Recently, I was lucky enough to stay in a wonderful old house in France. You could actually feel the history in the place and it provided a wonderful setting for a break. What intrigued me about the house though were the furnishings that the owners had chosen to add. Some were beautiful antiques (don’t throw that ball in here kids!), which added to the grandness of the property. However, what fascinated me was the shear number of them.French holiday home

How many chairs do you have in your home? How many works of art adorn your walls? How many mirrors do you need? We ended up playing a game with the kids to estimate and then count all three of these (we know how to live!). The answers for our French abode were a staggering 57 chairs, 104 works of art and 22 mirrors! There were 6 chairs in the hall alone (just in case you need to accommodate an impromptu gathering of cold callers, or welcome in carol singers?) and don’t even begin to think about how many tables and chairs there were in the garden! The outcome of this profligacy was a reduction in usable space. Each walk down the hallway became a worrisome challenge not to knock over an ornament, or bump into a chair. The question is, how many items of furniture do you need to add before you detract from the beauty of the building’s design?

So where does the inevitable link to systems thinking come in to this unusual tale? In a word, clutter. In the same way that introducing 6 chairs to a hallway is at least 5 too many, we introduce all manner of unnecessary clutter into our workflows. Very quickly, the clutter starts to detract from the systems that we design.

Firstly, we clutter the contact with our customers. We add unfathomable complexity to our phone systems to actively prevent human contact. We add forms for customers to fill in which cater for every eventuality, other than the exact one that our customers find themselves in (that’s because each customer is unique by the way). We add scripts that call handlers have to stick to, no matter how little our customers want to hear it. Then sales throw in the prize clutter of obligatory up-selling, to make profit out of things our potential customers neither want nor care for. The customer faces a clutter-fest just to be allowed access to the services we offer.

If the customer contact clutter isn’t enough to deter them, we then add deeper layers of clutter to our internal systems, designed to stop us dealing with customer demand. This is often the task of support services (think IT, finance and HR), but the operations team also love a bit of clutter too.

mapping flow

A cluttered workflow yesterday

Demand for your services is up, so you need to employ some more people to deal with the demand in a timely manner. How can we clutter that process to make our customers suffer? Let’s fix a budget first, so that we have to get permission to employ more people. On no account allow flexibility to move costs from one budget heading to the other. For maximum clutterage, make sure that sign-off goes all the way to the top (bonus points here, as this also spreads risk amongst management, as cluttered decisions help deflect blame if things go wrong).

Clear the budget hurdle and we can throw more clutter in the path of recruitment. Firstly, let HR design an application form that positively reeks of clutter. In fact, we can work together to make the recruitment process an endurance test; that’ll weed out the good ones. For maximum clutterage, throw in the same old steps, regardless of the applicability to the post on offer. For example, put tradespeople through an extensive interview and add in a psychometric test for good measure and to get them out of their comfort zone. On no account check their skills on site, in the environment that they will be working in. If you base recruitment on the tasks least relevant to the post, you can add more clutter by finding out that the new employee is good at talking and crap at doing, only once you get them into position. That way, we can double-clutter by sacking the new worker and starting recruitment all over again!

Once we have ensnared a new recruit, we can hand over to IT to introduce their own particular brand of clutter. Need to give your new recruit a log-in for the network? That’ll be 7 days notice please. Whilst we’re waiting for the log-in, we can train new staff on how to use the off-the-shelf IT system we bought to save time and improve quality. Ever played the game of counting the number of unnecessary clicks you need to complete a simple function? You’ll be horrified. That’s more clutter, right there. How many times have you called a service centre and heard the person on the other end apologise, as “the system’s running a bit slow today”. It’s great big clutterage, caused by the system trying to accommodate all the “Justin Whatifins” that the design team dreamt up for their hundreds and thousands of unique customers. By its very nature, off-the-shelf IT makes you change your workflow to fit the IT flow. This is NEVER a good thing.

Wade through all this and you meet the deadly axis of evil where finance and IT collide. Need to issue a laptop/phone/highlighter pen? How often are the tools you get given actually what you need to do your job properly?  More clutter to slow you down.

So what’s the alternative? Remove all clutter? If we removed all 57 chairs from our French holiday home, we would have been sitting on the floor all week and that’s not great either. We need to strike a balance, where our processes and policies actually help us achieve our purpose. We still need enough dining chairs to seat our diners and maybe somewhere in the hallway for guests to hang their coats. Get the basics right and we can add some tasteful art to to the walls to help the place look attractive.

Similarly at work, we do need some method of picking the right people to employ and we do need to be aware of the costs we generate. Think about purpose at all times, be flexible and you’ll soon design recruitment processes that help rather than hinder. Go the whole hog and you can even design measures that help you understand which types of recruitment have been most successful.

We also need secure IT systems that help us to perform tasks in our workflow and we certainly need a system that allows easy interaction with our customers. We need our IT systems to be designed specifically for our own work and to have enough fields in to collect the right data, in the right order, at the right time. IT designed against demand is surprisingly cheap and easy to do and your workflow becomes supported rather than compromised. Done right, it will also provide you with useful data to measure performance of the system in meeting purpose.

With Support Services the clue is in the name. Done right, they help us de-clutter our workflows and improve our ability to meet the needs of our customers. Allow them to stray from purpose and the results are a system that’s every bit as hard to navigate as our house in France. Good design makes complicated systems seem simple, clutter makes simple systems seem complicated. I guarantee that your customers will notice the difference.

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About Ian

Perfect Flow specialises in logistics, but good service is far too rare across all sectors in the UK. That is why I am driven by a strong desire to improve customer service levels. The Vanguard Method of Systems Thinking is my chosen methodology to achieve that aim. Why Vanguard Method? Because it works. I know it does, because I have used it myself. Perfect Flow have been named in the Smarta100 2012 - the 100 most innovative and disruptive small businesses in the UK

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