Implicit processes determine what a field service organization can and can’t do
Author: Israel Beniaminy
I recently received an e-mail from one of the leading and most respected technology companies on Earth. I’ll call it PFFW, for reasons that will become clear below. The real name is withheld to protect the guilty: It’s a company known for its innovation and extremely rapid embracing of new technologies. In the e-mail, they explained how I could sign up for participation in one of their technology programs. The first step was for me to sign a contract, using a friendly digital-signature process– so far so good. But now came the next instructions, regarding how to pay for participation: All I had to do was print the form they sent me, fill in my name and credit card details, sign the form and fax it to them. And then they told me I should allow 3-5 business days for processing the payment.
PFFW. Print. Fill by hand. Fax. Wait. In the year 2011 AD. How can that happen?
I don’t pretend to know what’s going on inside that company, but I do know that in my other interactions with them they were usually much better at instantly receiving my digital purchases and acting on it. It’s not a problem with technological competence or with understanding how online business works. My guess is that this is an example of organizational resistance to change.
Most people have experienced the phenomenon of organizational resistance to change (change management). Even when top management is highly committed to performing some change in the way the organization works, there’s friction. There are delays. The organization continues to work in the old way, or – sometimes worse – in some strange, inefficient and self-contradictory amalgam of the old and the new.
Why is it so difficult to change organizational behavior and culture? Sometimes it is because employees just don’t like the planned changes, and will oppose and undermine anything that threatens the current way that they do something. Yet, I find it hard to believe that this is the reason for the example I gave above. Are there really some PFFW employees who will lose their jobs if there is no more need to process faxed forms? I doubt it. There must be some other reason.
The answer may be found in a highly influential article published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in the year 2000. The article is “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change“, by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael Overdorf. You may know Christensen as the author of the highly influential books “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, and (with co-writer Michael Raynor) “The Innovator’s Solution”. In the HBR article, the authors propose a framework for understanding what organizations can and can’t do – in other words, what changes will come easy and what changes are going to be extremely challenging. This framework consists of three parts: Resources, Processes and Values. Resources include tangible resources such as people, equipment and cash, and intangible ones such as knowledge, brands and customer relationships. Processes are, quoting from the HBR paper: “the patterns of interaction, coordination, communication, and decision making employees use to transform resources into products and services of greater worth,” whether these processes are formal and well-documented or implicit, deeply ingrained patterns of how the organization goes about anything from creating a business relationship to launching a new service. The term Values, in this context, is not focused on ethical imperatives. It is more general: “the standards by which employees set priorities that enable them to judge whether an order is attractive or unattractive, whether a customer is more important or less important, whether an idea for a new product is attractive or marginal, and so on.”
Resistance to change is often the result of the contrast between existing processes and values and the new change that management is trying to drive. Management can change the formal processes, but informal processes still get in the way, and this threat is hard to recognize and predict because these informal processes are so deeply ingrained into the company and the workforce. In my story, it may be that the PFFW department that handles payment for participation in technology programs had started as a team working closely with a small number of external technology vendors, so it had no reason to establish quick and scalable processes for signing up a large number of such vendors. Processes are by definition somewhat rigid: What is the use of a process that changes every week? Changing from working with a small number of external companies, with very few being added every year, to working with a much larger and more fluid list of companies, requires changing just about every process. This takes time and commitment, but first it takes something even more difficult to get: It takes someone to perceive that the older processes no longer work. The HBR article cites several cases where this has led to spectacular failures of large and leading companies, which, before their collapse, were deservedly praised for the quality of their managers and workforce.
The third part of Christensen’s and Overdorf’s framework, values, can be even more influential in determining what an organization can or can’t do. I’ll leave that to a future blog post.
Field service organizations are not exempt from such threats. The best service engineers are the best because they have found ways to overcome the many challenges of their work, repeatedly and reliably. In other words, they have developed their own processes, typically implicit ones, and they taught the processes to newer hires. When you ask them to commit to some change, they may be enthusiastic about accepting it. Even then, the existing processes will often cause some friction, precisely because these processes are so deeply woven into the workforce culture and so ever-present that they are rarely documented or even acknowledged. To take just one example, suppose that service engineers have become accustomed to maintaining their own stock of tools, which lets them solve most problems on the spot without waiting for a tool to be delivered to the service location. Now, what happens when instead of having to maintain ten different models of equipment, the organization expands to serving 100 models, potentially requiring many more tools for maintenance? Is the “private stock” method still workable? More to the point, will anybody discover the problem before it starts manifesting in lower service quality and in higher service costs?
Implicit processes may be the secret ingredient that makes your organization so good at what it does now. They may also be the secret threat to what you want the organization to do tomorrow. I have a great solution for this. If you wait a few days, I’ll print it and fax it to you.