Monthly Archives: October 2008

Coping with the “Choke” Factor

You don’t need any reminder that these are bad times for many businesses. And predictions are that times will get worse, perhaps much worse, before they get better. According to economists, consumer spending drives the majority of our economy, including the B2B side. Unfortunately, many consumers are slamming their wallets shut because of the carnage in both stock markets and lending markets. You could say consumers are choking.

But that’s not the choke factor I’m writing about. I’m concerned here about how businesses choke in tough times and stop doing the things that have made them successful – such as reaching out to customers.

Picture a business as the human body, with customers sitting just out of reach. Until relatively recently, rather than step forward and reach out to customers, companies kept customers at arm’s length, fearing that getting too involved with customers would interfere with the traditional “win-lose” business model where companies take as much as possible from customers while giving as little as possible. In effect, they wrap their arms around themselves for “protection” from customers. Like giving yourself a hug.

But times are changing. Customers are changing. And increasingly, today’s customers are declining to do business with sellers that won’t reach out and seek win-win relationships. Although companies aren’t exactly hugging customers (nor do customers necessarily want hugs), many organizations are now tentatively reaching out to touch.

Unfortunately, when economic times get tough, the majority of companies will instinctively retract their semi-extended arms and start hugging themselves for dear life. And that’s what I mean by “choking”–the involuntary reflex to circle the wagons to “protect” the company from external forces.

Successful companies, really successful companies, will find ways to resist this impulse to retract outstretched arms–they’ll reach out even more instead. There’s no success in business without customers. And companies grasping this concept and acting on it will find new opportunities, as the majority of companies won’t be able or willing to resist the impulse to pull inward.

In my experience, the line between companies reaching out to customers versus hugging themselves for protection will prove to be the dividing line between surviving the recession relatively intact versus stumbling through severely wounded–or even falling and not getting up.

Here’s one instance where protection is risky behavior.

Redesigning Work for Tough Times: CRM can play a crucial role

Layoffs aren’t coming. They’re here. Look at eBay. Look at what’s about to happen throughout the automotive sector – from manufacturing to dealer sales. Hey, looking for an investment banker job? And let’s not forget retail. First stores will cut prices to post-Christmas levels, and when that doesn’t work, they’ll slash staff.

Not fun to talk about. But if you’re a senior or even middle level manager in almost any sector, you, personally, might have to make some mighty tough decisions. Even some that break your heart. And CRM won’t make staff reductions easier emotionally. However, properly implementing or upgrading CRM will identify where you can cut without damaging either customer relationships or company, while making staff reductions more objective and less arbitrary.

Bet you’re thinking, “Lee has really lost his marbles this time.”

I haven’t, though. Remember the old bromide describing CRM: “people, process and technology?” While this trilogy manages to omit the most essential CRM step – aligning business strategies with customers – it correctly identifies process as an essential CRM element. Now, by “process” traditional CRMers mean sales, marketing and service process. However, the universe of functions where process directly or indirectly affects customer experience expands far beyond these three functions, which we term “the front office.” In fact, front office staff usually occupies but a small space within the customer affecting universe.

But does CRM really have to mess with this expanded universe of functions? You betcha, it does. Otherwise, CRM badly underachieves.

Potential-fulfilling CRM implementations carefully redesign all customer-affecting work to align with customer-centric business strategies. We’re talking redesigning a whole lot of jobs here – involving a whole lot of payroll dollars, and streamlining this much work can substantially reduce personnel costs.

Streamlining? Where did that come from? Aren’t we redesigning jobs to improve customer experience, not cut staffing costs? Yah sure, we are. But what if I told you that redesigning work to be customer-centric goes hand-in-hand with streamlining? More than a little counter-intuitive.

So let me resolve this seeming contradiction with a bit of history. HYM has been helping clients redesign work in customer-centric ways for some 15 years, and I can’t think of a single instance of recommending a staff increase to improve customer experience. Quite the contrary, in virtually every case, redesigning work for customer benefit reduces necessary work by 10% to 15%. That’s right, becoming customer-centric requires less staff, not more.

Now, these work reductions don’t automatically lead to staff cuts. In fact, in normal times we encourage clients to apply excess personnel to covering attrition, staffing growth or initiating new, value-adding work. But these aren’t normal times, and we’re girding for an increasing number of situations where retaining excess staff has become  economically unrealistic. Makes our work less fun when this happen, but helping clients stay alive to re-staff another day does mitigate some of our angst.

