Archive for the ‘Bureaucracy’ Category

Seat-backs and tray-tables . . .

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

imageA few weeks ago, I blogged about a frustrating incident in an organization created a bureaucratic procedural approach to achieve the desired policy outcome rather than to create a process that would empower the people performing the activity to ensure that the policy was met in the most efficient manner.

That post caused a series of interactions with someone who took issue with my post and assumed the position to defend the procedure I was annoyed with.  I believe we left the matter at a point of agreeing to disagree.

Perhaps this post will cause a different group to take issue with me, but many more people are likely to relate to the content so I can convey the topic of policy-process-procedure in a different way.

A few days ago I found myself in an airline row with 3 seats to myself from the aisle to the window.  As a frequent flyer I automatically ensure that my seat-back is forward and my tray-table is "in its upright and locked position" at all the expected points in the flight profile.  But this time, when it came to landing, it got me thinking (again) about the policy-to-procedure "food chain".  Something seemed a bit over-kill-ish and I wasn’t sure at first why.

In particular I was ruminating on the requirement to put your tray-tables up and bring your seats backs forward during ground operations, take-off and landing.  Why?

So I started with the question: what could this requirement be fulfilling?

That’s easy: Safety!

But then: what is it about safety that this specific requirement fulfills?

That’s easy too: Avoiding injury in case of getting tossed about in the cabin plus the need for people to be able to get out of the plane in case of emergency.

OK.  But still: what’s going on that would lead to someone getting injured and/or being impeded from getting out of the plane in an emergency?

And that is when I realized what’s going on.

The requirement to put our seat-backs forward and our tray-tables up *is* over-kill in certain situations.  Well, the tray-tables part really is NEVER over-kill.  That’s *always* a good idea.  But, specifically, I was thinking about the seat-backs part as sometimes over-kill.

Like in the situation I found myself in.

FAA logoAirlines have to comply with the FAA’s regulations and create their own policies to do so.  In fairness, I have not read the FAA’s regulation on this, but since I am learning to fly, I’m generally familiar with the way in which flight regulations go.  Where it concerns passengers, the regulation is about safety, and it isn’t up to the FAA to tell airlines exactly how to make that happen.  Airlines don’t have to give you seats that recline, or tray tables to put your things onto.

So the airlines come up with policies to ensure they comply with the regulations.  And, then the airlines come up with processes to execute the policies and procedures to perform the processes.  Or, often, they just skip the process part and jump right into procedures.

You see, bringing up our seat-backs is a procedure intended to ensure a policy (and a regulation) is fulfilled.  But the policy (and the regulation) can be fulfilled in other ways.  Yet the airlines don’t provide flight crews with any other way and as a result, passengers are (sometimes) inconvenienced. 

Had the airlines created processes instead of procedures, then bringing up our seat-backs would be a function of whether or not anyone would actually be impeded by having our seat-backs reclined.  In the situation a few mornings ago, not only did I have an entire (half) row to myself, but the half row behind me was empty.  With no one next to me, no one behind me and an exit row several rows away, I could have left my seat all-the-way back and not bothered anyone’s attempt to get out of the plane in an emergency, I could have rested more comfortably during landing, and I wouldn’t have wasted a flight attendant’s time asking me to put my seat up (which didn’t happen since I did it anyway — but I’m just sayin’).

However, I’m not about to advocate for a change to airline policy on this point.  Really, there are many other factors to consider, and six seats with only one passenger in them isn’t common anymore so the likelihood of not needing to put-up our set-backs is rare.  The procedure is nearly 100% appropriate and for the less than 1% of instances where a better process would have helped, it’s entirely NOT worth it.  I’ll suffer.

In all honesty it wasn’t a big deal at all.  In fact the observation was merely mental gymnastics for me, but it did serve as good fodder to help explain the difference between policy, process, and procedure.

PERFECT example of bureaucracy vs. process

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

What is the world coming to?!  Two posts in a month?

Well, when life hands you perfectly fitted, hand-picked, juicy, gift-wrapped, actual too-good-not-to-share learning-rich examples on a silver platter… you’ve just gotta take ‘em and share ‘em!

bureaucracy (by Bennett)One such example was handed to me a little while ago — thanks to the US Department of State via the US Postal Service. 
No, the Postal Service didn’t deliver something to me from the State Department.  It’s more like the Post Office was the instrument of the State Department’s bureaucracy.

