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Learn To Love Workarounds: They Signpost Opportunity

I suspect that many people reading this article will have been involved with the definition of business processes. Business processes, when well-defined can help to ensure a standard approach is adopted, as well as ensuring that work and customer queries are dealt with in a consistent manner.  They can also help remove the cognitive burden of those conducting the work. A good process will ensure that all of the predictable, high frequency, repeatable decisions are made in advance so that less ad-hoc decision-making is needed “on the fly”.  Of course, there are some contexts where this is less appropriate, and there must always be room for variation, but there are many contexts where at least some standardisation is desirable.

Yet, there is an old saying that “no process model survives contact with the real world”. I’m sure we’ve all seen situations where there is a beautifully created, detailed set of process models… but everyone involved knows that the work isn’t really conducted that way.  This is one of the many reasons that techniques such as observation are so key alongside interviews and workshops. Observation helps us begin to see what really goes on (or at least gets us closer to it).

One of the practical challenges can be that there is a disconnect between those that define processes, and those that actually do the work.  I remember once arriving at a client-site, hearing some of the warehouse staff outside describing decisions that had been made by “the office people”; the implication being those decisions had been made by somebody who had no idea how the work actually works…

Process Disconnects

I saw an interesting example of this type of pattern recently. As many rail-users in the UK will know, there is a free newspaper called “The Metro” which is ubiquitous at railway stations in parts of the UK. Take a look at the picture below.

Sign on Metro newspaper stand. Sign is printed in all-capitals. It reads: TO THE METRO DELIVERY PERSON PLEASE CAN WE INCREASE OUR METRO DELIVERY AMOUNT TO 150 THANKYOU.

Here you can see that the rail station staff have requested that the Metro courier orders more copies. Now, think about this for a moment… the rail staff have identified that they need more copies, but clearly have no easy way of signalling this other than to leave a note for the courier!  Was a process ever designed for this instance? I’d guess that yes, absolutely it had been.  The publisher will want to ensure that the optimum number of copies get to the right locations at the right time. So why didn’t the people at the front line know about it?

This would be seen by many as a “workaround” that should be avoided, to ensure that there is “compliance” with the formal process.  Before taking this view it is worth asking what went wrong, and why the official process wasn’t followed.  Perhaps there is a very good set of reasons. Or perhaps it was just never communicated, and berating people for not knowing something that was ineffectively communicated seems very harsh indeed!

The reality is that the vast majority of people, in the vast majority of situations, want to do the best job (as they understand “best” to be) based on the tools and context they find themselves in.  If there isn’t a process, or if the process isn’t adequate, they’ll adapt, change and find ways of doing stuff.  Anyone who has worked in a large corporate organisation will know this. We’ve probably all had to find creative workarounds to actually get stuff done sometimes.  Understanding the reasons that workarounds exist can help us get to the root and begin to improve things.

Business analysts, and other change practitioners are crucial in helping with this. It is useful to work with stakeholders to understand workarounds, and understand how things really work, so that improvements actually realise value.

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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1 thought on “Learn To Love Workarounds: They Signpost Opportunity”

  1. Adrian,

    Workarounds are interesting for a number of reasons.

    I recall one manager urging his staff to find workarounds that made the standard process simpler. He even urged people to automate their tasks to make themselves redundant. They were of course rewarded for this and usually promoted, or shifted to anther problem area to find the workaround that would redefine the standard process.

    One workaround I observed was a comedy/tragedy. This was a pubic body that had a huge backlog of correspondence to answer. The correspondence was complaints requests for changes, disputed bills, upgrades, complaints, complaints about how long i was taking the original complaint to be addressed, and all the usual stuff. Management decided that a six-month delay in answering was unacceptable, and so set up a task force. The task force were allowed to bypass the standard process of answering correspondence, which immediately reduced the turnaround time to a day or so.

    I became quite friendly with the leader of this task force and none conversation asked him how it was going (very well) and what would happen when they caught up and eliminated the backlog. He told me that the task force would be disbanded.

    Here was a business analysis opportunity wasted. The standard process would almost certainly result in another backlog. The ad hoc approaches taken by the task force would be the ideal blueprint for a new process. Sadly, it was not to be.

    Perhaps if business analysts ran the world . . .


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