even commit resources to the CX function, by staffing up a team dedicated to improving Customer Experience, and then asking them to lead a bunch of initiatives. But, when it comes down to it, most enterprises lack a clear understanding of what it means to do right by the customer.

And, unless that clarity informs the design of the processes inside, chances are the people that work there will only be able to do so much.

It’s not just CX – every function can benefit from doing this right. Here’s how you should ideally approach it…

Step 1 – Articulate clearly what you are trying to maximize for
Step 2 – Define when and how to deploy exception handling
Step 3 – Design your processes to accommodate both the above
Step 4 – Communicate this design to the people entrusted with delivery

Without it, a process is just another process.

With it, you get a powerful engine that helps you get closer to your goals.

The Say-Do Gap

Life is filled with examples of the Say-Do gap. And, work life is no different.

Take the case of wanting to improve on existing standards. Most organizations – and senior executives – would ‘say’ that they would like to see an improvement in the status quo. Some would even argue that significant improvement is the only way to beat the competition – after all, change is the only constant. However, most avenues of feedback and improvement are often ignored by well-meaning folks.

No, I am not talking about Customer Satisfaction surveys or NPS numbers here. There is only so much that a ‘formal’ system of feedback from a select set of customers can tell us about how, where and when we need to improve our products and processes.

Let me take a few examples that may seem strange to entertain at first…

  1. Subtraction

    Take any business conference you’ve attended in the past few years. Most will hand you a docket at the registration desk that is filled with sponsored content, marketing collateral and white papers on topics of industry relevance. Each item is carefully crafted by Sales and Marketing folks who do this for a living. Yet, at the end of the conference, the tables will be littered with leaflets and brochures that were left behind by the attendees – material that was not relevant enough for them to carry all day, or take back with them.

    Imagine how insightful this information really is – your target audience telling you by the end of the day what doesn’t really work for them! But almost every conference organizer (or client) ignores it.

  2. Addition

    Take the case of the auto accessories industry. We buy cars, and then we buy accessories that fill the gaps that the new vehicle didn’t already address. Nowhere is it more apparent than in India which is famous for its jugaad approach.

    The accessories industry fills these voids on many different levels, from basic elements like floor lamination (hygiene in monsoon-affected markets) and leather-like seat covers to luxury elements like parking cameras and Android Auto enabled touchscreen infotainment systems. In each of these examples, either the equivalent does not exist with the original dealer, or is only offered as a bundle when you buy the next variant, or is available at a price point that is unacceptable to the customer.

    Each element is an example of what the customer really wants – and is willing to pay for it, if the price is right. But, almost every auto manufacturer (or dealer) ignores it.

What is ironic is that, in both these examples, the enterprise in question spends a considerable amount of resources in collecting ‘Customer Feedback’ through formal systems that hardly ever yield such insights.

As I said before, Life is filled with examples of the Say-Do gap. If you really want to do something about improvement, there is plenty of opportunity all around us… All we need is to open our eyes and minds.

Balance is the Key

Matt Watkinson seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest on LinkedIn recently when he posted…

“No business should be customer-centric.”

He did attempt to clarify his position with a more detailed explanation, but it seemed to have struck a raw nerve in many that probably spent a good part of their lives in the pursuit of Customer Centricity.

Here’s what Matt meant (in his own words)…

The term implies that the customer is at the center — the focal point of decision-making — and by virtue of that fact, other things are orbital or of lesser importance. 

Imagine an F1 team saying they are engine-centric, tyre-centric, driver-centric, or aerodynamics-centric. They’d never win because the real challenge is combining these elements into a single package. Great engine and bad tyres? Back of the grid for you.

I couldn’t agree more.

Sure, there are many who would argue that Matt’s post is clickbaity or that he is being semantic. After all, every organisation prioritises different aspects at different points in time. But, I’ve also seen many organisations just pay lip-service to being customer-centric (or -focused, or -obsessed) without really tackling the problem at the grassroots level. So, maybe, we do need to examine the semantics a bit more closely.

By and large, if you were building products or services in isolation (of customer needs), it would do you a whole lot of good if you focused on your customer, and not on the highest paid person’s opinions (inside your organisation!).

That said, CX (or Customer Centricity) is a tool at your disposal – to be used appropriately, and in relevant situations. It can address specific problems, but is not a cure-all.

There are many, many moving parts to running (and scaling up) a successful enterprise. Employees, Products, Revenues, Costs, Profits – all need to work in harmony to make music. I would submit that a good business leader’s role is to conduct the orchestra in such a way that the result is a great business (not cacophony).

As with most things in Life, balance is the key.