Even if you now accept my premise that customer-centric work requires fewer people, bet you’re still scratching your head over how and why. So I’ll provide some examples.

Staffing with knowledgeable, empowered employees:  Dealing with knowledgeable, empowered employees is at the top of almost every customer’s wish list. But it should also be at the top of company wish lists. Knowledgeable employees don’t constantly drag supervisors or peers into situations they should be able to handle themselves. And empowered employees don’t have to constantly get approval from supervisors. Add the two together and a whole layer of supervision can be reduced by half, two-thirds, and sometimes eliminated altogether. Great for contact centers. Also great in back office settings where supervisors often get paid good money to tell undertrained staff members how to do their jobs, or make sure they do things right.

Intelligently applying office automation tools:  A good CRM implementation involves much more technology-wise than CRM software. For example, a recent client had to scan a substantial amount of documentation for regulatory reasons. So staff members passed bundles of documentation from function to function to function, sometimes from the field to HQ and back – then scanned these docs to archive them. Easy fix. Scan all the paper when it first enters the system, then move digital files wherever they need to go. Simple way to lower hours required to handle paper, not to mention time spent looking for missing pieces – all the while shortening cycle times to improve member experience.

Another example of using not office automation is B2B companies manually assembling long and complex bids and proposals. Readily available software will index contents, cascade changes (such as an item price changes) throughout the document, store legal and regulatory boilerplate and provide quick access to text in similar documents. Using such tools can reduce bid/proposal development time by 50% or more. But a recent client of ours that produces bids hundreds of pages long requiring countless revisions was still working manually. The employee time invested in getting each proposal out the door was off the map. And we all cringed when a prospective client called them asking which price to use – the stated total bid amount or the sum of the elements, which was hundreds of thousands of dollars higher. Someone had changed a price in one place but couldn’t (or didn’t) find all the remaining instances. Not only do companies optimally using office automation reduce labor requirements, but they gain from reducing the quantity and impact of work defects.

Eliminating excess risk mitigation:  I can’t tell you how many clients we’ve encountered with torturous new customer credit approval processes in markets where unpaid invoices are uncommon. Why call credit references supplied when only an idiot would use references that would not say good things? Why pass credit applications through three sets of hands to get to an overstuffed file cabinet where no one can find anything. Why do “rubber stamp reviews?” The average company puts about twice the time into approving credit apps that’s necessary and prudent.

Recovering every last cent of cost on every invoice:  We had a client that used variable pricing based on constantly variable commodities markets. The extra hours required to invoice versus using price averaging that changed only in cases of  wide variances ate up any potential cost recovery gains many times over – not to mention irritating the hell out of customers, who couldn’t rely on quotes. This nickel-dime mentality manifested itself all over the organization – to the point that I included a slide in a COO presentation saying, “You guys are spending millions to save pennies.” Fortunately, he got it. The next day photo-copies of the slide were plastered all over the executive suite. Oh, and based on work redesign, this company was able to cut its 2,000 person sales and service staff down to 1,200.

Sticking with “push” internal communication:  How do companies disseminate policy changes, process changes, important announcements and alerts? Via e-mail, of course. Now, how much time does sifting through e-mail consume for the average employee? Let’s just say it’s lots and lots and lots of time. On top of which, many important messages that affect both company and customer wind up in digital trash bins, unread. How do we redesign information flow to address this issue? By posting information on a well-designed, well-partitioned, central intranet site where everyone can quickly navigate to everything they need to know. Will they go there? Yes, if you pop a summary, “What’s New?” first page on everyone’s computer complete with links to full messages. A quick scan tells folks if anything needs their attention, cutting waste time sifting through communications to the bone. And we’re talking mega hours here.

I could go on forever in this vein, but I won’t.

By redesigning work to improve customer experience, most companies can reduce FTE counts in customer-affecting functions by 10% to 15% Some even more. And they can apply the same office process design techniques to reduce staffing requirements throughout their office environs, in places including HR, order-to-cash, purchasing, accounting, etc. That’s a fact. But the bigger issue is, “Will they?”

