Richard Dawkins champions intelligent design (for business processes)

Richard Dawkins has recently had a couple of bad customer experiences. In each he was confronted with a system that seemed to him indifferent to his customer feedback. I sympathise with him on one matter but not the other. The two incidents do, in my mind, elucidate some important features of process discipline.

In the first, Dawkins spent a frustrating spell ordering a statement from his bank over the internet. He wanted to tell the bank about his experience and offer some suggestions for improvement, but he couldn’t find any means of channelling and communicating his feedback.

Embedding a business process in software will impose a rigid discipline on its operation. However, process discipline is not the same thing as process petrification. The design assumptions of any process include, or should include, the predicted range and variety of situations that the process is anticipated to encounter. We know that the bounded rationality of the designers will blind them to some of the situations that the process will subsequently confront in real world operation. There is no shame in that but the necessary adjunct is that, while the process is operated diligently as designed, data is accumulated on its performance and, in particular, on the customer’s experience. Once an economically opportune moment arrives (I have glossed over quote a bit there) the data can be reviewed, design assumptions challenged and redesign evaluated. Following redesign the process then embarks on another period of boring operation. The “boring” bit is essential to success. Perhaps I should say “mindful” rather than “boring” though I fear that does not really work with software.

Dawkins’ bank have missed an opportunity to listen to the voice of the customer. That weakens their competitive position. Ignorance cannot promote competitiveness. Any organisation that is not continually improving every process for planning, production and service (pace W Edwards Deming) faces the inevitable fact that its competitors will ultimately make such products and services obsolete. As Dawkins himself would appreciate, survival is not compulsory.

Dawkins’ second complaint was that security guards at a UK airport would not allow him to take a small jar of honey onto his flight because of a prohibition on liquids in the passenger cabin. Dawkins felt that the security guard should have displayed “common sense” and allowed it on board contrary to the black letter of the regulations. Dawkins protests against “rule-happy officials” and “bureaucratically imposed vexation”. Dawkins displays another failure of trust in bureaucracy. He simply would not believe that other people had studied the matter and come to a settled conclusion to protect his safety. It can hardly have been for the airport’s convenience. Dawkins was more persuaded by something he had read on the internet. He fell into the trap of thinking that What you see is all there is. I fear that Dawkins betrays his affinities with the cyclist on the railway crossing.

When we give somebody a process to operate we legitimately expect them to do so diligently and with self discipline. The risk of an operator departing from, adjusting or amending a process on the basis of novel local information is that, within the scope of the resources they have for taking that decision, there is no way of reliably incorporating the totality of assumptions and data on which the process design was predicated. Even were all the data available, when Dawkins talks of “common sense” he was demanding what Daniel Kahneman called System 2 thinking. Whenever we demand System 2 thinking ex tempore we are more likely to get System 1 and it is unlikely to perform effectively. The rationality of an individual operator in that moment is almost certainly more tightly bounded than that of the process designers.

In this particular case, any susceptibility of a security guard to depart from process would be exactly the behaviour that a terrorist might seek to exploit once aware of it.

Further, departures from process will have effects on the organisational system, upstream, downstream and collateral. Those related processes themselves rely on the operator’s predictable compliance. The consequence of ill discipline can be far reaching and unanticipated.

That is not to say that the security process was beyond improvement. In an effective process-oriented organisation, operating the process would be only one part of the security guard’s job. Part of the bargain for agreeing to the boring/ mindful diligent operation of the process is that part of work time is spent improving the process. That is something done offline, with colleagues, with the input of other parts of the organisation and with recognition of all the data including the voice of the customer.

Had he exercised the “common sense” Dawkins demanded, the security guard would have risked disciplinary action by his employers for serious misconduct. To some people, threats of sanctions appear at odds with engendering trust in an organisation’s process design and decision making. However, when we tell operators that something is important then fail to sanction others who ignore the process, we undermine the basis of the bond of trust with those that accepted our word and complied. Trust in the bureaucracy and sanctions for non-compliance are complementary elements of fostering process discipline. Both are essential.

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