Your Process is Killing Productivity

by Mark

Every time something goes wrong, a new process gets its wings. While those new processes might start out as angels, if you aren’t keeping an eye on them, they will turn on you and kill your team’s productivity.

All of these processes are well meaning, and certainly start off with the best intentions, but it’s critical to look at them all together and assess what’s actually working.

To err is human

It all starts out innocently: someone makes a mistake or some small thing goes wrong. It might be a big deal, or maybe just a "let’s watch out for that in the future” kind of thing. Wherever it falls on the spectrum, someone decides it shouldn’t happen again. As an organization that learns from mistakes, there is nothing wrong with that.

Sometimes there is a post mortem (or some other analysis) to figure out what went wrong, and where we could have stopped it. Sometimes it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to insert some kind of approval or double check. There are even problems that are solved by adding a new person to the company. Hindsight makes these problems easy to solve…in reverse.

We put a bandage on that still open wound and salvage some victory out of it. Even if we messed up, at least we learned something, and made sure it will never happen again (or so we think). Often we are under stress when we make these decisions, and that perfect hindsight isn’t as perfect as we hoped.

If we only made one mistake in our lifetime, this would probably work great, but oh, humanity! We are flawed. Most of us make quite a few mistakes, and the difference between being good at our jobs or not is often just having made all the mistakes in a previous role and learning what not to do again.

How do people get so bogged down?

As time passes, each and every one of these patches, big and small, from across the organization, start to add up. Some of them are huge, and come from the top, some are personal and represent the lessons learned and only apply to you. Combined, they turn into the fabric of an organization and the informal version of "the way things get done”.

We all remember the last time we learned a lesson, but who remembers the last time you removed a process that no longer applies?

Every process from across the team has an influence. You intuitively know what your team can get done quickly and what is going to take forever. That’s your internal knowledge of the informal map; getting directions from point now to done. You know that the first part is easy because you can do it yourself, but then you have to ask Steve for a product code, and that always takes 2 days, Jane needs the product code before she can confirm the lead time, so you can’t start that until you have it.

We are actually pretty good at figuring this all out, but our natural reaction is to let the time stack up. At some point, if we hit our limits, it’s a natural tendency to just go with the flow and slow down to the speed that lets everything happen the way it has always happened.

When things get extreme you will actually see people doing extra work because they know that the process doesn’t accommodate what they need, or let them get things done. It’s easier to do it themselves than to do it the right way. Just like that, your process to prevent mistakes is worthless.

Is it a teardown or a fixer upper?

You may have a sneaking suspicion that things are moving too slowly, or that it is just a little too difficult to get things done. Maybe you have been around for a few years and remember the good old days when everything just seemed to happen. This is the opportunity to realign your process with productivity.

If you have this feeling, you are almost certainly right, but you really want to get a sense for the scope of the problem before you start making changes. People are generally uncomfortable with change. Remember, your ‘wasted time’ is someone else’s ‘primary job responsibility’. One great technique for getting a handle on this is to do a quick visualization exercise (If this isn't quick, you know your answer).

Get one other person who works in the same space as you and an empty whiteboard. Start with the creation of the task in question, that moment someone decides ‘I think we should do this’, and draw out everything that needs to happen before it’s done. Put in the decisions, approvals, reviews, etc. If you get to something you know happens, but don’t have a detailed understanding of yourself, see if you can get the person who does to join you for a few minutes to explain what happens in that part of the process. Don’t worry about why things are happening at this stage, this is just the ‘do we have a problem’ test.

Complex process

When (if?) you get to the end and look at what you have produced, the answer will be pretty clear. Do you have something on the whiteboard that pretty much anyone could understand, and could fit on a single piece of paper? Or is it more like trying to explain what happened in a Christopher Nolan movie? Did you get to something understandable with just two people, or are you now surrounded by a crowd of co-workers all wondering how (and maybe why) they got here?

It should be pretty obvious if you have something where you can improve with fine tuning, or if you need to build up something new from scratch.

Look at the whole problem

Once you understand how big this is, it’s time to start working on an approach. The most important part of this, no matter the scope of the problem, is to focus on the sum total of what you want the end state to look like. Ask yourself, what is the essential value you are creating through your work? What can we do to align the process, something that exists to make the work error free, to support your efforts rather than standing in the way. 

What is the essential value you are creating through your work? What can we do to align the process, something that exists to make the work error free, to support your efforts rather than standing in the way. 

Often, all the right things are getting done, and it’s as simple as starting at different times, or connecting the results from one team directly to the next stage. The solutions will be very different in every organization. Sometimes it’s about setting up placeholders (like getting those product codes set up so there is always one ready to go). You may find that all you need to do is go through and take out all the repetition. If 10 people need to touch something as it moves forward and each one needs to approve it, would it work if they all approved it together at the end? Even better, could they do their approval on a limited version so that it was clear that this was going the right direction before people put in a lot of effort?

Make sure people understand the entry point

Every so often we do work in our area of expertise for other people or teams in the company. This can readily become a source of friction because our work has a unique language, context, or approach that is just a bit different than the other team who has their own specialization.

These points of intersection, where different parts of the organization are forced to stop, figure out what the other needs, and translate across specialties are often fraught with miscommunication. If things fall apart at the beginning it can take a lot of time and meetings to get everyone back on the same page.

You can help prevent this by paying extra attention to the entry point for your work and any processes you set up for other people. There are usually parts of your work that only you can do while there are also things the person requesting the work has already figured out or has strong opinions about. These pre-decided elements are critical context if you want to deliver the right results.

You are going to make this entry point the best way to get this thing done, don’t let people go around it. Intake should happen one way, however you choose to do it. You have done the work to make your process efficient, it’s not like before where entering at any point will work. There are no extra steps.

Context is efficient…and kind

When you think about intake, think about those questions and the context you need answered to make progress, and do the right thing. These things are obvious to you, but this is for people who may not really understand what you do; they are seeking you out for your expertise after all.

Imagine you only get to talk with the person you are doing something for just this one time. They have to convey what’s special, important, and meaningful about this job so you have the context to make good decisions as you do your part. Every time you have to stop in the middle of the work, and go back to them, you are going to slow down, be interrupted and interrupt someone else. If you are lucky that’s a 15 minute phone call, but let's be honest here…

Get the context you need in that first touch point.

Every hour won back is a prize

Each improvement in productivity is a win, because if you can get the busy work done faster, you can focus on doing the work you love, and get more of the right things done. It's true that there is always more to do, but a satisfying work experience improves a big chunk of our waking hours. Getting more done in the same amount of time lets us spend more time with the people we love, or doing things we enjoy. Faster response times make happier customers, and co-workers. Don’t let process kill your productivity.

untasked is designed to help you get things done, with the right amount of process for the problems you face every day. We can’t do your work for you, but we can make process and working across teams a little easier. With as much or little process as *you* want. It’s as simple as:

  • Define your capabilities, those entry points for getting access to your time and effort.
  • Automatically gather the context you need to deliver with confidence, right up front.
  • That task is now in front of you, and you can manage it in the way that works for you.
  • Attach a workflow if you have defined a complex path, or just do the work and pass it to the next stage when you are ready.
  • The person who requested it is always in the loop, and can see exactly where their request is in the process. No more ‘just checking in on this…’ emails to answer. 

Get work done. Get untasked.

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