If only life were a series of processes on a Gantt chart.

If only life were a series of processes on a Gantt chart. Projects would be carried out, milestones met, end of process evaluation forms ticked and we move on to the next project. At the planning stage, the processes look incredibly logical. The Gantt charts have nice, pretty drawings and neat lines that show that the project will run like clockwork.

Yet, as we all know, it doesn’t work like that. Life gets in the way. People get in the way. There are a great many leaders, managers who are perfectly happy with this aspect of management. These tend to belong to organisations, that, to quote Bill O’Brien (former CEO Hanover Insurance), “cannot fire one person but can fire a thousand”.

It’s individuals that take the time, the effort and still screw things up. Professors of strategic management, Gerry Johnson (Strathclyde University) and Kevan Scholes (Sheffield Business School), call this aspect ‘the cultural web’.

It looks at a number of aspects within the business and forces managers to look at the culture underneath the company. Organisations often adopt a ‘magic thinking’ approach to change programmes. Things start going wrong, outputs aren’t met, so deadlines are moved or projects ‘rescoped’ with little regard for the real underlying reasons.

The unofficial culture

One vital aspect of the cultural web is an element called ‘rituals and routines’. This deals with your organisation and what are the official and – more importantly – the unofficial behaviours. Essentially this is an invitation to ask a series of questions to uncover areas where the official and unofficial methods clash and to discuss them.

For instance, I’ve tried to run training courses in London offices with an official start time of 9:30am. Everyone knows there’s absolutely no chance of anything happening before 10am, yet nothing is done about it. It’s just accepted. This would be an area to look at – not necessarily to come down and force people to get into work earlier but to look at what would work better for people. There are rituals in the office – leaving parties, dress down Fridays, Christmas shopping days – that don’t match with office policy but bring immense benefit in terms of team bonding, communication and cooperation.

I once worked in an IT department where everyone knew there was no chance of getting any computer service support on Friday afternoon so that was when we went down the pub. This was 10 years ago yet today there are still people who believe this happens. I’ve talked to end-users who would leave on Friday afternoon if anything happened to their computer as they still thought nothing would happen. People do get conditioned in this way. It’s a trait deep within us and happens all the time.

"It’s individuals that take the time, the effort and still screw things up"

Following patterns

What are the routines and rituals in your organisation? If you asked people why they were doing something, would they be able to tell you or would they say “we always do that”.

I once ran a training event looking at the processes involved in process mapping. It was fun. There was a roll of wallpaper on the floor and ‘the life of a process’ mapped out on the paper.

It became quickly apparent that there was lots of duplication and wasted effort involved. In one part of the process there was a meeting place for three forms. These forms were stapled together and sent downstairs to another work area. The first thing they did was to unstaple the forms before sending them out. No one had ever thought to question why this had happened. It just did.

How difficult would it be to identify wasteful processes and change them in your organisation? Do you always have meetings at a set time each week whatever happens? I once tried to cancel a monthly meeting but couldn’t do it as “the room has already been booked and the coffee ordered”. How much money do these practises cost your organisation?

I often think it’s a ‘dead body in the study’ scenario. Everyone is so used to walking over the dead body that it’s not until a newcomer arrives and asks “Why is that dead body there?” that anyone actually takes any notice. It takes a great deal of courage to do this. You may sound stupid. You may be treading on people’s toes and the culture of the organisation will have a great effect on your ability to overcome these problems. If you have a blame culture, people are less likely to take risks and point out these ineffective practices.