The Importance of Having Enough Autonomy

The business environment (and your customers’ expectations) may change quicker than your processes. Staff on the front line are in an excellent position to help drive innovation.

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Providing them with a suitable level of autonomy, whilst also ensuring a feedback loop exists to ensure any relevant updates to procedural documentation are made. It creates a situation where a customer’s needs can be met and the process can be improved too.

Without consistent, robust processes everything will fall apart, right? Underpinning any successful enterprise is a reliable framework of immutable procedures. Or so a cursory introduction to enterprise architecture will suggest. But despite appearing on the surface to be useful mantras, they are forgetting flexibility, adaptability and by extension autonomy. 

This is an insidious problem that some organizations are slow to recognize. Especially as the need to understand and document business processes is at least on the agenda for most companies. Where they fall, is in how they go about it.

Introducing Structure

It is common to find practices that have ‘evolved’ perhaps with little (if any) thought put into the design of the individual tasks or the end-to-end process. It might be that different parts of the organization are carrying out the same process in subtly different ways. Effort spent aligning and optimizing the process can will extremely fruitful results.

Danger awaits those companies that are unprepared and, as such, when organizations simplify, optimize and automate tasks within their process it is common practice for detailed procedure guides to be written. A simple example would be a script written for call center staff to ensure that each customer receives a consistent experience irrespective of which agent they speak to. In the enterprise, it involves using IT systems to ensure that the right data about each customer is collected. 

To drive consistency, there can be an understandable temptation to make these procedures tighter and tighter – to give less discretion to the staff member that is executing the process. And yet, ironically, this is where the problems start to escalate.

It is worth caveating that in some cases - specifically in tightly regulated industries and sectors - this may be precisely the right thing to do.  Yet in most instances, it can be beneficial to ensure that the person undertaking the task has enough autonomy to deal with exceptional situations and can respond to situations where something unanticipated and unexpected occurs. Put simply, it’s important that an employee carrying out any given task is empowered and capable of dealing with the variation that occurs in the real world.

There’s No Such Thing as an “Average” Customer

One of the most notable causes of variation is the shift in consumer expectations. Consumers are empowered with more information than ever before and, in many industries, information asymmetry is largely a thing of the past. Consumers can blog, tweet or rate their experiences on a range of review sites. And they will, quite rightly, expect an accurate and pleasant experience every time they have an interaction with a company. No-one likes to feel ‘fobbed off’.

It’s impossible to cover every conceivable situation in a procedure guide, and it is therefore important to give the person executing it the ability – within appropriate boundaries – to depart from the textbook and do what is right for the customer. This enables feedback to be sought and, where appropriate, for the process and procedural documents to be updated, meaning similar requests can be dealt with consistently in the future. Additionally, this highlights the importance of process and procedural documentation being stored in a central repository in a commonly understood format.

Pizza and Process

The importance of flexibility and autonomy is not exclusive to abstract enterprise processes, but also evident in our day-to-day lives. About a year ago, some friends and I visited a new and ‘quirky’ pizza restaurant which was part of a chain and had a plethora of dishes with toppings you wouldn’t normally think of putting on a pizza. 

One of my friends asked for a slight variation – to have a substitute topping. Shockingly, we were told this wasn’t possible – each pizza is carefully designed for its taste by chefs at head office, and head-office won’t allow any variation at all.  (The cynic in me suspected that a more likely reason was that the pizzas are probably all prepared in advance, but that’s another story...) Either way, the waitress admitted that this is a really common request, and she couldn’t understand why the chefs didn’t take the feedback on board. As an outsider, it appeared that the local restaurant had no autonomy over what to serve its customers.

Creating such a rigid process that allows for no variation, in a situation where the customer is king (and there are at least ten other restaurants in walking distance) is a recipe for disaster. A better solution would have been to provide the autonomy for dishes to be varied, and also for each local restaurant in the chain to provide feedback over which are the popular variations that are requested – as these could be future menu items.

 The pizza restaurant in question is now permanently closed.

The World May Change Quicker than Your Process

The business environment (and your customers’ expectations) may change quicker than your processes. Staff on the front line are in an excellent position to help drive innovation.  Providing them with a suitable level of autonomy, whilst also ensuring a feedback loop exists to ensure any relevant updates to procedural documentation are made. It creates a situation where a customer’s needs can be met and the process can be improved too.

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