We're about to launch a new software product, and I am always interested in observing the process. For months we've planned the launch, evaluated the risks and challenges and tried to plan for contingencies. Yet in the end, what has happened and what often happens is that a few people are the bottleneck or the reason the product will get launched.
I've always wondered about how productive and effective most businesses are, and whether they become effective in their processes through strong culture, great business processes or what I call individual acts of heroism. What I mean by individual acts of heroism is that, generally speaking, a few subject matter experts in a business do almost anything to make the process work, sacrificing a lot to complete a project or process.
What struck me about this was a contemplation of some of the places I've worked or had the opportunity to observe. I worked as a consultant for a large hotel chain with a very strong corporate culture, that is the model of customer service. However, the inner workings of the business were less than ideal. Many of the people in the business were long time employees and had fully invested in the corporate culture, and were willing to do almost anything to make any project or process succeed. The business processes and systems were faulty and a constant roadblock to getting anything done, so a few people in each business function did heroic things to overcome poor processes and systems. From the outside, the firm was a model of customer service. From the inside it was a business process disaster.
I also had the chance to observe Southwest Airlines from a distance, as a friend worked there. Southwest is an innovator in the way it positioned itself, and a great airline to fly. Almost always on time, low fares and employees with a humorous outlook. However, according to friends who worked there, the business processes in many of the functional areas were a mess. People bought into the culture and worked heroically to help the company succeed. Some of those cracks are coming to the surface now, in the strikes the flight attendants and others are conducting.
What's risky about poor processes and heroic performance is that these concepts are not sustainable or scalable. Eventually, one or two heroic people will simply wear out because too much is constantly placed on their shoulders, or they will become a significant bottleneck for the work that needs to get done. I think its better to have a simple, clear process that everyone understands and follows than these individual heroics. It's interesting to me that many firms with strong cultures I've seen (just two examples above) often get started because people took on the heroic mantle, and these firms may encourage that attitude among their employees, but it simply won't work over the long run. The firm has to transition to well-defined and communicated business processes that enable collaboration, communication and improved working conditions. Does a strong corporate culture create as part of its ethos heroes who must rise above the processes? Can't we create processes to satisfy the high demands of a strong corporate culture?
Conversely, firms that may not have a strong culture (or employee loyalty) rely more on process. Take a fast food restaurant for example. All the steps are clearly identified, everyone has a specific place and workstation. No one individual stands apart. Obviously this is important due to the nature of the work and the turnover rate. But why should manufacturing line workers and fast food workers have clearly defined business processes and expectations, while knowledge workers continue to work as if every project or process may require them to be a hero?