How to avoid standardising people when standardising your business…


Recently I have been pondering on the following question: can you standardise business processes and still retain an engaged workforce that feels that it is making a valuable contribution to the organisation? The reason this has been on my mind is that I was approached by a VP of a large multinational. This VP´s area of business was scoring below average on staff retention and had a string of damaging comments from exit interviews and staff surveys indicating that employees felt unchallenged, outside of the key decision-making and that their work lacked meaning. You didn´t need to analyse piles of quantitative/qualitative data to sense the sombre disengagement in the corridors.

The VP suggested a global away-day event, something to get the “troops all gelling.” It was agreed that I hook up with a few key players to get some context and inspiration. It didn`t take much probing to get to the underlying causes of the disengagement. This area of the business had gone through an intensive business process standardisation exercise during the early recession years where business processes across its many global locations were uniformed in order to drive down variability and costs and drive up quality and consistency. What they gained on cost and process efficiencies they seemed to have lost on employee commitment and engagement. One global manager characterized this rather well:

“Before I always felt I was learning and growing in the job… My day was varied. I problem solved, I identified needs, created and designed bespoke solutions, I dealt with multiple complex external and internal stakeholders, I had my own budget and was driving the decisions. It was messy, but it was enormous fun and personally rewarding. Now every initiative must be approved and signed off, business needs are centrally determined by a committee; ideas and designs must follow guidelines and protocols and be supervised by a central team. Sure things have improved – costs have reduced, processes are simplified and internally we are collaborating (not competing) with each other, but my job’s got a whole lot more uninteresting and robotic. I seem to spend most of my day in collegiate meetings, writing procedures and guidelines and costing everything using a centralized budgeting tool. Key stakeholders don’t even bother consulting me… they know I can’t influence anything. I call it managing by numbers.”

The last remark, of course, alludes to the popular activity, painting-by-numbers where the canvas, paints, brushes and design are all supplied in a kit and the participant just needs to select the right colour that corresponds to the number and paint within the lines. It got me thinking, how difficult it is to do a business process standardisation well, one that standardises processes without standardising people. It seems to fall into that much overused platitude of being both an art and a science where the definition of success very much depends on your point of view: focusing purely on the engineering side of improving efficiencies may get you quickly noticed in the c-suite but if you haven´t programmed into the prescriptive structure some basic human needs around self-autonomy and expression, you could leave disengaged employees stewing on slow-burning resentment that will come back and burn you long after implementation.

With disengagement in the workplace running at an all-time high (only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in the workplace according to Gallup research, I am drawn back to my original question: can you standardise business processes and still retain an engaged workforce that feels it is making a valuable contribution to the organisation? I think you can, but you need to give some thought to the following four areas:

Be clear what it is you are trying to achieve in business process standardisation.

Business process standardisation at its core is about improving efficiencies in the process it is not about prescribing how people should do their job. Research shows that people need meaning and flexibility to be motivated and using business process standardisation as an intended or unintended consequence to force and control employees is asking for trouble. Keep these things separate.

Communicate the rationale for business process standardisation.

Take time to spell out the vision, purpose and benefits of business process standardisation. It is a fact that most employees view standardisation as a staff reduction exercise. If there are going to be staff reductions, communicate this upfront; but focus on how standardisation will impact employees on a day-to-day basis. As this HBR article shows, storytelling can be an effective way of engaging staff because it has the potential to communicate purpose in an emotional and meaningful way.

Involve others in the planning and implementation.

You will get more buy-in and engagement if you build business process standardisation through a shared vision. Good practice is to create workstreams on key areas of change and get everybody involved; that said, avoid collaboration overload and meetings-for-meetings sake (A recent Wrike survey identified 46% of office professionals as seeing some meetings as a waste of time; moreover, ensure in a standardised world that employees retain facetime with stakeholders and customers to avoid employees feeling they are internal processors who never engage with real stakeholders/customers.

Deliver on the promises you make

Nothing disengages staff quicker when the promise land doesn´t materialise. If you are selling business process standardisation as an opportunity for routine work to be simplified so that staff can “add value” (which is a much stated ambition in business process standardisation), then deliver on this. Make sure people feel they are doing meaningful work as a result of the changes and give them training and development opportunities. Side projects are one of the best ways to fill the gap. Google has a “20% time” policy which gives people time and space to put down day-to-day obligations and think “big” and led to the creation of Gmail and Google News. 3M has a 15% rule, which allows engineers and scientists to spend more time pursuing projects of their choice and led to the creation of the Post-it note.

My recommendation to the VP to de-rigidise aspects of their highly acclaimed standardisation programme (less prescriptivism, cutting back on internal meetings, reintroducing facetime with external stakeholders and customers, introducing a “20% time” initiative etc.) was not met with enthusiasm and I didn´t take the assignment. There are many reasons for disengagement in the workplace (relational, personal, structural etc.); when disengagement occurs at the deep level of organisational structure (such as in this case where business process standardardisation had drained the creativity and passion out of the workforce), no amount of quick-fix away days can resolve it. The road back to employee engagement in the wake of an intensive business process standardisation takes more than just tweaking at the structure: it requires a profound change of leadership mindset that questions the false correlation between a highly standardised process and a highly motivated workforce and to accept that managing by instinct and gut, whilst messy and irregular, has its place.

by Ric Kelly PhD.