Monthly Archives: February 2009

Moving Beyond E-Mail

Beyond good company-customer communication, effectively serving customers requires intense internal coordination and collaboration–and not just in the front office but between front and back offices and within the back office. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. Internal communication continues getting the short end of the office process stick, even in communication-intensive business sectors such as banking, which we’re about to use as an example.

Changing internal communication requirements

Back when I was a pup, internal communication meant: a.) yelling over cube tops; b.) sending ubiquitous memos; c.) staggering from desk to desk with piles of green bar reports; and d.) just flopping down in someone’s office or cube and flapping jaws. Then, in my young adulthood, we expanded our repertoire with: e.) 8 ½ X 11 reports plastered with graphs and charts; f.) floppy disks (many of them infectious) and g.) printed slide presentations (a handy format for those who don’t write). Hey, it worked. Sort of. But in my wisdom years on came remote workers, mobile workers, outsourced workers, unidentified flying workers–which required a new communication medium.

E-mail tried to fill the void

Along came e-mail, and more e-mail, and more e-mail–business messages mixed in with baby pictures, wedding pictures, pornographic pictures, social invitations, love letters, rejection letters and lots and lots of gossip. Before long, in-boxes filled to overflowing, forcing recipient to constantly flush stuff out to make room for new stuff. You could almost imagine bursting in-boxes disgorging messages the way overfilled storm sewers blast manhole covers high in the air, leaving messages streaming down the street.

Only overflowing e-mail pipes aren’t funny. Critical messages drown in the flood. Coordination and collaboration go downhill. Internal tensions increase. Staff spends measurable portions of every day, some reporting 25% or more, deleting unread messages, reading a few, responding to even fewer and storing some to read “later” (LOL). And for the capper, time spent wrestling with e-mail coupled with work inefficiencies caused by inadequate internal communication drives up staffing requirements, often by double-digit percentages.

Banking too much on e-mail

If you think I’m stretching a point, let me describe a recent consulting engagement with a regional bank–which mirrors our similar experiences with other consumer FIs (financial institutions). How was our bank client handling internal communication when we arrived? Just as described above, with e-mail, e-mail and more e-mail. And while this bank provided good customer experiences at points of direct contact, problematic internal communication was more than a fly in the ointment. Customers were experiencing process inconsistencies, policy variances, excessive back office cycle times and mixed brand messages–while the bank was suffering from metrics issues, compliance problems and especially “over-employment” stemming from over-reliance on e-mail.

Mapping internal information flow

As customary, we dove into the snarl by assessing and mapping how customer-related work and information (synonymous in a knowledge worker environment) were moving from person to person and function to function. Here’s a high-level representation of what mapping showed.

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More like knitting than well-designed workflow/information flow.

Defining the problem

Specific problems we had to address included:

  1. Pushing messaging at recipients, which led to an overwhelming onslaught of communication.
  2. Sending many irrelevant messages, because senders lacked time to properly parse mail contact groups.
  3. Using a text-only medium, in an environment requiring visual expression (attachments are fine, but viewed even less than text).
  4. Messages competing for scarce attention, which meant most messages got little or none.

If we could address just these four issues, good things would happen.

Designing the solution

Fortunately, we didn’t have to start fixing from scratch; this was virtually déjà vu all over again.  And in virtually every case, the core solution includes:

  • Bringing people to information, rather than pushing it at them.
  • Creating an intranet communication nexus.
  • Combining index and search navigation to allow people to access what they need and only what they need–and access it quickly.
  • Leveraging web graphic and media potential to communicate marketing campaigns, training information and both workflow and individual work process documentation.
  • Creating employee accountability for religiously visiting the site for new information relevant to them.

Here’s how the “to-be” communication flow looked.

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The concept is simple. Every type of information has its own intranet “bucket,” with partitions for marketing, HR, training, process, policy, news, etc. Where necessary, buckets have precise, indexed links that allow quick access to information. Search is always an option, but inappropriate for retrieving granular content such as process and policy.

Every morning when employees boot up (and we’re all shutting down at night to be “green,” right?), a welcome screen lists all new information for the day. Employees are accountable for following appropriate links to need-to-know information for their function. Effecting that does require training plus willingness to apply consequences for non-compliance, but it’s a small price to pay for bypassing e-mail and communicating effectively.

Oh, and by the way, in addition to greatly improving internal communication, this “fix” will allow the bank to repurpose about 15% of employees into more value-adding work.

Not bad, eh?

One caveat

For organizations relying on technical or finely parsed content, as banks do, creating and maintaining content consumes lots of time and resources. However, when you consider the ineffectiveness and costs of the e-mail alternative, it’s most definitely worth the effort. You betcha, it is.

