Before I even knew what a “business process improvement project” was, I was assigned my first business process improvement project.
In the early 90’s, our corporate office had firmly jumped on the “Total Quality Management” bandwagon, dutifully sourcing the planning and implementation to a largely clueless field. Like so many great corporate programs, our implementation of “TQ” was a clever and expensive way to crush the spirit of many, while simultaneously giving executives the appearance of doing something, even if it was just hanging up posters and handing out wallet cards. (Which, full disclosure, I still have, 24 years later.)
I saw this as an opportunity to leverage my business school education and get out of the hourly recession-reaction job I was in, and found myself reporting to the “TQ Lead” as a “Quality Analyst”.
I was still a manager in short pants, so I was excited when my Managing Director approached me (through his secretary Leslie, natch) to “discuss our TQ program”. What junior man wouldn’t be excited? He had a bar in his office, and always had fresh, gourmet coffee on a cart – with clean china. (Not the by-the-five-gallon swill served in the cafeteria). I wasn’t a fan of our company’s signature blend, but it would still be nice to sit at the conference table – or maybe the leather couch – in his office and discuss all the ways to make our property better.
As the only person in the building who understood Excel’s new version 4.0, I was still working on some of the statistics behind his (ill-conceived) employee “motivation” program. Perhaps he would want to enjoy a cocktail – we were running huge promotions on single-malt scotch at the time – and discuss how to overcome the program’s limitations and salvage morale.
As I walked in, he was already sitting on the couch with stacks of reports spread out – so clearly we were not going to kick back and banter about the smokiness of the peat.
He looked up at me and said, “There’s a book called The Goal.”
I told him I had read it.
“Oh, good! Then you know where to get a copy for me! Thanks so much, Roger!”
(Oh how much happier I would be if the next sentence was, “And that’s how I came up with the idea for Amazon.” But, well, no.)
Turns out, the easiest way to get assigned projects; complain about something, and be told to “fix it”. (Coincidentally, telling someone else to “fix it” is the same way executives can safely show progress on “important initiatives” without doing anything, and also the same way they can shut subordinates up.)
Another easy way to get assigned projects is to let the personal intrude on the professional.
In one three-week period, I celebrated my fiancé’s birthday, married her, and then celebrated Christmas. I was broke and completely spent on present ideas. And what’s just around the corner? Valentine’s Day. I had just been promoted and had not shopped, and, honestly, if I had romantic gift ideasI would have dropped them on her during the December trifecta.
These were the very, very early days of the internet – only those lucky of us to have received a disk from “America Online” or “CompuServe” had ready access. (Well, and professors and scientists and geeks of all stripes.) Nevertheless, I found a jeweler in New York that had beautiful diamond-encrusted hearts… And I thought, well, that would be lovely. So I called them up, ordered one (or perhaps I sent a Fax from work), and waited.
Either to surprise my bride, or because now I was a manager and felt I had the right to do such things, I had the package shipped to work. It did not arrive. I checked in the Executive Office (to which I was officially assigned), and nothing had been received there. I checked in Human Resources (where my direct superior, oddly enough, was assigned), and nothing there, either. I checked with the Front Desk – perhaps someone thought I was an arriving guest and took it up there, but nope.
I called the jeweler around February 10th and they assured me that the order had been filled. They told me they would do some research and call me back. A few hours later, they called with the UPS tracking number – their accounting department kept a copy of every slip when goods shipped. So I was able to call UPS, and after some doing, they were able to use that tracking number to see that the goods had indeed been shipped, received, and signed for by someone named “Cassie.”
(Oh, how much happier I would be if the next sentence was, “And that’s how I came up with the idea for ‘tracking things on the Internet.’” But, alas, no.)
As with many large buildings, our deliveries went to the Loading Dock. And, in fact, the woman who sat in the Receiving “office” was indeed named “Cassie”. (Throughout this story, the names have been changed to protect the guilty and the stupid).
I went to Cassie and explained the situation, and she immediately told me in no uncertain terms that I was wrong. The package never arrived.
Hundreds of boxes of all shapes and sizes – from display cases cartons of steaks to pallets of wine to FedEx envelopes – go through Cassie’s office every day, and she knew right off the bat that my small box of jewelry never arrived?
“That’s what I’m saying.”
She showed me her Receiving Log – which did not have my package listed. This proved, she said, that it had not been delivered.
Is it possible, I asked, that it could have arrived and not be on the logsheet?
But UPS says they delivered it.
“They must be telling you a story to get you off the phone.”
So the fact that you didn’t write something down is proof positive that three other people – the shipper, the UPS office, and the UPS driver – have all independently created and agree with an entirely different account?
“It must have been delivered somewhere else by accident,” she said. Well, I have read a detective story or two (actually, I read at least two dozen in my college “The Literature of the Hard-Boiled Detective” seminar, but that’s beside the point), so I knew I had her.
Well then, Cassie, if it was delivered somewhere else, how did UPS have your name as the one who signed for it?