One “Touch” Over the Line

Several days ago, my car dealer—or more correctly, the dealer network’s contact center— called suggesting that I schedule an oil change and tire rotation. Courteous, on one hand, but irritating on the other. In fact, I’d just had that very work done 2,500 miles ago. When I told this gent that, he signed off by saying, “I’ll call back in a couple weeks.” Like I’m going to drive to California and back next week so I need an oil change? Very irritating. Plus, it was normal people’s dinner hour, and it was on our home phone.

However, I calmed down quickly because this dealer network just happens to be our client and is actually trying very hard to eliminate gaffes like this. But it did set me to thinking. How many customer (or prospect) touches like this one is one too many?

The answer that immediately popped into my head is, “It depends.” It depends on the customer. Take me. I’m a bit extreme on this topic. I believe our government is granting First Amendment rights like they were lollipops in the dentist’s office. Hey, as far as I’m concerned, if we pay for our telephone, and we pay for our service, this stuff is ours. Meaning we get to say whether organizations can call our telephone over our phone service—and that means all of them, no exceptions. Politicians included.

Fortunately for organizations wishing to telemarket, I’ve over the top on this. In fact, I’d never advise a client to assume that call recipients even remotely resemble me. But who do they resemble? Can we build a composite model describing the median call recipient? Of course we can’t. And if we could, we’d still be overcalling half the population (minus 1) and under-calling the rest. To make matters worse, the range of recipient reactions to telemarketing calls is so broad that no matter what policy we decide to follow, we’re going to whiz off heaps of people, at home and at work as well. 

So now what? Here’s what most organizations do. They say “screw it” and call whoever they want whenever they want, unless you’re on an applicable DNC (do not call) list. And even that doesn’t stop some yo-yos. Of course, when they call me when they shouldn’t, they wind up wishing they hadn’t. Like the call I got the day after the auto service “touch.” A financial service we have an account with called for my wife, who wasn’t home at the time. The telemarketer introduced herself in a very self-assured tone, assuring me that it was “just a courtesy call.” From a global financial institution with product to push? Not in my lifetime. But I suggested she not call back, because, “We don’t need any courtesy today, and we won’t need any next time you call.” But they’ll call again, regardless.

Fortunately, for companies that want to do it right, there’s a better option than “screw it, we’ll decide when to call”

Let customers decide. Go a step beyond black and white DNC lists and offer customers much more nuanced options. Certain people want calls. Others, like me, have a strong preference for e-mail. And don’t bother me with postal mail. But each of us has our own preferences. Same applies for interest areas. And parsing call lists (and mail lists) using channel and subject preferences is a snap. But as with all good things, there’s a catch.

Two catches, actually. First, the marketing community continues to have a large population of managers determined to put their perceived company interests ahead of customer interests. Never mind that excess “touches” really turn off customers. Like the time when I deliberately did not check the DNC box on a Smith Micro web order form. Smith has good utility software several software developers embed in their apps, so I thought I’d investigate their customer-direct line. Dumb. I immediately started getting daily e-mail messages about this, that and the other product or upgrade or…whatever else because I stopped reading them after the first couple. Classic “attack marketing.” You’d think e-marketers would be brighter than that. So guess what happens to all Smith Micro e-mail now? Spam filter. You betcha.

But let’s be optimistic. If these dim light bulbs would wake up and realize the counter-productivity of their ways, maybe we’ll finally clear this hurdle.

The second catch is the vast majority of companies regarding collecting and maintaining customer communication preference information a cost and a burden—rather than an opportunity to better customer relations. Hence, they won’t invest in acquiring and maintaining these data. Too many other things to do to customers rather than with them. Who knows when they’ll wake up.

But hey, not everyone has to get it. The companies that want to do it right will continue earning points with customers—in part, by the very act of asking customers for their preferences. Now that’s real courtesy. And I haven’t even mentioned the myriad ways accurately profiling customers adds value to the organization.

Does anyone have a big mutha alarm clock with a gong for a bell?

Beyond Outcomes Measurement

How can a simple concept such as “measurement” get so convoluted? Easy. Just start with a few bromides like “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Toss in business fixation on “outcomes” measurements. Add an adult dose of management impatience with anything not quick and easy and big picture. And top it all off with a dollop of “I know what I know, so don’t confuse me with the facts.” That’s how.

