Monday, February 09, 2009

Process servers

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A fascinating, important, and depressing posting with commentary at Belmont Club concerns the shift in government and organizations from result-based action to process-based action. The argument is that in our bureaucratized jobs, workers are now primarily tasked with following prescribed forms and being able to prove that they have followed them, rather than achieving what they are ostensibly there to achieve.

The most shocking recent example was the case of so-called "Baby P" in England (warning: the details in the linked story are extremely upsetting), where a sociopathic man tortured an infant under the care of him and his feckless, on-the-dole mother, a situation that went on for months despite 60 "interventions" (in social-work babble) by welfare professionals. "Baby P" finally, and under the circumstances you have to say mercifully, died.

Richard Fernandez, the Belmont Club author, writes:
At the core of [Theodore] Dalrymple’s critique is the idea that in many modern bureaucracies, appearances have become the actual measure of performance. They exist to fulfill their own procedures. And things may now have reached the point where people have actually forgotten what the point of the job is. …
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Eavesdropping on the British bureaucratic debate following the death of Baby P … is like listening to people talk nonsense in what outwardly resembles English, yet in a language with completely different semantic rules. It is a language which seems designed, for example, to express as little meaning as possible in the greatest number of words. Everyone is always talking about ‘regret’, ‘appropriateness’, ’safety’ and ‘protection’ in such a disembodied tone that it is almost rote; and moreover where there is considerable doubt those words mean anything like their entries in a dictionary; and even some doubt about whether they mean anything at all, apart from what they imply in terms of procedure.

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But what are we to make of speech deliberately emptied of significance? The first would be to recognize, as Orwell did, that the advantages to saying nothing at all in a bureaucratic world are very great. If you say nothing, no one can blame you for anything. It used to be the case that only macroeconomists were allowed to make deliberately ambiguous statements. But today it is a general virtue to be like Sergeant Schultz. I know nothing, I see nothing. It is a strange world we live in when to express a dislike for murderers or spot the dying baby — is to invite complication and trouble. We live in a world full of noise and glitz and yet is afraid to speak. No wonder Baby P could not be saved by an army of social workers. Not a one of them could risk saying the obvious. They just filled in the forms.

Fernandez is bang on about the propensity for meaningless, important-sounding doubletalk having become a standard way of doing business. It's second nature with politicians and people who deal with politicians. At legislative hearings, a witness will say, "That's an excellent question, senator, and I'll be glad to respond to it," and spend the next 10 minutes speaking words but not replying. He is demonstrating that he's following the rules: buttering up the senator by acknowledging his brilliance in asking, then declaring that he not only will answer, but will be happy to answer — which substitutes for the deed.

But this kind of rule-following, checklist-checking, process-driven behavior is now pervasive at every level of interaction other than between friends and family. The following examples are by no means equivalent in moral depravity to the welfare bureaucracy's unwillingness to confront the reality of Baby P, but they represent ways in which the process takes the place of an outcome that the process nominally serves.

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You're no doubt familiar with one of the most common, the recording that comes on when you phone customer service.

"Due to an unusually heavy volume of calls, our service representatives are busy with other customers. Please stay on the line. Your call is very important to us." And so on, every 60 seconds between stretches of pop music.

Who is so thick as to believe that the call volume is unusually heavy? You have no doubt that if you phoned at 3 a.m. Sunday morning (assuming it's a 24/7 service) you'd get the same message, your call being the unusually heavy volume. And if your call is so flaming important to them, why don't they see to it that you get answered? A few companies manage to, so it's not impossible. But management wants you to accept the words in lieu of the fact.

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I once called the employee assistance plan that came with my health insurance for a referral to a specialist within the area, part of the insurer's network, etc. The call was answered promptly enough. I started to explain my mission — just a moment, sir. Name? Address? Home phone? Work phone? Group number? Member number? Shoe size? (Okay, I made that last one up.)

Once we'd gotten through the preliminaries, I again started to explain what I was after — just a moment, sir. Please stay on the line and I'll connect you with an employee assistance specialist.

I sighed the sigh of one of the noble Duke of York's ten thousand men that he marched up the hill and down again. Still, I can see the sense in not lumbering a presumably knowledgable professional (a nurse, in this case) with taking down mundane details.

Sure enough, in a few moments she came on, listened carefully, asked intelligent questions. Finally, someone was taking a serious interest, and would sort things out dedicatedly. I was advised that she'd be working on it, and that it might take a few days before I heard back.

I don't need to finish this story, do I? Maybe my "case" was a little unusual, couldn't be dealt with posthaste by pulling up a list with a few keystrokes. Quite possibly the employee assistance professional actually did make an effort, followed the approved steps. That was the important thing. Her bosses wouldn't have expected, or wanted, her to take an inordinate amount of time getting me answers.

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The organization and its representatives were doing their job, that being to respond to an incoming call and fulfill the company's protocol. I'm sure my call became part of their data in someone's report to the CEO: another customer served! The process working!

As someone notes in the comments at Belmont Club, the front-line worker, or even supervisor, can't — dares not — cut through the procedural jungle and get down to producing results. Because he or she is answerable to someone else, and that someone else is answerable, each person enclosed in another layer like a Russian matryoshka doll. As often as not, it leads to a government regulatory worker under a government macro-regulator.

This is what happens when a population is systematically taught from the day it enters kindergarten that individuals can't be trusted to make decisions, that the flow chart is the key, that wisdom comes only at the end of a long chain of command leading to a regulatory agency, preferably at the national level. In other words, the socio-political philosophy called centralism, statism, or Marxism, of which our president is the prize specimen to take root in the soil that once nurtured liberty.

Most of us are luckier than Baby P. But we are not much likelier to encounter service that is geared to outcomes rather than the appearance of correctness.

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4 comments:

David said...

The behavior of many customer service operations represents an extreme and warped form of Taylorism. All too frequently, there is micromanagement of the details but little attempt to optimize the entire process flow. The manufacturing analogy would be an auto assembly line in which the actions to perform a specific step--tighten a bolt, say--are scripted in minute detail...but no one has stopped to think that it might make more sense to fasten this bolt *before* installing the seat which goes on top of it, to avoid the lost motion of installing the seat, taking it off for access to the bolt, and then putting it back on again. Many service operations do things that are at least this bizarre; they are just harder to visualize.

One thing I've noticed is that many restaurants script the *words* of their hostesses and even their waitpersons in great detail, but have made no attempt to optimize the *physical* actions of food service, say by realizing that people who order pancakes will often want syrup with them.

I've been mulling a post on this topic for some time now...

Rick Darby said...

David,

I was going to include restaurant servers' "scripts" as another example of process (performing the steps) over result (fulfilling customer needs and wishes) but left it out so as not to make a long post even longer.

I hope you, with an insider's knowledge of the corporate world, will write a posting on the subject.

David said...

There were of course gigantic clerical bureaucracies in the pre-computer age, at places like banks and insurance companies, not to mention government agencies. Arturo Barea gives a vivid picture of working in such a bureaucracy, in a Spanish bank, in his book "The Forging of a Rebel," which I review here.

zazie said...

For two or three decades I have been warning my friends and colleagues that in France the political class spoke a lot, only in order not to have to act ; the more they speak of "solidarity" for instance, the more homeless people die on the street during cold winters ; this mentality of the powers that be has been hammered into citizens' heads as soon as they entered the kindergarten, as you noticed as well in the States ; I won't say I am pleased with the state of things in the USA, but at least reading you showed me that I have not (yet!) reached the stage of paranoïa....