What to Do When Process Improvement Hits a Wall


You can automate your organization to enhanced efficiency, but only to a point.


A belief that process automation can solve everything has resulted in business process improvement process hitting a wall, writes David Mitchell, CEO of business process management software provider Global 360 in a piece on CIO Today. He explains:


When it comes to process management initiatives, organizations today over-respect the importance of process automation -- how work moves through an organization -- and under-respect the contributions of workers -- how work gets done.


Mitchell isn't the first to make this observation. I wrote about it back in 2007, in a post titled Putting a Human Face on BPM. But he offers an especially interesting take on it, that to be truly effective, all of the folks involved in a process must be empowered to improve it. He uses manufacturing as an example. But I think this idea extends to every function within an organization, including customer service.


We've been reading lots and lots about how social channels like Facebook and Twitter empower customers to solve their problems in ways simply not possible through traditional customer service channels. But consider this: Is it possible customers wouldn't need to use these channels at all if companies simply did a better job of empowering their employees to help customers? Gee, you think?


When I interviewed Strativity Group's Lior Arussy earlier this month, he told me just 39 percent of executives surveyed by his company said their employees possessed the tools and authority to solve customer problems. This means, he said, "basically 61 percent of employees show up to work and the best thing they have to offer customers is their smile." At least part of the problem lies with IT and restrictive identity and access management policies, he said.


He offered a real-world example in which a customer service agent verifies a customer's address, finds out the one in the database is incorrect, and wants to change it. Instead of being able to do so, they must fill out a spreadsheet with the customer data and send it to IT. Said Arussy:


Aside from slowing down the process and not being able to confirm the order because they don't know when IT will do that, it sends a message to the customer that the person whom he is dealing with is the wrong person. He wants to talk to somebody who has the authority to help him.


When customers using self-service channels run into problems, they need to connect with someone who can solve their problems, he added:


When you introduce self-service, you basically outsource Tier 1 to your customers. But when they seek human interaction, they are looking for somebody who can break the rules or think outside the box for them. They want somebody with the authority to get the job done. If you outsource Tier 1 to the customer, they want you to be ready with Tier 2 when they need help.


I ran into this myself recently, with the apparent malfunction of the shopping cart function on a retail site. I've placed orders with the site several times, with no problems. When the cart refused to let me add items to my cart, I switched from Internet Explorer to Firefox to see if the browser was the problem. Nope. I turned to the "Help" section of the site, which offered no troubleshooting or any clues beyond a simple explanation of how to place an order. When I sent an e-mail to customer service, I got those same directions, apparently copied-and-pasted into an e-mail. I've checked back a few times, thinking the cart problem may have just been a short-lived glitch. It sitll isn't working, and I haven't ordered from the site since.


I don't know if the agent I contacted lacked the proper tools and authority to solve my problem. But my experience left me frustrated enough to simply not shop with the company, because there's no lack of sites selling similar stuff online.


Mitchell predicts BPM will evolve by adopting a few key principles espoused by process improvement pioneer W. Edwards Deming. The first: There are no isolated functions or departments. Process improvement is cumulative, with each step in a process dependent on the one that precedes it. The second: Every employee should be empowered to play a role in process improvement initiatives.


Another of Deming's ideas applied to manufacturing that I think also applies to customer service: A focus on costs will cause costs to go up and quality to decline over time. A focus on quality will reduce costs while increasing productivity and market share over time.