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When process goes bad

Imagine this scenario... you've discovered a way to add one thing to your product that will double its usability. Just like that. And it's not a big deal to add. Or so you thought...

You bring it to your manager who discusses it with other people (people you're not allowed to talk to directly... you know, chain-of-command and all), and the answer comes back, "No". Why? "It just won't work with Our Process."

The systems, policies, procedures aren't set up to incorporate your proposed change, and nobody's willing to think about changing things. It would just be too disruptive. It would make too many people uncomfortable.

And we wouldn't want that.

Obviously there are times it doesn't make sense to shake up your hard-fought, well-tuned systems. Where the tradeoff doesn't justify it. But you all know what I'm talking about here... the times when NOT changing makes no sense. Or at least it makes no sense to those outside. Those with a perspective not colored by inertia, bruised from past experience, or threatened by new (and potentially better) views.

Too many times I've heard "upper management" assume that when employees (or users) insist that what the company is doing makes no sense (e.g. a policy that punishes customers or pisses off employees), it must be because the employee just doesn't get it. The employee doesn't have all the facts and doesn't see things from the "higher" perspective of management. The employee doesn't see the Big Picture.

Sometimes... sometimes that's bullshit.

Sometimes the employee or user is the only one who DOES "get it". Sometimes it's the lower-level (or at least more user-facing) employee who really knows how damaging a company's policies can be, or where the points of leverage really are. Sometimes it's the user who has a basis of comparison -- who hasn't bought into the company's worldview so long that they can't see any other reality.

I don't want to be too specific with names, but here are some examples I've experienced recently:

* A particular mechanism for annotating code in a book or manual would dramatically improve usability for the reader/learner. But the documentation department can't do it because their ancient desktop publishing system won't support two "layers" intersecting. Usability (and even innovation) takes a back seat to an old production system for which many cost-effective alternatives exist, but... it would still mean change and learning curves and discomfort amongst the production staff.

* A large software company decides to go after one of its biggest outside evangelists because the big software company has a policy that says "if anyone is going to make money from training on our products, it must be us." Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. (And from a systems persepctive, pretty much the worst thing you can do.)

* A bestselling author has found a way to reduce technical errors in first printings by as much as 70%, at no cost to the publisher using a peer review system that involves volunteers. But the publisher's copy editing process cannot cope with the shift in timing and granularity of copy edits (despite the fact that the average technical book reader considers tech errors about 10x worse than grammatical errors). [FYI - I'm not talking about O'Reilly or Osborne]

* A fast food company demands that all clerks MUST "upsell" the customer, regardless of the customer's order. That means even when the customer does order a drink and fries to go with their meal, the order clerk is required to ask the customer if they'd like some other [insert specific thing] to go with it. That demans the employee and pisses off the customer, but The Policies leave no room for judgement calls about when it is or is not appropriate to upsell. It's always, end of story. Besides, it's not like a fast-food clerk has enough of a brain to make a good decision about that anyway. Right?

* A large software company insists that the documentation team not use contractions in their writing because "they don't translate well." So, they suck the life out of the user documentation to compensate for the poor quality of translators they use.

* A word processor that insists on capitalizing the word boolean as Boolean. Or that insists the code line:

public static void main (String[] args) { }

is actually:

Public static void main (String[] args) { }

* A software company's editorial staff that has all the control with none of the technical knowledge... who takes a book on web technologies and manages to turn HTTP POST into HTTP Power On Self Test. And who thinks that a database that's not normalized is actually... a somewhat unusual database". (Yes, that's a true story.)

* Don't get me started on all the stupid customer service related policies companies have that make no sense (well, at least not if they ever want those customers to come back) for things like returns, refunds, repairs, etc.

Gosh, I guess I decided to return to blog world with a little rant : )

So... think about your policies and systems and procedures and process. I have this terrible fear that I'm going to be doing the same thing -- justifying staying with a production process -- even when it would be better for the user (or the author) to allow for more creativity, flexibility, and change. If today's business mantra is "change or die", we should all be looking for ways to make sure we don't fall asleep in the comfort of our working systems. And boy do I know how seductive those comfort zones can be...

As Jayne Howard (and others) have said,"If you are not living on the edge, you are taking up too much room."