You’d think the truth about measuring business performance is still a deep, dark secret. Actually, you could argue it does remain a secret because so many executives spend so much time rejecting truths that don’t fit their management style.

What’s the truth? For my money, no one’s expressed it more clearly and succinctly than Robert Kaplan and David Norton in the many books and articles describing their construction, the balanced scorecard. The authors mock (gently) the very notion that business can manage against outcomes measurements. “Hey, go get me 10% more sales.” Or, “Let’s increase profitability by 5%.” Better yet, “You’d better manage against your budget.”

Let’s consider the results of managing against these outcomes. 10% more sales? Do the same stuff you’re doing now, but faster and harder. Never mind that it’s the wrong stuff. 5% more margin?  Easy. Raise prices 5%. So what if customers take a hike. Manage against your budget? Simple. Just cut staff to make your numbers. Too bad quality falls off the table; cutting into your sales; and eating up your margins. But we’ll worry about next quarter next quarter.

But hey, you can’t just leave this stuff to fate, can you?

No you can’t. But you can drive performance by measuring what drives performance. Novel concept. Go figure out what makes customers stay. Or why they leave. Then focus on doing more of the former and less of the latter. Go figure out why some customers give you more of their business. And some give you less. Same drill. Do more of the former and less of the latter. Or figure out why some customers are willing to pay more for whatever you provide. Now we’re talking. These are the “little pictures” that big picture managers ignore. Not that senior executives have to get deep in the weeds with every detail. But they absolutely should be focusing on how the company is managing these small details that drive so much of business success.

We can measure what work we do─and how well we do it. And we can motivate and train managers and staff to do more of the right stuff and less of the wrong─and do it right the first time. All it takes, gulp, is designing, implementing and measuring new, customer-centric business process─out in the office, where sales are made and margin created. You betcha, out in that veritable process no-man’s-land. Or should I say “variable process no-man’s-land” to call out the difference between flexible office and fixed manufacturing process.

“Gulp” is the operative word here. All too many executives believe they’re too important to pay attention to anything but big picture outcomes measurements. Hey, they should all spend a day with Jack Welch. Welch may have six sigmatized GE to within an inch of its life improving all the little pictures, but in GE’s production environments it sure worked. He knew his job went far beyond the big picture─and that he was directly responsible for what GE did and how it did it, the two major components of business process.

Business needs a whole bunch more like-minded executives and managers who grasp the reality that the big picture is but a composite of thousands of little pictures─and you can only change the big picture’s appearance at the little picture level.



Burn Your Contact Center Budget

That’s right, burn your contact center budget. Print it out. Hold it over a waste basket (preferably empty). Put a match to it. And make sure to let it go soon enough. Oh, and hurry up and delete the file it came from before the sprinklers let loose.

What was that all about? Simple. Getting back to ground zero. Starting with a blank piece of paper. Stepping back and starting over again. Getting a fresh perspective. Whatever. Just not tweaking your current budget, which is most likely cost-driven.

So now what?

Well, let’s take a revolutionary budget approach called “starting at the beginning.” What’s the purpose of a contact center? Answering customer questions. Resolving customer issues. Accepting customer orders. Even proactively selling goods and services to customers. A varied lot—but there’s one constant, c-u-s-t-o-m-e-r-s. That’s the beginning. Contact centers either add value to customers or customers subtract value from the company. But can you quantify either the addition or the subtraction? Not specifically or verifiably. Which is why contact center budget creators start at what should be the end of the budgeting process with concrete numbers—costs. But how the hell can they determine appropriate cost levels without knowing the value contact centers deliver, or lose. They can’t. Which is why companies like Sprint treat their contact centers as cost centers and cut costs at all costs. Then lose big time as customers defect.

Caught between a rock and a hard place? You could say that. But you have an option. You can project potential added value and value lost by invoking what we call the “rule of reasonableness.” We use it all the time, not just in the contact center but for projecting overall CRM outcomes and other numbers immune to statistical discovery.  

Here’s how it works. Start by defining what you do (or could) know: number of calls; breakdown by purpose; breakdown by calling segment; principle outcome possibilities. Then sort of define what you sort of know: customer LTV; customer turnover rate (as opposed to churn rate, which includes non-preventable loss); opportunity cost of not achieving higher share of wallet. Now incorporate all these variables into an equation for determining the financial impact of contact center operations, both good and bad.

