Michael Hammer is THE name in Process Reengineering. He co-authored its bible: ‘Reengineering the Corporation’. In ‘Beyond Reengineering’ which he wrote about 5 years later he tries to expand on the first one. From my perspective he nearly steps away from the message of the first book. Many proponents of reenginering have done so. Mostly because they were understood to have said – and some actually did – that the work of knowledge workers in an business could be automated like a factory floor. Which to anyone actually running a business is obvious nonsense.
Hammer writes in ‘Beyond Reengineering’ (p42 – slightly shortened here):
“In a process-centered organization, there are no convenient handoffs at which to monitor results. Work is a continuum, not a series of discrete pieces and the handoffs are now inside people’s heads. The supervisor is no longer in charge – the worker is.”
Clearly, Hammer does now away with the idea of numerous, fragmented business processes and portrays the business as decentralized workgroups that each is responsible for a particular segment of the customer service processes. The workgroup is guided by a process-owner who coaches a group teamplayers and monitors customer service quality and not the process. Hammer could have easily substituted process-centered with goal-centered, but his choice is understandable.
Hammer goes on to propose that for a business to be competitive it has to have superior process design for the right people in the right environment. He suggests that the use of common processes across decentralized large corporations can break down organizational walls. Common processes are however a compromise, that – as the adage goes – leaves everyone equally dissatisfied. The more departments have to share a common process the less will each department see them as theirs.
Hammer worries that as business become more process oriented there my not be enough work for the lesser educated. It is highly unlikely that with a flexible process-centered approach the not-so-flexible members of the workforce might fall through the grid. Consider that the original proposal of fairly rigid process management caused businesses to build idiot-proof processes, despite the obvious long-term damage to the ability to compete in exchange for shortsighted benefits of lower costs. Rather than to favor the well-educated, more expensive people, strict processes favor the cheaper, replaceable ones.
Humans are not equal in capability and interests as much as some political fractions would like us to believe. It is biological diversity that makes nature tick and complex adaptive systems work. Human diversity and adaptability is the key to our dominance in nature. The trick is to foster diversity in a business and not try to assemble a workforce of process owning clones. There is a job for everyone. They just have to find each other.
Michael Hammer writes (p217):
“Process quality information must be gathered from everyone in the organization, especially frontline employees, who are best equipped to recognize inadequacies in current operations or significant changes in customer need.”
Hammer’s solution to the process optimization problem is to change the current corporate culture and organization. He envisions a ‘deep system’ that shapes the strategy and values and a ‘surface system’ that executes them. Well, most businesses do have organization departments who tend to be the most bureaucratic and disliked departments of all. One can but wonder if that could change. There is a deep emotional ravine between the ‘deep system’ and the ‘surface system’ of most large corporations and virtually no cooperation between subsidiaries. Hammer ignores that the amount of control that corporate management has over the structure of its workforce is limited. This is particularly true in most of Europe, where for 90% of companies it is either illegal or extremely expensive to replace personal. In the US, businesses similarly lack control in closed, unionized shops or where employees have sufficient other employment options. In most of Asia, manpower is abundant and cheap but not always well enough educated.
But Hammer’s ideas are valuable and can justify a different IT approach. In an insightful way, Hammer compares the ideal workgroup with a football team. While the coach trains with the team possible plays (processes) he does not step out on the field and controls the game. A player (process owner) called the ‘offense coordinator’ dynamically selects and positions players for each offense. Players all have very different roles like workers in business. They are trained by special ‘position coaches.’ Offense coordinators and position coaches draw from their extensive experience to shape the team to dynamically react to any opponent. It is this teamwork between coaches, coordinators and players that we need to achieve in daily business operations. Strict process management or vertical applications are unable to provide that. What a business would need is a software system that can learn to act as an ‘offense coordinator’ and ‘position coach’ from its users experience. It assigns work to user roles and supports these in how to act in the current play without restricting their ability to shape the play.
Using the football team comparison offers another insight. While the team is given the freedom to play the game as it sees fit, it still has to follow the rules of the game. The same is true for business. Therefore it is essential to understand that user role coordination and coaching does not replace or interfere with the (business) rules that make up the game. Rules are rigid by design, coordination and coaching cannot be.
But truly, a business is what it does, and not what the CEO or organization department wants and what a marketing department describes it to be. How a business does its processes is implicitly defined by how employees actually perform customer service. As any general will tell you: On the frontline, the truth is what happens!
Hammer is right when he says that it is the surface system, the people at the customer front who execute each day that knows what works and what doesn’t. To get the business user experience translated into a change of process execution is the trick! Where does a process owning workgroup get the knowledge from how to perform a process? The only true knowledge is experience. If the right diversity (young, old, differently educated, different work histories, some experienced people) in a process workgroup exists its members will create the processes that for them (and thus for the business) is the least effort. The business has to make clear what it wants to achieve by providing structure and goals and then let people loose. There might be some mentoring and coaching necessary, but it is very likely that it will work. If those workgroups have direct customer contact the feedback from the customer will motivate them to improve quality.
This book is an important read for someone involved in Process Management. Hammer tiptoes away from his original stance that given the right process design a business will prosper. He suddenly moves closer to the people and says: ‘Give people the right processes and let them get on with it.’
Amazon Link: ‘Beyond Reengineering’ by Michael Hammer
- Paperback: 304 pages
- ISBN-10: 0887308805
- ASIN: B000GG4I5G