Posted by Kathy on August 8, 2005 | Permalink


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» Update on the Dish Network Challenges from Rich "The Hubbins" Claussen
[Read More]

Tracked on Aug 9, 2005 12:11:10 AM

» Personality Types and When Processes Go Bad from Graham Chastney (oak-grove)
Sometimes its great when two articles come together on different subjects, but providing a wonderful intersect. While I was on holiday Steve highlighted an article by Andre on Personality types and today Kathy Sierra over at Creating Passionate Users [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 9, 2005 5:29:09 AM

» Why We Need PFTP, NOW from The Vision Thing
Before everyone rushes off to dismantle anything resembling BPM around their office, please take a moment to determine what the real barrier is. Process, or policy? [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 9, 2005 8:52:03 AM

» Change or die: why old processes can kill from Better Communication Results
Kathy Sierra has it right. Again. As she says, "If today's business mantra is "change or die", we should all be looking for ways to make sure we don't fall asleep in the comfort of our working systems. And boy do I know how seductive those comfort zo... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 11, 2005 2:24:07 PM

» Update on the Dish Network Challenges from Rich "The Hubbins" Claussen
[Read More]

Tracked on Aug 14, 2005 10:29:59 AM

» Kathy Sierra includes some publishing rants in When process goes bad from Jim Minatel's Wrox Book Editor Blog
Kathy Sierra, author of the brilliantly conceived Head First books (but if you are reading my blog, you certainly knew that already), hits on a couple of fairly common we can't do that here publishing process requests in Creating Passionate [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 16, 2005 8:55:20 AM


I've got one. How about when your favorite blog/website doesn't post anything new for 2, 3 or even 4 days! I really need my fix...you guys are so addictive. It's almost cruel and unusual punishment for you all to 'go on vacation' like you apparently did during this most recent gap (Kung Fu to Processes).

Seriously, for most people, if you don't have something valuable to contribute, a good policy is to keep quiet. BUT YOU GUYS ALWAYS HAVE SOMETHING VALUABLE TO CONTRIBUTE, so can that policy. Oh yeah, before you think that you don't have something worth saying, step down off of that well-deserved pedestal and look at things from our perspective. I'll gladly accept your crumbs, EVERY post doesn't have to be spectacular, does it?

All of this is tongue-in-cheek, but I'd love to read your thoughts on it (see what I mean)?

Thanks for all that you do share with us! YOU GUYS ARE GREAT!

Posted by: Dean A. Nash | Aug 8, 2005 11:19:34 PM

Seems like weeks since you posted last. :) Missed your wit and wisdom. Welcome back!

Posted by: Dave Goodman | Aug 9, 2005 1:10:08 AM

Welcome back Kathy, like Dean said, we have been waiting for you long time.

It's good to read you again. :)

Posted by: Samuel Adam | Aug 9, 2005 1:15:11 AM

Yes, welcome back!

And, please, leave a little "Not in the blogosphere at the moment" note next time you take a break for that long!

I can relate very much to your rant, even if I experienced it without formal procedures but with, well, let's call it ... 'tradition'.

Posted by: Jens Reineking | Aug 9, 2005 1:27:53 AM

Kathy, welcome back! Does this mean the chapter on Generics is ready? ;)

Posted by: Bill Mietelski | Aug 9, 2005 5:51:51 AM

I was so excited to read your newest post that I didn't realize it had been almost 3 weeks, NOT 3 days!

Anyway, we really missed you guys, and we're glad you're back.

Posted by: Dean A. Nash | Aug 9, 2005 8:13:24 AM

Great post Kathy. Glad to see you back again. Back in my college days I used to work at McDonald's. I only lasted a month before I quit because the place drove me crazy. They had a policy where one person was assigned to one station. Nice in theory, but horribly ineffective in reality. I remember getting in trouble because I was on the Fry station and there was an order ready to go except someone needed to put a hamburger in the bag. As I waited a minute or so, I walked over, put the hamburger in the bag and brought it over to the drive-thru person to give to the customer. The shift manager yelled at me to stay in my station. I quit the next day. I recently stopped by a McDonald's recently that made me remind me of this. I ordered a medium diet coke and a sundae. I know - HUGE, complicated order. It was the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday so I was confused when I became aware that I was still waiting after a couple of minutes. There were about 6 or 7 employees doing nothing and a single person (who happened to be the shift manager) on drinks. They had two drink stations, but no one would help her! It was apparent to one of the cashiers that I was irritated and he asked me what I was waiting on. I said a diet coke. He said, "Diet Coke, OK" and continued standing there doing nothing. My wife and I couldn't believe it. Finally after waiting for about 10 minutes I asked for a refund. Ironically, the shift manager who was making the drinks came over and spent about 5 minutes processing the refund instead of just giving my f'n drinks! Processes definitely have their place, but I totally agree that it is important to change them if improvements are needed.

