"The Way It's Always Been Done" (or how an aversion to change can hurt your business)

If you search this blog thoroughly you'll find reference to the following story, but I wanted to repeat it because I think it highlights a fundamental point when looking at processes: The need to ask yourself "Why?"

A well known UK insurance company was trying to compete with the new on-line insurance companies that could issue a policy document in three days. The current standard for this company was 33 days. A project was launched to understand why. Analysis indicated that after the policy is reviewed and approved (1 day) it was sent to a warehouse in Cardiff, Wales for storage. The state of the art warehouse was temperature and humidity controlled by computer, and stored the policies for 30 days prior to sending the final documents out to the end customers.

Further analysis at the warehouse indicated that the reason this step was taken (and had been brought in from the previous manual system when the computerised warehouse had been implemented) was not entirely clear. Everyone who was interviewed was very positive about the investment in the computer controlled warehouse and was anxious to tell stories about the speed and efficiencies that were gained by not needing men in fork-lift trucks searching for documents from the vast stores. Nobody seemed to know why the documents were stored for 30 days, though. Tracking down the longest serving employee in the company it was determined that was how it had always been done because this step was necessary to allow the policy to dry.

"Allow the policy to dry....?!?!?!"

Apparently back in the mists of time when policies were printed in ink on parchment they were stored for 30 days to allow the ink to thoroughly dry. In todays modern world this step was no longer needed. It was removed and suddenly the insurance company was able to mix it up with the new boys.

The story was told to me by Steve Towers from the BPMG at a BPM conference a number of years ago. Now I have no idea if this story as apocryphal or not and - frankly - I don't care. The reason I like it (and the reason I have retold it dozens of times in the intervening few years) is that it does identify a key problem that occurs when people look at streamlining processes and making them more efficient.
'That's the way it's always been done'
This is the curse of modern society (ironically enough). People are hesitant to change things that have traditionally been done because they think that this will - in some way - cause bigger issues.

I come from a background of heavily regulated industry. This is the sort of place where you need to have 24 people review a document before it can be officially approved. When electronic signatures were introduced into the process it was still felt that all 24 people needed to review each document despite the fact that research showed that, in fact, only about 5 people in each case had input into the review, the others either didn't review it or too so long to review it that the whole approval cycle took forever to complete. Reviewers were added so that they couldn't later come back and say 'Well I didn't know anything about this'.

When we looked at the problem through a different lens we were able to say 'Suppose this document was stored in a central place and you were informed when it was updated, would you be happy to take that as proof that you were informed, given 3 working days to come back with issues and - if nothing is heard - we take it that you are aware and up-to-date?' By adding in this 'Implicit review' step we were able to do several things.

1) We were able to minimise the number of folks reviewing the actual document.
2) We were able to substantially reduce the approval cycle time for a document.

The key was to ignore the way things had been done previously and concentrate on why we need to do things a certain way now.

So take a look around your own organisation and ask yourself the question 'Why are we doing these things? Is it because this is the way things have always been done?"

You might be surprised.

Just a reminder the free download 'Doing Business Process Work in your organisation - A White paper' is still available. Click this link and follow the instructions. Your White paper will be sent as soon as possible. Don't miss the chance to get this valuable insight into how to make business processes work for you!

For more about me check out my "About Me' page

All information is Copyright (C) G Comerford

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