“Maybe there’s another Cassie at the other place.” Sure, just like there’s always a guy named John on the front door, and an assistant manager somewhere named Don, everyone who works loading docks is named “Cassie”.
I knew that Leslie was friendly with Cassie – at least, I knew they smoked and gossiped together – so I approached her for the favor of asking, subtly, under-the-table-like, where my goddamned necklace was.
“Oh honey, you know she’s a crook,” she told me. Well, I knew that the loading dock and purchasing staff parked for free on the dock, but I thought that was the extent of their treachery. (Actually, the free parking was gravy – I learned that they parked on the dock because it made it easy for errant cartons of steaks and cases of wine to get loaded into their trunks). “But I’ll talk to her.”
Nothing. Cassie was sticking to her story.
So, the day before Valentine’s Day, in a near-panic, I did the only thing left – I went to the boss. By now, the managing director had been fired for gross incompetence (I honestly don’t think he ever got around to reading The Goal), and his number two was sitting in – a guy named Don. (Seriously, just about every other damn person is named either “Don” or “Steve”.)
I didn’t tell Don that Cassie stole my wife’s Valentine’s present – that would just be embarrassing. After all, who buys gifts over their computer modem on an “internet” and has them shipped UPS? What kind of person doesn’t go directly to a jewelry store and by something nice in person? (I swear to God, why I didn’t create Amazon right then and there I will never know.)
I just said, I think we have a problem with our Receiving – that things come in and don’t necessarily get on the logs. In fact, it might be a good idea if you, Don, went down and took a look-
“That’s a great idea, Binney.”
Wait – what is a great idea?
“You should take that on as a Quality Improvement project. ‘Fix the Receiving Process’ – you have two weeks.”
Not knowing how to actually “fix” a process, I figured the first thing to do was to understand what they actually did now. My presumption was I would see all their mistakes and downright asinine procedures, and go from there. (I later learned that these were called “disconnects” and “opportunities for improvement”.)
There were three people who worked the Process – Cassie, some guy whose face I can see but whose name I can’t remember (let’s call him Steve), and a bald guy who always wore a lab coat (or maybe it was a butcher’s coat) named Lawrence.
I interviewed “Steve” first, as he was the guy who unloaded the trucks. I asked him if I could have a copy of the process he was going to show me, so it would be easier for me to remember later.
“Nah, it’s not really one of those written-down processes,” he said.
He described the process for reconciling food deliveries with the manifest on the truck, before getting carted to the appropriate kitchen’s freezer; the process for quarantining deliveries that were clearly marked for convention and display space into specific, pre-assigned areas; the process for separating general deliveries based on office/guest/unknown; most importantly, he told me, the process was that no one was allowed on trucks, or to take anything off of the dock, without his personally logging the package and them personally signing for the parcel.
During our conversation, I watched our concierge Peter stroll across the loading dock and take a package directly from Airborne Express (“The guest is waiting for it”), and a staging company unload rigging for an upcoming conference, stack it on bellman’s carts, and wheel it down International Boulevard to the Omni Hotel.
I asked “Steve” about that. “Oh, yeah, sometimes that happens.”
So your process is, everything gets logged by you?
And the process is, nothing leaves without your logging it and them signing a receipt?
Except when that happens.
So you say you have a process. But you don’t actually follow the process.
“Sure I do.”
Next, to my joy, I got to meet with Cassie as she told me the process of logging every package – both for staff and guests. Except for the ones Peter just took. “Oh he does that.”
Or my wife’s necklace. “I told you that never came in.”
How do you know you get all the packages that come in? “The process is, delivery boys leave them in that corner.” Do you log them when they come off the truck?
“The process is, I usually get to it after lunch.” So they sit there all day, next to the smoking “lounge”, before you get to them? “Yes.” So could there be packages that don’t get logged? “No.”
What is the process for packages that come in after hours? “I don’t know.” Do you have a copy of this process written down, so Steve or Lawrence can do it when you’re not here? “I don’t need to write anything down, they know what to do!”
So you say you have a process. But you don’t always follow the process?
“Sure I do!”
Except when you don’t.
I don’t know that I ever interviewed Lawrence. My recollection is he did not have the power of speech, but it may have just been that he was dodging me.
As I got deeper into the actual “fixing” of the Receiving process, Lawrence found managing the loading dock to be less and less lucrative. The more cartons of steaks that got logged, the fewer there were for, how shall we say, “independent distribution”; a more precise handling policy greatly reduced the number of cases of wine that “fell” and had to be, um, disposed of. As we implemented tighter controls throughout the property, Lawrence was soon replaced by – no lie, another guy named Lawrence. He wore a suit.
The first business process I designed was certainly more bureaucratic than I liked – and it definitely was less efficient than “leaving a bunch of boxes on a dock and logging them when I can”, but it was certainly more effective. And, once the new Lawrence arrived, he immediately began implementing his own processes. Such is a consultant’s life.
Still, it led to the coining of Binney’s First Law:
If You Say You Have a Process,
And You Don’t Follow the Process,
You Don’t Have a Process.