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Non-Conformance: What A Hedge Can Teach Us About Process Improvement

Imagine the scene: You’re just about to start the analysis for a project which involves a large contact centre employing hundreds of people.  The call centre manager hands you a dusty folder marked Procedure Guide.  “Here you go, this is exactly how we do things here.” says the manager, “this will save you interviewing our busy front-line workers!”. 

I suspect many of us have experienced this situation (although it’s far more likely to be some kind of electronic repository rather than a dusty manual) and when it happens we try and hold back a wry smile.  Procedure guides are extremely useful artefacts, but so often they are not properly managed and maintained and they quickly fall into disrepair. In some cases, the work that is conducted on the shop floor often bares only a passing resemblance to the ‘official’ processes, and in many cases there are unofficial ‘enhancements’, ‘interpretations’ and ‘workarounds’ that have crept in over the years.

With this in mind, when we are carrying out business analysis and improvement work it’s important that we understand how the work really works.  Elicitation techniques such as observation, apprenticing, scenario analysis and many others can help here.  If the process hasn’t been well-managed and well-maintained it’s highly likely that we’ll find variation.  Differences between teams, and even individual workers may have emerged.  There may be entire new ‘steps’ in the process that have been created, or steps might have been removed, re-ordered or changed in some other way.

Standardisation Isn’t (Always) Our Friend

It’s tempting to quash this variation when we spot it.  A lot has been written about the virtues of ‘standard’ processes (indeed, there are even methods for measuring ‘process variation’ and ‘process conformance/compliance’).  Standardisation has its place, but before we consider any type of change we really ought to understand why the variation has emerged in the first place.  In many cases every ‘unofficial workaround’ will have emerged for a reason—often because the processes needed to adapt to variety in the environment that it wasn’t designed for.  The ‘workaround’ itself might be imperfect; but rather than ‘iron it out’ entirely, if we understand the reason it exists in the first place we might be able to design a smoother, slicker process that works better for everyone.

I was mulling this over when walking from a hotel to a client’s offices.  The hotel is on a main road, and I suspect those that designed it assumed that everyone would drive there.  Yet there are two train stations within a short taxi ride of the hotel, one of which is a fairly major station.  I suspect a sizable minority of guests don’t drive there—a big enough minority that a few ‘adaptions’ had been made especially for us:

A hedge with a short-cut through it
A hedge with a short-cut!

The photo above shows a single passageway that had been carved out of an (otherwise) continuous bush that went around the perimeter of the hotel.  This wasn’t there by design, there was no ‘official’ path to get there, but I was glad it was there as it meant I could get straight out to the main road, avoiding having to walk the ‘long way’ round the car park and out the main entrance.  I have no idea who cut this, perhaps an eagle-eyed gardener spotted pedestrians struggling and decided to create a better route for them.

Understanding Purpose

Clearly, from my perspective, blocking up this gap in the hedge would not be a good idea. In fact, if I came back to that hotel and the gap had been plugged, I’d probably be a little annoyed at first as a perfectly useful pathway has been removed.   To avoid these types of issues occurring, if we were considering improving the layout of the hotel grounds, we would want to ask why this gap exists, and what purpose it was serving (and for whom).

The same ought to be true of process deviations and ‘workarounds’.  It’s quite possible that they exist to serve a need—often a customer need—that wasn’t anticipated. Rather than immediately seek to ‘quash’ and standardise, if we drill down to understand why they exist and who they serve, we are better placed to collaboratively co-create an enhanced process. 

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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5 thoughts on “Non-Conformance: What A Hedge Can Teach Us About Process Improvement”

  1. Your gap in the hedge is a fine example of a desire line ( They usually appear when planners try to enforce a more convoluted route on pedestrians, only for people to choose the one that suits them best (usually the shortest route)

    When considering situations where real life does not match the defined process, those doing it have usually taken a shortcut. The questions we should ask are; why was the process originally designed as it was, has anything changed since it was designed, and more importantly, why is the process different, and are those reasons valid? We then have the information needed to decide if the change should be embraced formally, or the original process should be adhered to. If it is important to stick to the original process, we should then ask what we can do to ensure compliance.

    1. Thanks Andrew. Yes, so often things in the external environment change quicker than the “official” process, so those involved in the actual work have to make ad-hoc changes; the challenge of course is these local optimisations might cause quite serious problems from a more systemic viewpoint. The questions you suggest, in my view, are excellent questions to ask to begin to elicit the local need, and balance that against the bigger systemic “purpose” (i.e. why the process exists in the first place, and where it fits into a bigger “eco-system”).

      Thanks for the comment, and glad that you enjoyed the blog 🙂

      1. This is a good example of what I think of as the difference between the true ‘as is’ (i.e. what actually happens) and the ‘should be’ (what people believe is happening).

        Both are entirely valid and the gap between them gives an insight into how things could be improved, but also where important elements are being missed.

        Thanks Adrian.

        1. That’s a great point, Kevin. There’s often quite a difference between “as it really is”, “as we thought it was” and “how it should be” 🙂

          Thanks again for the comment.

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