How Can You Walk Away From An Opportunity To Reduce Office Staff By 15%

In today’s times, the opportunity to reduce front and back office staffs by 15% should be too good to turn your back on–provided, of course, office staff consolidation won’t adversely affect customers or work quality. Nonetheless, the vast majority of companies (not to mention educational institutions and government) do walk away from this opportunity. And to pour salt in the wound, properly-designed, process-based office staff cuts of this magnitude almost always positively affect both customer relations and work quality, escalating the opportunity cost of failing to redesign office process to run at optimal staffing levels.

Why you shouldn’t walk away

Well-executed, customer-centric redesign of office process (also called “human process”) gives buyers more of what they want from sellers–less bureaucracy; less interference with customer-facing staff decisions; fewer time-consuming, quality-lowering “touches” of customer work; and fewer employee-to-employee handoffs. Plus, delivering all these customer benefits actually does require fewer FTEs than currently in place, not more, as commonly perceived. Sounds improbable, I know, but the combination of a.) Designing office process within silo walls (if at all) instead of across silo walls; and b.) Not using proper automation tools and not using the ones in place wisely–together virtually guarantee a high office inefficiency quotient, as in 15% in our experience.

Makes you wonder how an opportunity this big can stay invisible to companies and organizations desperate to reduce labor costs, doesn’t it? But as you’d suspect, some powerful factors come into play here, keeping the blinders in place.

Seven reasons why companies do walk away

Obviously, business doesn’t leave big money on the table for no reason. But business as well as other organization types will leave money on the table for bad reasons.

Reason #1:  Management can’t “see” the problem.  You’d expect 15% overstaffing to slow the work pace, extend lunch hours and breaks and populate water coolers–giving visibility to lots of slack time. Not the case. Most office employees work hard, often putting in considerable overtime. Why, amidst excess staffing? Because poor work design has a voracious appetite–and eats up tremendous amounts of employee and management time both. Which leaves office staff working hard on necessary work–and leaves management saying, “What’s the problem?”

Reason #2:  No one’s responsible for office process. And if someone is, that person usually has limited office process skills (other than gut instinct) and even less familiarity with designing information flow and automating office work. Designing the information flow component of office process is takes on huge importance because you can’t separate workflow from information flow in the office environment. Unfortunately, designing workflow and information flow in tandem lies far outside the manufacturing process skill set, thus thwarting efforts to “borrow” a process specialist from the production side.

Reason #3:  IT is responsible for office process. While a few companies imbed skilled process professionals into IT (almost all manufacturing specialists), office process managed by IT almost always winds up subordinate to technology–if it reaches the IT radar screen at all

Reason #4:  Companies try addressing office process issues with manufacturing process approaches such as Lean or Six Sigma. In the dozen years we’ve been designing office process, we’ve yet to see one of these initiatives work–and least not to the standards we set. Six sigma, in particular, does face plants in the office. To understand why, view the contrast between office and manufacturing process environments.

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Reason #5:  Laying off white collar workers, or even repurposing them, hits too close to home for managers.  Management works at a distance from manufacturing. People are numbers and shifts, making manufacturing layoffs emotionally easier than office layoffs, which touch friends and colleagues. Eliminating roles of direct reports or people you greet every day hurts.

Reason #6: Budgets are frozen. Because no function has primary responsibility for improving office process, office process budget champions are nowhere in sight. Moreover,  business, education and government all struggle with the concept of spending money to save money. Except, that is, for spending money on technology, which often doesn’t save money.

Reason #7:  Companies can’t find an alternative to manufacturing process approaches. Spurred on by bad business conditions, an increasing number of companies are starting to see the problem and want to address it. But where’s the end of the knotted up ball of string that’s office process? And how do you untangle it?

Where do most companies stand with office process?

Until recently, most companies were failing to address office process for the first four reasons–with reason #5 always lurking in the background. But now that recognition of office inefficiency and ineffectiveness is showing up on at least some radar screens, “walk-away” factors have started migrating to reasons #6 and #7. Either budgets are frozen, and only a much firmer grasp of the ROI potential fixing office process unlocks will thaw them–or companies coming up with the resources required to redesign and automate office process don’t know where to start or how to proceed.

 Educating business in new concepts –like investing a little in office process design to save a lot on office salaries–is always a tough nut, and tougher than normal in this case. What’s the solution? We have to keep educating and educating and educating–and hope organizational self-interest overcomes resistance to office process change. But as for finding an effective office process design approach that’s finally getting easier.

In addition to our office process methodology, Visual Workflow, other office approaches are finally coming online. Better late than never.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Visual Workflow office process approach, please visit our website, and download our free white paper.