A perfect duet of two bureaucracies operating in perfect bureaucratic harmony.  Though, when I think of "bureaucratic harmony" it sounds like an out-of-key dirge played in a decaying public school building by a poorly equipped elementary school ensemble.

But, enough of the musical analogies… We’ve got a bureaucracy to pick on and how and why my experience at the post office that week provided me such rich fodder for a blog post about processes.

This experience crystallized a way to teach the distinction between: Process, Procedure, and Bureaucracy.

So, the context of the lesson is in the State department’s requirement to verify the parentage of minors (children under 16) applying for a US Passport.  To avoid issuing passports to minors (or in particular, to adults in the company of minors), the relationship between the minor and the adult must be established.  In a typical example, parents must demonstrate that they are, in fact, the children’s parents.  When applying for a passport for a child, parents must show that (a) they and their children are US citizens and that (b) the children belong to them.  The State department requires that the children and both parents be present while applying and that the parents supply the child’s birth certificate.  So far so good.

image The lesson appeared when we were applying for a passport for a child for whom we already had a passport.  In other words, we’d already provided the necessary documentation to prove we are our child’s parents when we first obtained the passport.  We appeared at the post office with an expired passport in hand and all the other documentation, except for the birth certificate (for the child who already had a passport, and thus we’d already proven our relationship).  Since we’d already provided the birth certificate in order to obtain the original passport, we figured the post office merely had to ensure that we were still who we said we were by looking at our government-issued ID (which is also required when applying).

Even if there was risk of someone else finding our child’s passport and attempting to represent themselves as our child’s parents, their IDs wouldn’t match the names, and even if they did, in such a case whether or not they were *us* wouldn’t matter.  Imposters with that level of sophistication could get anything they needed.  But, under normal circumstances, if someone else were to try to pass themselves off as us, their names wouldn’t match up.   In other words, if adults show up claiming to be a child’s parents, then their names should match that on the application and the child’s documentation.  If the names don’t match, then additional documentation would be appropriate, as in the case of adoption or other name-mismatching situations.

Anyone can buy a birth certificate, so, in fact, the longer we exist, the better the chances of identity theft.  Therefore, the earlier someone gets a passport, the more likely it was obtained with authentic data.  So again, the best "proof" that we are our child’s parents is the fact that we had a prior passport along with the other documents.  However, the State department’s bureaucratic procedures, dutifully executed by the Post Office, required that we present a birth certificate nonetheless.

At Entinex, we define a Process as the high-level depiction of a value-adding activity that produces an outcome.  Processes are the activities that are necessary for the product being worked on (or work being done) to achieve the outcome the customer of the work desires to have.  If the proper outcome is achieved, as long as the cost and schedule was within the customer’s expectations, the customer ought not care how the outcome was achieved.  The process can be the same from context to context.  In fact, minimizing unique variants of a process in a given organization makes it easier to manage.  In our passport example, if the State department had issued a process rather than a procedure the process would simply be: Establish and Confirm parent and child’s identity, relationship and citizenship.

image The how of the process we define as a Procedure — the specific steps needed by the process to produce an output.  There are likely many ways (i.e., many possible procedures) to accomplish the process’ expectations.  Procedures are best applied to very particular contexts and ought to change from context to context.  From a value stream perspective, procedures actually consume value.  The intention of any organization ought to be to minimize the gravity of the procedure since if/when the procedure takes more time or resources, it costs more and therefore raises the cost of the process and often reduces its value.  Procedures are served best minimally.  Had the Post Office been allowed to create their own procedure(s) to accomplish the above process, they could have created procedures to check for artifacts that identity has been established/confirmed by means of some level of reasonableness.  The Post Office could have different procedures for first-time applications, subsequent applications, and name-mismatches.

However, instead, the State Department issued a procedure that was not context specific and wasteful.  It didn’t give the Post Office (or anyone else) the flexibility to find the most appropriate way to determine identity or relationship, or to distinguish between the permutations of application situations.

In other words, the State Department established a bureaucracy:  A procedure in absence of context

Bureaucracies are often intended to compensate for lack of competence or trust, or as input to an over-engineered system.

Take your pick on this one.