But what about the gaps in the formula where you lack necessary data?

Here’s where you invoke the rule of reasonableness. Use your intuition. What would be a reasonable percentage chance a customer will switch suppliers if X occurs at the contact center (and remember, you’ve already quantified X). For example, what’s a reasonable percentage chance you’d cancel your Sprint contract to go with another carrier after the contact center refused to credit a questionable invoice item? Or what are the odds you’d stay but not renew? Then do the same for the impact of call center issues on customer share, viral marketing (fancy way to say badmouthing), etc.

Hey, this may sound more than a little loosey, goosey, but consider the alternative. Total ignorance. At least this way, you’re using all the data you have, which allows you to roughly approximate changes in customer value triggered by specific contact center actions, which in turn allows you set a reasonable investment level for your contact center. A helluva lot better than cost-based budgeting that doesn’t take customer outcomes into account.

Try it. You just might like it.

Dead-On-Arrival Software

Two types of people stand in the way of oncoming trains: the totally insane and software implementers. The primary difference between them is that the first group has an excuse.

The very fact that software implementers have been making the same error leading to the same deadly outcomes over and over again for decades now speaks to something, and I believe I’ve finally figured out what. Software implementers have an overwhelming aversion to defining workflow/information flow and individual work process in sufficient specificity to determine what the software actually should do—so they flat out refuse to go there. And as a result, they don’t know what the software should do before they implement—and they thereby default to attempting to run the application “as-is,” with limited configuration or with misaligned configuration—for which there’s a three-letter acronym: DOA. The software arrives out of alignment with business process, and all hell breaks loose, typically in user acceptance training.

Before trying to identify the source of the aversion, let’s first define “sufficient specificity.” Process definition occurs at two levels. The higher level is workflow that connects employee with employee; function with function; company with customer; and company with supplier. Workflow includes information flow, because the two are joined at the hip everywhere except in manufacturing. The second and lower level is individual work process that describes how individuals do their own work. Individual work flow is a dependent variable driven by workflow and should never be reengineered before workflow redesign.

Within the context of a software implementation, workflow redesign has to encompass every movement of work and information involving the new software, including source and destination flows. Further, workflow definitions should n-e-v-e-r represent the “as-is state.” If that happens, you’ll either minimize the value of the new system—or, worse yet, damage your company by doing the wrong stuff faster.

Individual work process design should follow the “to-be” workflow and drill all the way down to the user keystroke level to capture not only the data needs but navigation needs as well. Just don’t make the mistake of dissecting your as-is individual work process, because changing workflow requires reengineering work process – and why spend gads of time dissecting something that’s about to go away.

Okay, so why won’t most companies and individuals responsible for software implementations do this before deploying software that disrupts the business and takes a year or two to straighten out—if it can ever be straightened out? At first blush I can offer a host of reasons: lack of internal process skills; trying to apply Lean or six sigma to develop technology requirements; IT trying to define business process instead of business-side people doing the work; silo management interfering with process redesign; no budget; no one with time to execute process design; and “no time.” Of course, fixing things later takes exponentially more time and expense than doing things right, but I suppose that having new software arrive DOA is one way to get time and budget for process work, although the process design phase has almost surely been fatally compromised by putting technology ahead of process.

These are all contributors, but I suspect not the main driver. Over time, I’ve come to believe that most train wrecks that pass for software implementations stem from one, simple fact—we’ve made redesigning business process too damn hard. And indeed, if you don’t know how to streamline and automate the process of designing process, it becomes ugly quickly..

For example, we’ve just witnessed a company courageously attempt to redesign their process for global service delivery before implementing SAP, which is enormously complex because of their industry. Why “courageously?” Because without understanding how to streamline and automate the process design process, they did all their work slowly and manually—stretching an initiative they could have accomplished expeditiously in two months into a year’s work, and countless extra resource hours. And they still couldn’t get past identifying individual work processes by name to actually engineering them step-by-step, task-by-task—the level that provides the majority of application software requirements.

