Management gurus will tell you that the bureaucracy around process is an area ripe to be reviewed if you want to boost productivity. Too much process can stop your team from achieving their full potential. The more time they spend filling in change requests or logging work orders, the less time they spend actually doing their job.
There is some truth in this. And you wouldn’t be the first manager to worry about whether you’ve got the level of process right in the team. However, let’s be measured about it. As innovation expert Julian Birkinshaw writes in HBR.com: “We will never banish bureaucracy, in part because there are some good reasons for it to exist. But we should always seek ways of keeping its worst tendencies in check, by homing in on the specific problems it creates.”
Indeed, in some organizations, processes are taken for granted as unchangeable, immutable forces that frankly are almost cultural. Suggest changing the way things are done, and you’re likely to encounter resistance or worse. Yet, if you are concerned about whether your processes are helping or hindering your team’s productivity, know that there are ways to change the current paradigm and influence others to do the same.
But first you need the data.
Do a Process Audit
The word audit need not send anyone running for the hills. While it does sound like yet another process to tackle, it really isn’t. You need a simple review in order to know whether your processes are, in fact, getting in the way of productivity. After all, you shouldn’t strip away processes based on assumptions.
You aren’t looking for the number of processes or tools, or even a judgement call on the level of bureaucracy in the team. You can have dozens or hundreds of processes and if they all work smoothly, they can help productivity rather than hinder it.
What you are looking for is: 1) A drop in productivity and 2) signs and symptoms of an unhappy team. Both these are indicators that bureaucracy is getting in the way of getting things done.
Before you can notice a productivity problem, however, you need understand the trends in productivity within your own project or organization. Unfortunately, unless you’ve just introduced a horrendous brand new process, you won’t find one, single thing that is slowing your team down. You’re looking for indicators of a gradual decline relative to past measures of productivity.
In order to know if productivity is declining, you need to know how to measure it. Gather all the project data that you have and look for the repeating tasks, as these are often the ones that require processes. For example:
- Managing requests for changes
- Project handovers and internal reviews
- Processing payments.
Task management systems that allow users to input the amount of actual time spent on a task will let you build up a huge repository of useful benchmark data. If you see that last year the change control process took a week for the change to be logged, assessed and either approved or rejected, you can compare that to current data. If it takes a lot longer today, you have empirical evidence that shows your process is slower and that could be part of the reason for the drop in productivity.
Do a Morale Audit
Don’t underestimate the useful information you can get from your team. Talk to them. They will be able to give you a gut feel for whether they are hampered or guided by the processes and (more importantly) which ones are difficult to work with.
Pinpoint the processes that are causing the most grief. Analyze what about them is creating problems. This could be:
- They are too time consuming
- The approval loop goes to the wrong people
- They require too much information
- Nothing is done with the information that is provided.
It can take time to recover from the drop in morale that is the byproduct of an unproductive work environment, and bringing to mind all that is frustrating your team does need to be done sensitively. Be mindful in this process, and be prepared to address immediate concerns. Deal with any quick wins first, such as explaining where the data goes and why the process works that way. Then deal with the practical issues raised by attempting to resolve the process issues they have flagged.
These are quick ways to assess whether your team is less productive as a result of process. You can carry out large scale process mapping and do a deep dive into your productivity, but it’s easier to start with identifying some quick wins before moving to that sort of time-consuming initiative.
A drop in productivity could be the cause of a morale problem, or a symptom of poor morale in the team. As you can imagine these two issues are closely linked, so it’s worth seeing what you can do to address low morale at the same time. Ultimately, information sharing, and involving the team in the assessment, can go a long way to improving morale.
How to Get Rid of Ineffective Processes
So, you’ve analyzed your productivity data and reviewed the team morale situation, and you’ve learned that the issues are definitely related to ineffective processes. Here are three steps you can take to weed out what’s not working.
1. Take a leaf out of the Lean and Six Sigma manuals by stripping everything out of the process that doesn’t add value. Your team can tell you what they are. They know and work with the processes regularly, and they will have a good idea about which ones are essential.
Try to avoid falling into the trap of removing too many processes without validating them, however. Someone else in the organization might need the piece of data that you have decided isn’t necessary. Do some sense checking before stripping the process back totally, or you’ll end up being unproductive for the opposite reasons!
2. Delegate the process-related admin tasks to team members to share the load and streamline operations. Remember, democracy is not always the best approach in delegation. Choose team members best suited to accomplish them efficiently: there’s no business benefit in having your highly paid technical architect do low-value process paperwork if your team administrator could do it just as well.
3. Advocate for your team. Many of your processes will be organization-wide, and you probably can’t remove them without some serious negotiation. Bring key leaders together and arm yourself with the data you uncovered in your audit to demonstrate the loss in productivity and its impact on the bottom line. Be sure to demonstrate your clear solution-oriented approach that would work just as well, yet is less process-heavy and more productive.
Pro Tip: If you can’t fix a process issue because it’s genuinely got to be that way, let the team know that you tried and what the outcome was. Don’t neglect to communicate roadblocks or denials because they could assume (wrongly) that you did nothing and that will further erode their confidence.
New Benchmark: The Goldilocks Zone
What you want are processes that support your team and help them to be more productive. In other words, processes that are not too big, not too small but are, as Goldilocks would exclaim: “Just right!”
It will take a bit of trial and error to whittle away the old, outmoded processes and streamline new ones. Use a continuous feedback approach with your team to maintain the Goldilocks Zone of Processes and prevent new ones from creeping in.
In fact, getting team buy-in on all processes helps improve team morale because it boosts engagement when they know they are instrumental to contributing to continuous process improvement. Collaboration will really make a difference; overall you should quickly see productivity improvements, and you can tweak your processes until they are just right for the whole team.