The 3 Things We Learned About Changing Our Own Workflows


Do you know the parable of the baked ham? It's a good introduction to the power of unquestioned practices. If you haven't heard it, it goes something like this:

hamA little boy, Ollie, was watching his dad, Steve, prepare a ham for dinner one night. Ollie noticed that his dad cut the ends off of the ham before placing it in the pan. When Ollie asked why he cut off the ends of the ham, Steve paused for a second and replied, “That’s a good question, Ollie. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve always done it that way because that's how my mom did it. I just figured it was to make the ham bake better, but why don’t we call Grandma to find out?” 

Steve called his mom and asked her the same question Ollie asked. Steve was surprised that his mom gave him the same answer he gave Ollie. "That’s a great question. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve always done it that way because that is how grandma did it. I assumed it was to make the ham bake better.”

So, Steve called his grandmother and asked her about the ham. He explained that he assumed she cut off the ends because it’s the secret for a better baked ham. Laughing, his grandma replied, “Oh darling, I wish there was some special secret. The real reason is that the only pan I had was too small for a whole ham, so I cut off the ends to make the ham fit”.

The workflows in organizations are much like the baked ham with no ends. At one point in time, someone created a process to help solve a problem, and used the best available tools at that time. By the virtue of organizational inertia, the workflows persisted because of the mantra, "that's the way it is done". 

At Policy Works (PW) we are subjected to the same organizational pull, the same organizational inertia. In fact, how we used to handle our customer support process is a great example: it was a baked ham with the ends cut off.

Here's what it looked like:

  • a support request was received through a phone call (TeleVantage) or an email (Outlook), meaning two separate inboxes had to be actively monitored i.e. there were no prompts to indicate a new request;
  • the PW team member helped the customer with their problem, responding back through email or phone;
  • the PW team member was then required to document the case in our CRM (Maximizer), which meant a copying, pasting, or re-typing of the already completed case into a system not really designed to capture or track the details of support cases.

So to help one customer, with one specific question, a PW staffer had to use 3-4 pieces of technology AND create duplicate information in 2 different places so that a trail, or history, was maintained. Then they were expected to do this 20 or more times a day. The result? Missed steps and frustrated staff.

Software support is a challenging role, even for those who love to help others. When you add layers of (seemingly unnecessary) workflow it can almost make the work unbearable. The support workflows, which developed out of the software and tools we had on-hand at some previous point in time, created obstacles to helping our staff deliver great support and enjoy doing it.

So we decided to re-evaluate our baked ham. Here are three take-aways from what we learned:

1) Make questioning an encouraged part of your culture

It's hard for many staff to question what has been done in an organization, because you don't know who did it and don't want to offend anyone. So we came up with an internal saying of, 'there are no sacred cows'.

Basically, no workflow or process holds so much reverence that it can't, or shouldn't, be challenged. Everything is up for review. And if something doesn't work, we want to know why.

2) Ask someone with no emotional connection to do the workflow review

To help get a clearer picture of what was happening on support, we asked newer staff to review the existing processes. The reason? They hadn't yet been indoctrinated with 'this is how it's done'. They lacked the organizational bias that can limit critical thought.

And, these people had no emotional attachment to the workflow or tools. Which meant they were not in a position to defend why something was being done. This really helps you to get a clear picture of why something may not be working.

3) Use a pre-existing guideline

There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to structuring a workflow review. A quick search on google shows consultants galore with tools to help guide a workflow analysis. Gradient Solutions, an insurance consultancy in Canada, has a free guide to help commercial brokers analyze their workflows, too. Regardless of what template you use, using one will prompt questions and help you to see the big picture.

The Aftermath

After an analysis of our entire support process, we realized that we needed a better workflow and better tools. Or tool, singular, as it turned out. We invested in a support-specific tool called Zendesk. (Yes, the first 6 months of implementation and change were challenging, but that's a different story.) In the end, I think everyone in our Client Services group would agree that we're providing better support because we changed our workflows and tools.

Take a look at your own workflows. Are you still cutting the ends off of your hams? The answers may lead you down the road to improvement.

Topics: Workflow