I had an epiphany over this. Seeing what it took to accomplish process design across this company by brute force hit me like a blinding flash of the obvious. Very few people or companies have the will power and resources to subject themselves to an exercise like this. But since skipping business process design shouldn’t even be on the table as an option, the only rational alternative is to learn how to streamline and automate process design.  

Interested in learning how? If so, download a free Visual Workflow white paper from our site. Using the VW framework will save you untold hours and effort—and most importantly, could save your new software implementation.


Getting Through Layoffs

Layoffs and bad economies usually go hand in hand. Fortunately, we’ve been light on the layoffs so far, considering how badly our economy has tanked (although there’s no “fortunately” for employees already let go). But the likelihood of major employment cuts occurring continues rising, and some companies should start planning now how to minimize impact on customers should cuts come.

Time was when layoffs affected manufacturing workers first, followed by some pruning of “office” positions, if necessary. But with less than 10% of U.S. employees remaining in manufacturing jobs, the order has reversed. Office positions—including all customer contact and customer impact roles—have become the primary target. And to make matters worse, most companies use the “meat ax” approach to layoffs, meeting a set number or percentage employees to go regardless of impact on customers, thereby putting customer relationships at risk.

Frankly, given C-level executive mindsets, attempts to prevent layoffs in customer-sensitive positions usually go nowhere. However, by thinking ahead and working ahead most down-sizing companies can reduce or even eliminate negative effects on customers. And as counter-intuitive as this seems, some companies can strengthen customer relationships while cutting staff.

What’s the secret? There is no secret, other than having the smarts to reduce the amount of work required in order to reduce the number of people required. In other words, if companies eliminate all the kinks, bends, duplication and drops in office process before they cut staff, they can mitigate or even eliminate the risk to customer relationships.

When we apply our Visual Workflow office process analysis and design tool, we typically find somewhere in the range of 10% overstaffing, and we’ve seen instances where overstaffing tops 20%. But this over-staffing is invisible to companies, because, these excess employees are hardly standing around. They’re working as hard as everyone else. Deficient processes require more people doing more work, while effective office process design reduces the amount of work required, thereby reducing the number of workers required. It’s that simple.

In contrast, when companies break out the meat ax to sever employee relationships, they don’t consider cutting the amount of work, and workers, required. They just assume staffing exceeds workload. Or they decide remaining employees will just have to work harder. And they naively believe everything will sort itself out. But that rarely happens. Instead, when employees go away without work going away, work performance suffers. And when the work is customer work, customer relationships take a hit. Consequently, very often customers closely follow employees out the exit door.

So here’s a question for you. “Why do the vast majority of companies use the meat ax approach rather than the process approach?” In the new book I’m writing, “Process to the People,” I’ve dedicated several chapters to explaining the genesis of all this bad decision-making. But suffice it to say now that despite 90% of workers having non-manufacturing jobs, the preponderance of them office jobs, business continues applying 90%+ of their process efforts against the less than 10% of the workforce in manufacturing. The notion that process redesign can permanently shrink the office workforce has never crossed most CEO’s minds—or has crossed their minds only to be crossed off, sometimes for fear of cutting people they know, rather than “just” anonymous manufacturing workers. The only thing keeping their companies from being at a competitive disadvantage despite such deficient decision-making is the scarcity of office process-smart companies.

Back in the beginning, I mentioned opportunities to actually better customer relationships post-layoffs. Two “truths” about office process redesign create this opportunity. First, good process design simplifies work. And simplifying work increases work-quality, reduces errors and speeds up cycle times—all big positives for customers. Second, among the principles of office process redesign is training and empowering employees to make context-sensitive decisions. Doing so usually shrinks or eliminates supervisory levels across a range of functions, the contact center being a good example. Research shows that training and empowering customer-facing employees finishes behind only product/service quality in triggering supplier selection.

Oh, and a quick aside. If you’re good buds with the HR folks, eliminating roles instead of eliminating people mitigates the risk of EEOC actions and legal claims.

All this notwithstanding, layoffs are ugly and hurtful. But by redesigning work to require fewer people before cutting, you’ll mitigate the potential damage to customers and company both. You’ll also take away at least a bit of the sting employees feel when they believe they’ve been targeted personally to leave, rather than their departure stemming from job elimination. And you’ll potentially ease “survivor’s guilt” as well.

Not a happy topic. But something many of us will have to deal with until the economy rebounds.


