Monday, 20 September 2010

Process is more important than Software

I have worked in various places over my nearly 20 years of working life and what surprises me is that it is often the basics that let us down, not subtleties or unusual scenarios. How many times do utility companies mess up a change of name or address? How many times does an airline lose luggage or mess up reservations?
I think most of us understand an extraordinary situation causing problems for any company but how do so many let the basics make them look like idiots?
One of the basics is the idea of a process. If you work out how to make the perfect cookie, do you try and guess the ingredients the next time you make some? Of course not, it goes without saying that you write down the recipe and follow it on the basis that if it worked the first time, it will work the second, all things being equal. I think it is the last part that seems to make many businesses consider processes either ineffective or maybe not even essential for business except maybe on a production line.
Consider my humble industry of Software Development. The first time you write a piece of software and get bitten by, for instance, somebody typing in dodgy input which makes the system fall over, you would think, "Ah, if I add that to a checklist for code reviews then it won't happen again". OK, we have to accept that we won't/can't necessarily retro-fix all the other places in code (although we should certainly consider it) but at least all NEW code will be OK. Although weaknesses do get found all the time, the total number in a given scenario is not massive so we can get to a place that only the newest exploits can affect our code.
This also works at a service level. Think of a support centre, it doesn't take much to look at the number of calls, type of calls and amount of time people aren't doing anything and work out how to improve the situation and free up resources. You might decide that you need a Frequently-asked-questions page or a current status web page or phone message that avoids calls from lots of people about something you already know about. The improvements to process and the lessons you learn don't change every day so over time you can hopefully employee less people to do more.
The title alludes to people who want to buy-in software to replace a current manual system but without thought to the process itself and what could be improved. Since computers and people are good at different things, it is safe to assume that a computer dominated process is going to be different from how things are done manually (a computer can run air-traffic control with less people because it can constantly detect and even correct conflicting air movements, something that is much more complicated to do by hand).
Anyway, consider your processes, what you are actually trying to gain as a result and you might find a whole load of people who are employed simply to support an unecessary business practice. You can then redeploy them to places that need extra resource at no extra cost to the company or you can let people leave and not need to replace them! Wonderful.
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