Chaos, Compliance and Excellence


If your journey requires unlearning something along the way, then either you have taken a wrong turn, or your map is wrong. In this article I examine three models of the relationship between the Business Excellence and “Command and Control” management paradigms.

 

1. Business Excellence as an extension

When I first heard about Business Excellence, it sounded like an extension to conventional business practices, a way of going beyond mediocre levels of performance:

Compliance seen as an intermediate step to Excellence

Fig 1. Naive model of the relationship between Business Excellence and Command and Control.

This univariate model based on performance might look correct initially. Command and Control approaches that push for compliance with a centralised authority can increase performance if the starting point is one of dis-organisation. Intuitively, Business Excellence seems like something to pursue once this compliance is in place. Over the years however, this “Icing on the cake” view turned out to not only be inadequate but a potentially dangerous misconception.

 

2. Business Excellence as constrained by the status quo

Command and Control methods lead to fear-based compliance[1]. If the starting point is chaos, this will yield benefits for a while and, as an unfortunate side-effect, serve to validate methods that will become constraints later. For example, trying something different, the essence of innovation, is a personal risk for employees and thus constrained by a compliance culture. Business Excellence paradigm concepts like employee self-reliance are difficult to make any progress with when employees (and managers) have been trained by their experience that following rules to the letter is the safest behaviour for them, one that has been positively reinforced many times. While orderly, stagnation and mediocrity is where this ends up:

Compliance seen as a direction and constraint

Fig 2. Increasing and constraining performance with Command and Control.

We can use the example of process-mapping, an important tool for Business Improvement, but one often used in a way antithetical to such goals. While it can build and communicate understanding, through a Command and Control lens it often leads to the mindless routinisation of activities when a documented process becomes the procedure to be followed[2]. Explicit procedures are often tied to the carrot and stick of the Command and Control paradigm. If you want to be in good standing for that annual bonus, how should you treat established procedures? What does this mean for innovation within your organisation? One of the goals of the Business Excellence paradigm is maximising the potential of workers by fostering their self-reliance, as the decentralised path to Continuous Improvement. Instead, we see some businesses where employees follow procedures like robots. Sometimes ridiculous procedures – who thought it was a good idea for hairdressers to demand customers’ phone numbers when they come in for a trim? I get enough spam already!

 

3. Business Excellence as a choice

Rather than seeing Excellence as an extension of the Compliance paradigm, it is informative to look at the choices between the two. For example, do you hire a dozen process specialists to build and maintain a centralised model repository that likely gets little use[3], or train everyone across the company in the basics of understanding and improving their areas’ processes? If you attempt both of these sequentially, sunk cost fallacies can creep in and stifle attempts at the Business Excellence transition – “We’ve spent millions on the central process team, why should we train everyone else to do it themselves now?”. Rather than a single path to higher performance, this suggests a trichotomy:

Compliance culture seen as one alternative path

Fig 3. Command and Control and Business Excellence are different paths.

Consider another Business Excellence goal, the elimination of waste. This also fits the trichotomy model as it would include both the tangible waste of a chaotic organisation and the costs/missed opportunities of an exceedingly rigid organisation. Again, getting into the habit of identifying waste has no Command and Control prerequisites. Getting started earlier is preferable, as eliminating bad rules takes more effort than avoiding them in the first place.

While the temptation might be to avoid the Command and Control paradigm entirely in favour of Business Excellence, you do need a mix of both paradigms. For example, there are limits to how much decentralisation of authority is sensible to pursue – taken to the extreme you would no longer have an identifiable organisation. Unfortunately, this means we cannot avoid the compatibility challenges with conventional/intuitive practices when pursuing Business Excellence. If Business Excellence and Command and Control are like water and oil then we need a good emulsifier (leadership) to integrate what we need from each.

 

Optional Footnotes

1. ^ For a primer on fear and compliance in organisations see Deming (1986 & 1993). In short, this refers not merely to explicit fears such as that of being fired but to subtle fears such as that of not receiving a bonus or promotion. These possibilities will not make someone scared but do lead them to avoid certain actions and form the basis of many compliance behaviours. While positive in some circumstances, this compliance mindset is a constraint. The Uniqlo example given by Harada and Bodek (2012) illustrates this perfectly – a woman with a sick child who wanted to call a doctor was turned away and told that “the company’s policy manual forbids the use of company telephones by customers”. Such is the result of defining an employee’s role as one of mere compliance with rules and procedures. Something out of scope for this article is the inclusion of subjective anti-rules such as demanding that employees “use good judgment”, which might be invoked in these situations to insist that the emperor is actually clothed.

2. ^ It does not help that “process” and “procedure” are often used interchangeably or to denote some inconsequential difference such as scale. When teaching students to distinguish between descriptive processes and prescriptive procedures, I find it helps to point out that the natural world has many processes but no procedures.

3. ^ In my experience, general business has little patience for what is often the product of centralised process teams – models in cryptic syntax that are complex yet out of date or missing the crucial details being sought. As including all the required detail for various purposes that might arise in the future (e.g. Steps, Responsibilities, Timing, Software, Etc.) bloats these centralised models, and expands maintenance effort, the corresponding investment exceeds their utility.

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Marcin Kreglicki

Business Excellence & Improvement Consultant at Effective Perspectives Consulting
Marcin is a business improvement specialist with a passion for helping businesses be more effective. He advocates the application of evidence-based approaches to change and giving leaders an understanding of business excellence concepts relevant to their company. In support of his professional work, he is currently carrying out research on the barriers to holistic thinking in business decision-making.

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About Marcin Kreglicki

Marcin is a business improvement specialist with a passion for helping businesses be more effective. He advocates the application of evidence-based approaches to change and giving leaders an understanding of business excellence concepts relevant to their company. In support of his professional work, he is currently carrying out research on the barriers to holistic thinking in business decision-making.

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