"Business processes drive the creation and delivery of every organization’s products and services. More specifically, processes can be viewed as the way things get done."
Over nine years, I Love Lucy’s Lucy Ricardo taught us many things, from stomping grapes at a greater proficiency than a seasoned Italian peasant to weaselling your way into your husband’s big budget stage production (“Ricky, I want to be in the show!”). But did you know that she also taught us how to run our businesses more efficiently?
Walter Geer, president and CEO of The CA Group, and author of What Lucy Taught Us: A Management Fable about Improving Your Business One Process at a Time thinks so! As the title suggests, the book is primarily written as a business fable. The fictitious character of Joe, a married empty nester who’s bored with his predictable—yet financially rewarding—job, accepts a new position clear across the country in order to face a new challenge. He describes the landscape of the organization he inherits: “Sales are down for the third straight quarter, the competition is killing us, and our customer complaints seem to be growing each week. I’ve got internal turf battles going on, personnel conflicts, attendance issues…” (pg 31) But in a few short months and with a lot of hard work Joe manages to turn this dire situation around. How did he accomplish this? With a little help from Lucy, of course!
The Big Idea
Learn About Thy Neighbour
"In theory, their design [processes] ensures consistency in delivery. More commonly, however, the individuals involved must interpret, define, and follow the processes. This sets the stage for inconsistencies, confusion, delays, and miscues."
So where does Lucy come in? Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the series remembers the iconic episode where Lucy and her best pal Ethel make a bet with their husbands to see whose job is more difficult. Ricky and Fred don aprons and manage the household, while the girls join the workforce—at a candy factory. Things aren’t going well for the two of them. The factory job is more difficult than they initially imagined, and in a last ditch chance to prove themselves before they’re canned, Lucy and Ethel are relegated to the candy wrapping department by their dictatorial supervisor. Their assignment is as follows: As each piece of chocolate moves along the conveyor belt, they’re to wrap it in paper. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong! The pace seemingly starts off easily enough, but soon they begin missing some. Then more, and more and more. Lucy and Ethel begin popping chocolates in their mouths and pilling them up in front of them in an effort to keep up. “I think we’re fighting a losing game!” Lucy exclaims. When they hear the supervisor coming, they stuff the excess chocolates into their hats and down their uniforms. Pleased with what she sees, the supervisor orders the conveyor belt to speed up, and the canned audience laughter grows and grows.
Geer sees that as analogous to the misunderstanding of roles in several ways. First, we have Lucy and Ethel and Ricky and Fred not appreciating the work that the other does. Any job, whether inside the home or out, presents its own unique set of challenges. By walking in each other’s shoes (getting a meal on the table not only on time, but that one that tastes good, or working for a cranky supervisor), they realize that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side as they initially thought. Secondly, rather than communicate the challenges of wrapping chocolates, we have Lucy and Ethel pilfering the candy and concealing it in their uniforms rather than incur the wrath of their supervisor and face termination. Had they explained that it wasn’t humanly possibly to wrap that much candy, maybe the supervisor would have slowed down the conveyor belt for them. (Probably not, but they still should have been honest.)
It Doesn't Start (or End!) With You
"Viewing an organization as a system rather than a vertical reporting relationship (i.e., an organizational chart), enables us to see how work actually gets done through processes that cut across functional boundaries."
Often we are so preoccupied with our own work – getting everything checked off our own daily to-do lists – that we forget we are part of a team working for a greater good. Just as often, when we hand something off to the next department, we wash our hands of it. “It’s done,” we might think. “It’s no longer my responsibility.”
Wrong. Everyone who works as part of a team, despite their place on the hierarchy, needs to look at the relationships they have with the people they work with as a system. Each decision that is made within an organization has ramifications for everyone involved no matter where they may lie on the pecking order. A miscommunication can result in a delay, which can result in angry customer severing ties with your organization. While this may only have short term consequence for some initially, it has long term consequences for all. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the job gets done and done well.
"Each of us has a general idea of how we think the process roles out, but I’m sure we’d be surprised to find out from the users how things are really done."
While we all think we know what goes on in another department at work, we really only have a vague idea. Geer advocates having department managers create a diagram of the work process of another department in order to “walk in their shoes”. Yes, I know what you might be thinking, diagrams are kid stuff, but they really have the potential of being enlightening when employed in this context. Geer first suggests conducting an interview with the other department in order to properly translate it into a diagram. Creating a diagram can be a frustrating, which usually reflects how difficult the process can be. It isn’t merely an art exercise, however. Under the diagram is a written explanation, which can be just as difficult to create. When the process is complete to your satisfaction, take your completed diagram back to the department for feedback. Don’t be deterred if it isn’t quite right the first time. It may take several revisions for the diagram and the explanatory notes to accurately reflect the process of that department. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when your diagram identifies the following:
– The key steps in each process
– The interdependencies of processes that connect offices or departments
– Personnel who carry out these processes
– Whether or not a documented policy or procedure exists for each step or task (What Lucy Taught Us, pg 93)
By the end you’ll have a greater understanding of what the department does, and be able to do your job more effectively, too. But most importantly, it illuminates where responsibilities lie, and where/how delays or mistakes will likely present themselves.
While I was initially attracted to What Lucy Taught Us because I’m a lifelong, ardent I Love Lucy fan, it became evident very quickly that this book is not merely a gimmick, but is filled with a lot of practical information. This is a book that will not only help us relate better to our co-workers, but get the job done easier and more efficiently.