Recently I've had a number of interesting (albeit often protracted) conversations with people about processes in business, and how formal, written procedures and established processes can be good (I agree, to a point) and can also be very, very bad.
I'll explain in a minute, and while I'm at it I'll do some tangential opining and show why I think Sarbanes Oxley and other process-intensive initiatives and guidelines don't always accomplish what they set out to do. In fact, in the case of SARBOX, I'd argue it doesn't even come close to accomplishing what it was originally intended for. But that's another story...
First a reminder and a bit of clarity: This is a personal blog, so anything I write is my opinion and mine alone.
Saturday morning telephone support call: Failed process illustrated...
Saturday morning I woke up at a criminally early hour (for a weekend anyhow). Since sleep apparently wasn't in the game plan I decided to call Vonage to see if I could actually get someone on the phone, and if I could convince them to listen to me long enough to troubleshoot a hardware/firmware problem I've been having with my VOIP terminal adapter.
For the record, I like Vonage. A lot. I recommend them. I'll refer you if you email me and ask. But I'll be honest - I'm never too excited about calling them.
But on Saturday morning, that's what I did. After umpteen layers of voice menus and hitting random keys to get pretty much nowhere, calling back after being disconnected (don't hit 'zero' in Vonage's voice prompt system...), and then finally getting someone on the line (whom I could not understand and who it seems could not understand me during the entire painful process of validating my account, name, billing address, etc.), we finally got around to troubleshooting the problem:
Vonage Lady: "Yes, hello mister huge-hess...
Me: (silently) <grrrrrrr!!!>
Vonage Lady: "...how can I help you with today?"
Me: "Okay, so I am having a problem with my Motorola VT1005 terminal adapter, about once a day it loses its connection with Vonage and I have to pull the power plug and plug it back in to get it to work, and several times a day the network data port stops communicating completely so my computers here at home cannot get to the Internet. I have to unplug the Motorola device and plug it back in in order to resolve that problem, too, and then it happens again later, a few times a day."
Vonage Lady: "Okay, so what I understand from you is..." (reads back a different version of what I just said, but leaves out all the key points, like the whole data connection problem, etc)
Me: "That's partly correct, but the worst part of the problem is that several times a day..." (I explain the loss of LAN port connectivity issue again)
Vonage Lady: (seemingly ignoring what I just told her) "Okay, I would like you to go to your router and unplug the wire from the PC port and so you will have the modem and the wire, and the Vonage router and then your computer, and I want you to plug a wire into your computer okay can you do that and tell me?"
Me: (wondering if I - a high-tech IT guy with lots of experience fixing crap much more complicated than this - really understand what she means) "Umm, okay, so... You want me to plug the ethernet cable that goes from the Motorola device on the LAN side into my computer directly then?"
Vonage Lady: (pause, pause, pause) "Uhhh, yes, I need you to put the wire from the PC port in your computer."
Me: (deciding the only logical thing to do is to go with my gut) "Okay, so I have done that, okay I am ready for the next step."
Vonage Lady: (seems to be shocked that the next step is already starting) "Ohh umm, okay, one moment please... Okay, I need you to open your Internet Explorer, and in the address bar at the top of the screen..."
Me: (I'm starting to quietly get a little frustrated now) Okay my web browser is open, you want me to type in an address?
"... I would like for you to type this address in the address bar."
Me: (I'm already on the adapter's admin web page, I think to myself, she's gonna send me there - slowwly) "Okay, ready."
Vonage Lady: "Okay, One-Nine-Two..." (pause, pause, pause)... "No, wait... H-T-T-P --"
Vonage Lady: "No, no no. AICH-TEE-TEE-PEEEE, COLON, SLASH-SLASH, ONE-NINE-TWO..."
Me: (waiting for more numbers) "... ... ... okay, i got that part, you can keep reading it to me."
Vonage Lady: "DOT-ONE-SIX-EIGHT-DOT-ONE-ZERO-TWOOO-DOT-ONE"
Me: (Thinking to self: Is there an echo in here?) Okay, I'm there.
Vonage Lady: "Oh well, now we need to go to the admin.html page, so to do that please click in the-"
Me: "Okay, I'm there."
Vonage Lady: "Oh, okay... Do you see a button that says Restore Factory Defaults on the page there then?"
Me: "Yes. I have a fixed IP address though, so if we do this it will stop working 'til I reconfigure."
Vonage Lady: "That's okay, push that button and tell me when it's done."
Vonage Lady: <she's now long-gone due to the fact that she just told me to kill my phone line>
Bad process and procedure? Most certainly. But what's the real problem in this story? Unfortunately it's one that we see happening more and more these days, over and over again with all the emphasis on building deep, complex, wide swaths of processes and supporting procedures.
I'm not here to argue against process. I'm here to argue for thinking.
When process hurts...
People have stopped thinking for themselves and doing critical analysis of the situation at hand. Instead, they read from a script. They follow a written procedure. They stay exactly between the lines, thinking the lines are the end-all-be-all of clarity in every situation. When I speak to people in my field about this, I describe it as being similar to walking around with blinders on.
