customer before process

I hope I can be forgiven a little anecdote about my private life in this article, which does quickly turn to the subject of business.  I recently had knee surgery to remove the broken bits caused by my years of competing at weightlifting and powerlifting (they give you a voucher for surgery with every trophy in those sports…).  At the pre-op assessment a week before the procedure they threatened to bump me to the bottom of the waiting list if I refused to confirm what had been entered onto their computer system – ie surgery was taking place on the left knee.  I couldn’t do that as it was the right knee that was broken, and in the end I had to contact the surgeon to pull rank.  The same thing happened on the day of the operation, even when I gently tried to suggest that as my right knee was clearly very swollen, I was using a walking stick on my right side, and I was clutching an MRI of my right knee, I might actually be right.  The pitying looks I got were classic.  Usefully, this got me thinking about what lessons for business could be learned from these incidents.  My conclusions are below.

The first lesson is the potential negative effects of creeping ‘processisation’ (apologies to Shakespeare!).  As a founder member of the Institute of Business Process Re-engineering I have a keen interest in how processes can make or break a business.   However, that does not mean that I value business processes over everything else.  What I saw at the hospital was experienced nurses who were in danger becoming slaves to process and who gave IT systems more respect than they are due.  Last time I looked, IT systems had not fully conquered the garbage in / garbage out problem (which is what  had happened in my case through a perfectly forgivable human error).  When I started out on my career, it was often a lack of formal documented processes that made things difficult, but these days we have processes for everything – including processes for processes (aka processes management).  That is by and large a good thing, until following a process becomes a substitute for common sense.

The second lesson is the possible negative consequences of not listening to what the customer wants; a problem is often driven by a mistaken belief that you know what the customer needs better than they do.  This has been a dominant theme in the years that I have been working on company and project rescues.  I can give one real example safely because it was a few years ago, turned out well in the end, and the directors of the company have now retired.  The company had been very successful in the engineering sector with one flagship product and some ancillary products and services.  When the founder retired, a new CEO turned up with the attitude of ‘everything is crap’ and ordered that the flagship product be replaced with something more ‘modern’.  The sales team were told to go and spread the word about this forthcoming ‘silver bullet’ product that would do everything and more…  Unfortunately the company had made three bad (nearly fatal) mistakes:

  • nobody ever asked the clients if they wanted the main product to be replaced, or whether their own production systems could accommodate a major and discontinuous change
  • realising that they were on a sticky wicket, the sale people tried to justify the change to clients by saying that the current offering was ‘broken’, ‘not modern’ etc
  • building the replacement product was outsourced and became a long running failing project that even made it into the trade press

Having been told that the current product was no good, and with no sign of the replacement product arriving any time soon, clients started to drift away.  By the time my company was asked to get involved (we specialised in company rescues) the client was already in administration. Therefore, there were lots of legal and financial issues to be resolved by my colleagues while I led a campaign to keep the current clientele.  As part of the rescue I used my project management experience to recast and deliver the new product based on true customer requirements and using the in-house personnel rather than the expensive external consultants (they had gone anyway by that stage).

I know I can seem like a stuck record when banging on about the need to focus on customer requirements, and to really listen to what they are telling you, but when so many of the problems you have resolved during your career have been caused by a failure in this regard, it does become a bit of an obsession.

BTW the nurses, doctors and surgeons did a great job and retain my undying gratitude. I hope they will forgive me for using a minor blip to make a broader point.


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