Posted by: Terry McKee | Aug 9, 2005 10:03:24 AM

"Processes definitely have their place, but I totally agree that it is important to change them if improvements are needed."

Terry, your comment largely deals with policy, not process. As noted in my trackbacked post above, these terms are being used interchangeably when they are 2 separate things. Yes, policies can impact process pro or con, but the process itself may be stable yet either activated or bypassed by way of a policy.

In the McDonald's example, the object is to get your order filled correctly and quickly. As you note, this could have been done had it not been for the "stay at your station no matter what" policy. In and of itself, the process is unchanged: If the policy were lifted, the object would still be to fill your order correctly and quickly. However, as you pointed out, it would have actually happened.

Posted by: Ethan | Aug 9, 2005 10:46:16 AM

WELCOME BACK!!! sorry to shout, but i was really, really sick of seeing that kung fu post...no matter how good it is. please, post more!

yeah, processes are meant to be changed. the funny thing is that it's my team that wants the process to stay the same - they get all freaked out when modifications are proposed, and don't seem to understand that not every process can fit in one of our processes.

Posted by: Chad Norman | Aug 9, 2005 12:08:38 PM

Thanks for the clarification Ethan. I see what you mean.

Posted by: Terry McKee | Aug 9, 2005 12:47:00 PM

Customer is happy when he...

o Smiles at you.
o Compliments you for being there for him.
o Invites you to his(their) club to show you that they're really happy.
o Doesn't sneak out on you looking for other *easier*(read approachable) means to get his job done.
o Is astonishingly honest to you.

All these are merely symptoms of an effective process which you implemented actually included a *working* brain (which also worked to monitor the continuity of the same).

I have seen most of the times processes suck as they tend to give the power of *getting the job done* poorly relayed(communicated) to the customer/client. And as usual mostly the brains of the one's who actually get the job done are (if not intentionally left out) numbed by the *processes are crucial* crap.

The tendency at several institutions/shops is to implement processes when you have no control on the staff. And it's a disaster waiting to happen when you start hiring too many non techincal staff to monitor those processes. Well you just added more overhead(financially as well) to your current organization.

Anyways, Welcome back, Kathy.:-)


Posted by: Tarry | Aug 10, 2005 8:26:22 AM

Amen! (And I especially agree with you about the dumbness of mandatory upselling; I'm working in a coffee shop I love while I'm getting my own business up and running, and the coffee shop officially requires us to try to upsell to every customer, which seems to annoy most of them. I love the coffee shop, but I don't love that part of the job. So mostly I only do it when a manager is close by, or if I suspect they are a "secret shopper", or if they genuinely seem like they want suggestions.)

Posted by: Jill | Aug 10, 2005 10:24:17 AM

Any proper Quality Management System encourages and embraces change, it's a way of life. However in organisations changes which affect many have to be managed and planned - would employees and customers like unplanned changes? I don't think so!


Posted by: Wally | Aug 10, 2005 11:49:06 AM

>Don't get me started on all the stupid customer service
>related policies companies have that make no sense (well,
>at least not if they ever want those customers to come
>back) for things like returns, refunds, repairs, etc.

Ignoring admonition about not getting started:
The channel up button on my Dish Network remote broke within my first year of service; however, I can still navigate on the guide with page-up or key in the channel numbers so I didn't bother to call them. When I called to change my credit card number for automatic billing (stolen card), and the automated system failed at the verification step, and I had to repeat the info to a real person, I mentioned that my remote did not work. After waiting in a queue for a different CSR I was told that the equipment was warranted for 1 year and now cost $39 + shipping for replacement. I know where I can get equipment for free! (DirectTV, Comcast+$400 for ditching remote (ok, dish) - though there are negatives with each of these companies which I am ignoring - reminds me to send a check to EFF)

Posted by: Kevin Brown | Aug 10, 2005 2:45:23 PM

Following up my post above:
I neglected to mention why I though this was bad policy. Dish policy is effectively "we replace equipment when user is under a contract, but 'encourage' them find an alternate provider when they are free to leave". Odd.

Posted by: Kevin Brown | Aug 11, 2005 1:37:32 PM

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