Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success


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How much process nonsense do you have?

My son turned 13 recently and thus became eligible to join the local branch of the Australian Air Force Cadets. He’s keen to be a pilot and so enrolling became his number one priority once he’d opened his presents, had his party, eaten too much and played on the Playstation.

So, we sat down to enrol. It was an online form with a relatively straight-forward process to fill everything in. I gathered the necessary information, filled in the forms and submitted them. Then we waited.

Two weeks later I received an email back saying that I’d forgotten some medical information (my bad) and that I had to change his preferred name from his full name to just his forename. It was a simple ‘go and change it’ email.

So, I did. I added the missing medical information, then went to the name and address page. Except, all those fields were protected, so I was unable to change them. So, I saved the new form, printed it off and had us both sign it (again), and sent it back.

A week later my wife received a phone call to say that because we’d entered the preferred name incorrectly and because their system couldn’t cope with hyphenated names (which his surname has), the whole application had to be cancelled and we had to start all over again. Sure enough the next morning, we had the ‘declined’ notification.

I’m not really the kind of person to get angry at something like this, but I was pretty frustrated and had two simple questions:

  1. Why couldn’t the name field be ‘unprotected’ to enable people to change it in case of mistake (after all the site is password protected, so it’s secure and this can’t have been the first time something like this has happened)? And if not, then;

  2. Why couldn’t they make the two small changes themselves in the background to save me (the customer in this scenario) having to spend time going through the entire process again?

But if I’m honest, this kind of thing is happening in organisations all over the world. Things that could be simplified to make the lives of staff and customers simpler are instead left unattended and thousands of people are similarly frustrated with process nonsense.

Many times during my permanent jobs, I felt that people were deliberately making life difficult for others. They were stubborn, intransigent or just unwilling to even listen to the challenges faced and the loss of value or productivity as a result.

I’ve lost potential ‘stars’ during a recruitment process because we took too long to process paperwork. I lost good rates on contracts for the same reason, with procurement often taking over three months to complete their processes. It was always hard for me to performance manage people because of the HR process and don’t get me started on the 10 levels of business case required to get  a much-needed project started.

Senior management decision-making was no better, with decisions left un-made for weeks on end as a result of the constant need for proof or delivery of a perfect document. One company I worked for even implemented agile ways of working, but still insisted on PowerPoint presentations to back up business cases that contained the same information!

There’s simply no excuse for this.

I’m not advocating the removal of all process, as I understand how important some of it can be to ensure the quality of the product or service being delivered. I’m merely advocating removal of nonsense process and very possibly the people that defend it.

In their book Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense (which I highly recommend), authors Jules Goddard and Troy Eccles call for simplicity to be as important as quality management and I think this is a great idea. They also say that ‘There are greater returns on simplicity than there are on scale.’

Many organisations are using the implementation of more agile ways of working as an opportunity to make things easier, whilst others are using it as an opportunity to shortcut what's there already without addressing the root cause! 

One of the reasons that I'm not in favour of innovation hubs is that creativity and ideas live inside everyone, not a special group of people in a funky office area. However, staff are rarely given time to think and be creative. If they were then maybe some of the process nonsense would be challenged more regularly and more efficient ways of doing things would naturally occur?

What process nonsense do you have and how are you encouraged to call it out?