We're suffering from a deficit of creative thinking and reasoning. But more on that in a few minutes.
What does this result in? Three things mainly:
First of all, people increasingly look at the world and the things going on around them as being bipolar in nature: black and white. In reality though, it's all about the infinite shades of gray. Oh, how simple the world might be if it was all pure black and white in nature, but in the real world it's just not so. Unfortunately, the desire to simplify things cognitively into black/white, us/them, good/bad is probably a greater part of the way people look at things today than it has even been.
Second, people have lost their sense of ownership and don't think for themselves. Pride goes soon after that. More and more the accepted method of teaching people how to do things has become the "hand-me-the-procedure" method. But, absolute processes and procedures are fundamentally flawed. There's simply no way to compute every possible outcome or input to a situation, yet we expect that by creating processes and procedures that *must* be followed, we can solve critical problems. The fact is that while they may ensure compliance most of the time, they can also often ensure lack of compliance some of the time - especially when the procedure or process doesn't exactly fit, but the person applying it doesn't stop to think about that fact. Or, even worse, they're not given the level of permission needed to stop, think, and evaluate situations on their own.
Third, we walk around with a false sense of confidence and safety. By assuming we are creating controls and processes to keep the bad things from happening, we do the one thing that police officers and security professionals have known better than to do for all time: We lure ourselves into that place where we believe everything will be okay, everyone will follow the rules, everything will be out in the open, the checks and balances will all work because the auditor signed a pieces of paper (not like the auditor had any real guidelines to audit against or anything...) and the bad guys won't be able to get away with anything anymore.
But it just won't work. Nope.
I'm sorry Senator, I have no recollection...
Example from the real world: The Sarbanes Oxley Act (SARBOX for short) was terrific for consultants, and lots of people are making lots of money off lots of companies that are shelling out big bucks for something that only minimally does what it needs to do (if that). The fact of the matter is that SARBOX resulted in huge expenditures and rampant development of crippling processes that offer little protection from bad, smart people who want to pull a fast one on investors. Even one of the sponsors of the act says it doesn't really accomplish what was originally intended. Hey, Senator, can we send you an invoice for the costs of this mandatory program that won't do what it's set out to do? Let me know. Thanks.
So, SARBOX is good for consulting companies, and expensive for business, and even though the rules and regs don't really fit small to mid-size businesses, they have to follow them anyhow. It doesn't really prevent another Enron from happening. In the end, it's costing the shareholders it was intended to protect a lot of money, and it's not really doing what it needs to do.
Hmm. That's like going to a store with no knowledge of tools, telling the sales person I need a something to help drive a nail into a wall, being sold a bunch of hard hats and yellow vests and thick gloves, along with a pneumatic nailing system and a whole stack of safety equipment and mandatory classes to make sure I use it right, and a certification that's required to issued by the government before I use it... And then six months later finding out there's this thing called a claw hammer...
Maybe we forgot what we set out to do. Maybe there's a short term memory problem involved. Or maybe too much vague, confuse, poorly-defined process got in the way of building (wait for it...) effective process.
This is starting to sound like "the meeting to plan the meeting."
Anyway, back to Vonage...
I made another call to Vonage (after I set up a fixed IP, reconfigured the TA, etc., and this time without getting disconnected), Communication went a little easier with the support worker I got this time, and within a minute of the same scripted process, I heard him pause for a moment. He stopped what he was doing and said, "Mr Hughes," (thought: do people who put time and effort into pronouncing names correctly also think more for themselves?), "I am going to transfer you to another number because I think they will be able to help you with this. I could go through all of the things I have here, but I really don't think they will help you."
There ya go, now that's thinking for yourself.
Within five minutes, another Vonage rep (who was quite knowledgeable and professional by the way) had deduced - after listening to my technical explanation and asking a couple follow-up questions - that my terminal adapter is pretty much on its last legs, and offer to send me a replacement.
I spent two hours on the whole deal, between the first phone call, phone menu prompt maze from hell, getting disconnected by the voice menu system, the first rep, getting disconnected by my hardware reset,. It took 10 minutes to solve it, as soon as I spoke to a couple people who were willing and able to think about the situation outside the script.
Now, I've picked on Vonage here just because they happened to be the company I called on Saturday. I have tales of woe from a slew of other tech support experiences, too. A friend just IM'ed me to vent about his phone call this morning to Dish Network. I like Vonage, I like their services, and I like their prices. I think they're doing a good job, and they are adding (literally) 10,000 new users a day (got that from the last guy I spoke to on the phone). They have more than a million users now. So don't take this to be a Vonage bashing post - it's not. But I do think it illustrates an important point.
So - what do we do now?
Okay, great so what are we supposed to do about the Blinders of process? It's simple: Let your employees take them off. Encourage them to!
In fact, it might be worth training employees in two basic skills that most people don't get any decent training in: Listening and troubleshooting. Think about how much time we spend learning to read and write, to speak in front of others, to read from the script. How much training in our lives, from school to professional adulthood, is spent learning how to listen well? How much time do we spend learning the nuances of critical thought or effective problem solving and troubleshooting?
Not much. Not enough, for sure.
But we'll have to save that topic for later.