People in systems

June 9, 2010

We’ve all had that frustrating conversation with a customer support representative (CSR) of a large corporation. You: “Hello, I’d like _____________.” CSR: “I’m sorry, I’m not authorized to do that for you.” The answer that the CSR gave is bad in many dimensions, but, allowing for the chance that the person you talked to is a bad egg, it is the company’s system that is at the root of the frustration. Nothing is more likely to send me to a competitor than an obvious display of a restrictive system.

Business systems, like all tools, are designed to augment and enhance the effectiveness of the people in the system. People sell to people. People work with people. How do you, as a professional, make sure that the systems you work in, design, implement, and enhance, are helping the people in and around and touching the system?

You first need to differentiate the two levels of people in your system: (1) the people who through their creativity, energy, intelligence, or a host of other traits drive the company onward and upward, and (2) the people who are there to do their particular repetitive job. Remember: processes for which you can see a pattern can be automated. Cruel as it may sound, there are some people in any organization that are nothing more than a cog in the system—necessary, but very replaceable. Walmart’s employees that welcome the customers to the store are just that—they give a smiling face to the world, cut down on shoplifting, and organize carts. But a new employee could be standing in their spot doing their job almost immediately.

On the management side of things, we would all like to have just the first level of people working in our organization–the kind of people Seth Godin calls Linchpins. However, in nearly all organizations, there is a mixture of levels one and two. On which type is your time better spent?

The first thing that jumps to mind is to automate the tasks of the level-2 people, and rid your payroll of anybody who isn’t pulling the company ahead. There is a certain satisfaction to doing just that–knowing that with a press of a button, a package is shipped, a car comes off the line, somebody’s credit record is verified, all with no further human interaction. These systems absolutely saved the companies who implemented them money. But let me ask you a question: would you rather help the people who are already making you money make more money, or would you rather save money by automating the tasks of level 2 employees?

This isn’t to say that analyzing, designing, and implementing systems to help the level 1 people out is easy. In fact, it’s much easier to watch for patterns in an organization and automate them than it is to see how you can help people who don’t necessarily follow a certain pattern. How do you start?

1) Identification: Identify the people the company couldn’t even pretend to live without. I’m talking about the people who through their creativity, vision, hard work, relationships, management skills, or a host of other traits make them completely indispensable.

2) Observation: Find out what they do–by watching them, interviewing them, asking them questions, asking others questions about them, looking at what ever it is they produce, and generally getting to know what they do and how they do it.

3) Classification: Classify the things  they do into three groups: Effective, Neutral, and Mundane. The mundane things that may be forced on them by the company, but don’t contribute to their effectiveness. Examples of this could include filling in expense reports, creating needless PowerPoint presentations, or scrubbing toilets. (Warning: do not put too much into this the mundane category–some of the things they do that may seem mundane are vital components of other systems.)

4) Enhance: Discover ways in which the things they do effectively could be done even easier.

5) Automation: Automate the mundane items and as much of the neutral items as possible. Let them work on the effective things instead.

6) Revise: As much as possible, revisit these steps, and tweak the systems you already have in place.

Don’t ignore your level-2 people–just realize that making a good thing better is far more beneficial (and satisfying) than automating for the sole purpose of ridding yourself of “payroll burden.” And DO NOT assume that people are level-2 just because you don’t understand their job. The large corporation in my first example made both the mistake of assuming their CSRs were level-2, AND THEN assumed that they could implement a system to control, automate, and restrict their employees in order to reduce costs. They should have instead built a system to allow highly trained reps to use their creativity in helping a customer, not automated and restricted what little assistance a CSR could give.

NEXT WEEK: How to duplicate the “bright spots” company-wide

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3 Responses to “People in systems”

  1. Dr. Fruit Says:

    So what if a person feels he is one of the linchpins in a company, but none of the leaders of the company seem to care if the company does any more but continue to lurch along? How can the linchpins in the lower echelons produce change in the attitudes of the company’s leadership (who are mostly level-2 people)?


    • People working at the highest level are providing an indispensable service to the organization they are working in. In the situation you outline, it seems that there may be a disconnect between the compensation (recognition, money or “reward”) of the person and the effort they are putting forward. That being said, however, if you are a linchpin, why would you want to work at an organization that is run by level-2 people? It seems that if the company is a typical for-profit company competing in a free and open market, the longevity of the company is in doubt.

      But say that you work for a company that you can’t bring yourself to quit–family obligations, fierce loyalty, dedication to your work–and you want to effect change. The short answer to the problem you write about is this: continue to do indispensable work. IN TIME the part of the company you work in (and hopefully the system you create) will become recognized as a model for the others. And truly indispensable people can’t be fired…


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