9 types of dysfunctional business processes, and how to find them so you can fix them

The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little cog in a complex machine. – Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal
Processes involving knowledge workers are fluid and adaptable. The people involved interact in a world of fuzzy decisions, work in the gray area of abstract concepts, and tend to be highly unpredictable, often changing things and tinkering with the process rules.

dysfunctional-business-process.png A typical dysfunctional business process

This leads to a wide array of dysfunctional business processes:

1. Disjointed processes

Each department has its own business process, which doesn’t integrate with those of other departments.

2. Untamed processes

A haphazard approach results in processes that lack structure and, over time, become laden and bloated with non-value-added activity. Weak “solutions” are slapped on like Band-Aids – which only makes the untamed processes more inefficient.

3. Dumb processes

Dumb processes are processes without rules, analytics or a learning capability; or with rules that constrain participants from improving or forcing a customer down a path they don’t want to go.

4. Dark processes

Dark processes take place in the shadows with no visibility to management.

5. Implied processes

Processes are implied in a flat, monolithic, static, inert application, making them difficult to understand and improve.

6. Fragile processes

When a process is used to make an organization’s work uniform and done in exactly the same way, then the workers in that organization lose the ability to respond to unanticipated events. The organization becomes fragile and liable to break when external pressures change.

7. Rigid processes

Rigid processes surface where statements like “we can’t do it that way” and “it would be too hard to change our process to allow for that” are commonplace.

DILBERT © 1994 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.
8. Cemented processes
Static processes automated by traditional BPM are often hard to change, and therefore remain static, causing opportunities to go to waste. In addition, organizations have customized applications where processes are implemented through hard coding.

cemented-processes.pngNew ideas don’t get implemented because of the time and cost to make them, especially when windows of opportunity close increasingly quickly.

9. Complex processes
Complexity has become the silent killer of profitable growth in business. – Chris Zook, Desperately Seeking Simplicity, Harvard Business Review
Often, antiquated enterprise systems impose complicated processes on employees. BPM systems have morphed from simple process automation and management into a much broader, infrastructure-type commitment that is often too complex, requiring significant IT resources and long lead times.

Symptoms of dysfunctional business processes

It’s usually pretty obvious when you have a dysfunctional process. It may manifest itself as unhappy customers, poor throughput, constant firefighting, demotivated employees.

But processes don’t become dysfunctional overnight. Processes that were well defined to start with gradually deteriorate over time, or started off poorly then became even worse.

The key thing is to recognize dysfunctional processes before they kill your organization. Here are some things to look for (also see The Process Consultant).

1. Email overload

Organizations usually have some kind of software application that runs a business – like trucking software for a trucking company.  The business processes implemented by the software are typically hard coded, with little room for customization. This may be fine when you start using the software, but over time, your business changes. It is usually not a simple matter to adjust the processes built into the software to match your changing requirements. So work starts to take place outside the software. That is when we turn to email. For many organizations, email is the default workflow application.

This is a serious problem, because typically, the 20% of the work that can’t be pushed through the software generates 80% of the workload. The 20% exceptions are a direct result of poor processes. If we fix the process, we can reduce the workload. And that will show up as less email.

2. Spreadsheet Mania

Dysfunctional processes cause dysfunctional behavior on the part of employees.

When employees sense a lack of control, they want to bring order to the chaos, and they typically do this by tracking their work on a spreadsheet. If your people are using a lot of spreadsheets, you know that their processes are out of control.

3. Process Documentation

Formalizing processes using paper is a recipe for wasted effort. Chances are, the paper bound processes are out of date before they even make it to their resting place in binders. They become a historical record of what the process used to be.

Processes change all the time. Process documentation committed to paper does not. Every time you make a change to a process, you have to update multiple copies of the documentation.  It’s a huge effort, so it almost never happens.

Processes have a habit of evolving in silent and invisible ways. If you let them change in an uncontrolled and undisciplined way because there is no easy way to keep them updated, the result will be highly dysfunctional processes.

4. Process Variation

When different people use different processes to achieve the same task, it’s a good sign of process dysfunction. Usually, this means that there is no agreed common process, or there is no training or up to date documentation to tell them what to do. So they do their best.  Left to themselves they will come up with something different from each other.

But even if the same endpoint is reached, the problem surfaces when it leads to different outcomes or expectations.

Ian James, in his blog The Process Consultant, puts it this way:

Suppose I am in a process sequence. I receive work from two people. Each performs the same part of the process differently.  As a result, they deliver different things to me. When I receive my work from one person I do one thing. When I receive it from the other guy, I have to do something different. That requires certain agility on my part. How do you train a new hire when there is this kind of variation?  The novice is looking for certainty, not latitude.  Ambiguity leads to greater risk in the final result.
dysfunctional-mail-comic.png Ian James highlights some other symptoms of process dysfunction:
information_starvation.png The worker does not have the information they need to make decisions and to get their work done. This results not only in time wasting on the part of the worker, but also interrupts and wastes the time of others in the organization as the worker attempts to get the information they need.
air-gaps.png There are gaps in the flow of work from one step to the next, resulting in information having to be manually duplicated from one system to another. The potential for errors is often high, resulting in inconsistent information between steps.
work-duplication.png Lack of visibility into the entire process increases the possibility of duplicate work being done. For example, information may be validated twice, because the user responsible for step X does not know that this has already been done at step Y.
expert-overload.png Not documenting information in the context of the process results in expert overload, as the expert is forced to answer the same questions over and over. Also, not having an easy way to communicate with the expert, or find other experts on the subject, wastes time unnecessarily.  
incomplete-hand-offs.png The worker in the previous step does not provide the worker in the current step with all the information they need, resulting in a back-and-forth between the workers until the necessary information has been extracted. This is often due to the lack of a checklist or rules that determine when a step is truly complete.

What can you do if you recognize some of these signs in your own organization?

Xpeditor can help. Contact us to find out more.

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