Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reporting - or processes 'gone bad'?

My clients have a range of experience in improving the way their business processes run. They range from "expert" to "what's a business process?". After a little while working together, they generally come to the agreement that the Phil Ayres view of the world is that "everything is a process". Not in a bad, bureaucratic way. Instead, if there are a series of steps to be followed to achieve a task, and you have to do the same work more than once, why not make it easier for people by providing them guidance for what to do next, and maybe even automate a little to remove the drudgery of some really repetitive activities? Not surprisingly, I would treat many of the reporting functions that businesses perform as potential processes, gone bad.

Businesses create reports of everyday activities for many reasons. They believe that it is to provide supervisory control over the work that people are doing, to make sure that nothing is missed. In reality, mostly reports are created and used just because that is the way the back-office computer system manages can tell them what is going on. Why reports? Because it is easy for a system to put together a snapshot of data of the status of work, and dump it onto paper. Many systems have very little understanding of a business process, beyond the series of options they present on screen during data entry. A report is the best they can do.

Reports can be really troublesome for businesses. They represent a queue of work from yesterday, or last week. The information on them is already out of date, and there has already been a lag in handling any of the items on the report. Sometimes, batching up work like this can lead to more efficiency (i.e. less overall manpower required to finish the work), because one person plods through each item in turn without having to thing too hard. Sometimes, it just means that people get upset waiting for a response to a simple question. Really, if a report represents a list of work that is currently outstanding, and tomorrow it will show the same work with a different status, how does it really help us, beyond showing us that we have work?

Of course, sometimes you just can't get away from reports. They make sense. They show what is going on in the only way the back-office systems know how. In many cases, managing people from the information on a report is going to lead to trouble. In other cases, I have been asked to put processes around the distribution of reports, to make sure people actually read them to know what work they are supposed to be doing. In some cases, this is acceptable - its just a checkbox that says, "I did my review". In other cases you end up reporting on reports of reports.

Consider the reports you have in an organization. Look at the ones that are handed out to people to check off their work as they do it during the day. Behind each line on that report is often a business process. The person doing the work knows that process. But if that person takes a long trip to Hawaii, do you know what that process is, beyond highlights on a printout? Wouldn't it be better to notify people of the work sooner, and guide them to completing it faster? That is what business process improvement gives us. Escape from "processes gone bad".

A post from the Improving It blog
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