Why sub-Optimal is Best

I’m quite a fan of systems-thinking and process reviews, except for the fact that these methodologies seduce people into thinking that they will come up with the perfect way of doing things. But experience, or just looking around you, shows us that this isn’t the case. So why?

“Let’s design a process that will enable us to do < this thing>  in the minimum time!”

We’ll run a series of workshops to map the minimum steps, quickest possible times and fewest hand-offs to show that efficiency can theoretically be increased by e.g. 200%. And by-the-way show how just how rubbish we are at doing <this thing> at the moment! Compared to a perfect world of course – a world in which there are no variations to the inputs, the environment, or the client/customers’ expectations.

If your mission is (like mine!) to deliver great public services, you’ll recognise that service-users do not come in standard dimensions, to an exact specification, and on time. They come with a wide variety of interests, needs and circumstances – square pegs that don’t fit precisely into our perfectly round system requirements. Consistency of process and uniformity of outcome are not possible if the inputs come in all shapes and sizes. So the people working in the system try to find ways to help the people that, after all, they are employed to help, by not following the perfect process.

“We need better managers and performance measures, to get people to follow the process properly!”

Well my answer to that is – we already know how to solve global warming, and we already have enough money to prevent everyone on the planet from starving, but how’s that going?!

People are emotional beings: We will do more of the things we like, we’ll do less of the things that we don’t like, or don’t agree with. It’s easier to say “yes” or “maybe” to a customer rather than telling them they don’t meet the criteria for a particular service. We’ll do what we find comfortable, and avoid the tricky bits, rather than remember the exceptions. We’ll ask a colleague what to do next, because its easier than looking it up on the system. With the best of intentions, we’ll find work-arounds and short cuts to make life easier.

Designing a system or process that relies on everyone behaving perfectly, following a prescriptive approach, with precise timings, and without mistakes or variation, is a recipe for disappointment and getting your performance measures, budgets and resource requirements terribly wrong. And by the way, you’ll spend a lot of time and money trying to force manage process compliance. There goes the dream of maximising efficiency and saving money.

And at the same time, we send inadvertent messages to the people who actually do this work, that:

“Our managers are idiots, who don’t understand the complexity of our jobs!”
“These performance measures are unachievable and unfair, so why should I bother?”

But remember, I started by saying “I’m quite a fan of systems- thinking and process- reviews”,  so….

What am I Talking About?

  • Putting the systems design and process-reengineering in the hands of the people who do the work, to use in the work. Don’t take them away for weeks, or months, of process workshops.
  • The act of continuously checking how well we’re doing and trying out new, better ways of getting the outcome we’re looking for, with evidence of what works in practice, not theoretical opinion of what’s best.
  • Allowing people to make mistakes, and to stop doing things they know don’t work. Not unthinkingly following a process.
  • Don’t try and prescribe the perfect process. Rather give people trust and autonomy, and the flexibility to follow the guidelines and use their discretion to achieve the best outcome.
  • By all means capture the best process in writing, once it has been shown to work, as a guide to help the team, not as a set of rules which has been written in advance in a remote office somewhere and issued as an instruction.
  • Don’t set stretch targets (aka ridiculous, macho KPIs) but encourage teams to measure what they do and nurture their creativity to find ways of making their achievements a little bit better, bit by bit. And praise and promote and celebrate those achievements.

In short, don’t write processes and procedures that expect people to be anything less than human. Allow the space and flexibility for failure and creativity both, for better results.


“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
             Voltaire

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