Viewing Process Through a Strategic Lens

Companies achieve customer-alignment by first aligning strategies with customers, then aligning process with strategy, then aligning technology with process. The concept is clear and readily understandable, including how strategy drives process.

But try asking a colleague whether process is tactical or strategic. Almost guaranteed the answer will come back, “tactical.” That’s because business views process as “nuts and bolts” or “mechanics” or “measurability”—not as work enabling strategy. Now ask another colleague which drives process—strategy or technology. This time you’ll get a quick, “technology”—not recognizing that technology driving process means process won’t support strategies. Both responses are knee-jerk answers. But could they possibly be the correct answers?

If you manage manufacturing, the answer is, indeed, “Yes,” some noble efforts to customer-align manufacturing notwithstanding. But if you’re managing front office or back office functions, both answers are wrong—emphatically wrong for the front office. Nonetheless, virtually all office managers treat office process as a tactical companion to technology without a strategic role. They know not what they do—and the cost of what they do.

What’s happening here is business confusing “process” overall with thoroughly tactical “manufacturing process.” Not surprising, because manufacturing process has been around forever. While office process—well, let’s just say that what’s passed for “office process” has been the outcome of applying manufacturing process methods to get office workers under control, the “herding cats” syndrome; or applying skin-deep, process 101 approaches, some of them erroneously labeled “Six Sigma,” to try reining in sales.

Why no attention or respect paid to the unique process needs of the office environment—and the strategic connection between office process and strategy?

Two basic reasons. First, management, supported by IT and production functions, customarily views office functions as a necessary evil, or overhead, or what stands between making a good product and making a good profit. So why bother creating a process approach that links process to strategy—and respects the uniqueness of office workplaces? “Hell, wouldn’t turn out to be anything more than dumbed-down manufacturing process that’s permissive enough to ‘let cats be cats.’” “Yeah, let’s apply an adult dose of manufacturing process discipline out there in the office to get things under control.” Swell.

Ingrained beliefs will overcome business intelligence almost every time.

The second reason I’ve already mentioned. We just don’t have process tools designed to link office process to strategy, or more accurately—we’re unaware of those out there. And putting the process-strategy link aside, even people who realize manufacturing workers now count for less than 10% of the U.S. workforce—and realize we’re focusing 90% plus of our process attention on less than 10% of workers—they have no place to turn for office process design methods, other than misapplying manufacturing process tools. And setting aside the process-strategy link, if you don’t accept the fundamental premise that office and manufacturing work environments are radically different, please review this chart.


No resemblance between the two. But all the chart comparisons aside, the biggest differences between office and manufacturing process are how office process relates to business strategy, first and foremost, but also how it relates to technology.

Once you’ve looked at office process through a strategic lens, you’ll never confuse office and manufacturing process again. And you’ll never condone use of manufacturing process methods in the office—unless, of course, you don’t appreciate Maslow’s adage, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then all the world looks like a nail.”

So let’s put your eyeball up to that strategic lens and take a look.

How about starting with implementing a new, customer-centric strategy—say, integrating marketing and sales to present one face to the customer. Very worthwhile initiative in a B2B company, but how are you going to pull it off?

How about the CEO issuing a memo saying, “Starting Monday, Marketing and Sales are going to blah, blah, blah, blah. Can’t you hear the laughter in response?

Or how about firing the VP Sales and having both functions report to the VP Marketing? How many four-letter words do you know? And can you spell, “s-u-b-v-e-r-s-i-o-n? Or better yet, think “backstabbing.”

Or how about hiring a Chief Customer Officer over both VPs? He or she can knock their heads together until they get it right? Fat chance. Know what? I’m running out of options. Other than wiping out Marketing and Sales completely and starting over—and winding up with new folks wearing the same old headsets.

None of this stuff will help meld sales and marketing. Why? Because if you don’t change the underlying process, you’ll get the same old outcome. Strategies are thoughts. Process implements thoughts. And there’s no other place to take this. In the office, strategy and process are intertwined. You can’t treat them independently.

Further, please notice that in our sales-marketing example, the office process required to carry out strategy will dictate the type of technology support provided. No technology driving process.

I could give an endless number of similar examples. But they won’t means as much as looking at your company’s process through your own strategic lens. Please try it.