In 2017, a video of law enforcement forcibly evicting a passenger from a United Airlines flight went viral.
Eyewitnesses claimed that the airline was offering people onboard $800 to deplane the overbooked flight so that it could reposition crew for another flight. But when it couldn’t find volunteers, it used force to deplane several passengers (a claim which the airline didn’t dispute).
Instead, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, wrote in a letter to his entire staff that the employees “followed established procedures for dealing with situations.”
In other words, the company justified causing customers severe trouble by claiming that they stuck to the process.
This is the mindset Jeff Bezos warned against in his 2016 letter to Amazon’s shareholders.
“Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right.”
Every company succumbs to this challenge as it grows. The process becomes the driving force behind how the company functions and ironically, makes people lose sight of the goal for which it was designed.
You can see this everywhere.
Content gets churned out without gauging whether the audience engages with it. Reports get generated without reviewing whether executives find them useful (or even read them). Companies collect customer feedback just to archive it in digital attics. Meetings end with action plans being to have follow-up meetings.
An effective process almost always contributes to some kind of improvements like enhanced efficiency, increased employee accountability and improved customer satisfaction.
A poor process, on the other hand, leads to poor outcomes. Customer issues remain unresolved, innovative ideas get dismissed. And once in a while, employees do things that lead to a crisis. Yet, managers justify them by saying, “We followed the process” or “this is not part of the process.”
Bruce Dixon is right. “Process” becomes the sort of language and double-speak that clumsy bureaucracies thrive on.
What follows for companies, in Bezos’ words, is “stasis, followed by irrelevance. Followed by an excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.”
Any process that doesn’t achieve its goals, that cannot be tweaked, and that doesn’t feel intuitively right, is toxic. And the results are equally toxic… slow to emerge, but toxic nonetheless.
How Good Are Your Processes?
“It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?” — Jeff Bezos
It’s easy to put your head down and follow something because the process says so. It’s harder to raise your head and question the reasoning behind it.
Processes cannot (and should not) be carved in stone. Nor should they drive how your organization functions.
Your customers’ and employees’ expectations are evolving, the tools you use are evolving, your products and services are (hopefully) evolving.
The world is evolving. Your processes should evolve with it.
How can you identify whether your process works or not? In their book Rework, Jason Fried and DHH share a template of eight questions you can ask yourself and your people when you review a process.
1. Why are we doing this?
Ask yourself why you’re working on _____. Whom does it benefit? What’s the motivation behind it?
Getting answers to these questions will help you understand the work better.
2. What problem are we solving?
What is the problem? Is it real or imaginary? Is it a burning concern of your customers or something that you think is their burning concern?
Answers to these questions will make you pause and reevaluate what you’re doing.
3. Is this actually useful?
Is this process as useful today as it was in the past? Are you doing something useful or just doing it?
Sometimes it’s good to have some fun. But after one point, you must ask yourself whether it’s useful today, or it’s just something cool to do.
Cool and everything else wears off. (Ask Adam Neumann.) Only what’s useful stands the test of time.
4. Are we adding value?
How does your process add value to your customers or other departments? Can they get something more than they did before?
Pause and consider whether others’ idea of value is the same as yours and whether adding value demands you to actually be doing less rather than more.
5. Will this change behavior?
Will the outcome of your process make anything better? If the answer is no, it’s no use sticking to the process.
6. Is there a simpler way?
Many problems have simple solutions, but people overlook them because of our love for complexity. In the process, they make things tougher for everyone.
Simpler solutions can often help you achieve the same goals with less effort.
7. What could we be doing instead?
What does the current process stop you from doing? Is the thing you’re not doing more important or crucial?
Answers to these questions will help you decide whether you should continue with something, delegate it, or dump it.
This is especially important for teams with limited resources. The longer you stay stuck on something, the more you get pulled away from other things.
8. Is it really worth it?
Is it really worth doing something simply because competitors are doing it? Is it really worth adding more features if they don’t make life easier for customers?
Everything you do comes at a price. Make sure it’s worth it.
United Airlines appears to have learned its lessons. It drew praise for beautifully handling a delicate situation with a boy on the autism spectrum.
Will you wait for a crisis to learn your lessons?
Don’t stick to a process simply because you put a lot of effort behind it or have followed it for a long time. Don’t stay stuck to the way things worked in the 90s. This is 2020. What worked yesterday might not work today, and will certainly not work tomorrow.
An astute leader uses every opportunity — a review, a mistake, a failure — to investigate processes and improve them. To enjoy the fruits of the 21st century, you must work like the 21st-century demands.