When It’s Just Not Painful Enough

Earlier this week I sat down with a client over a coffee. After the initial pleasantries about our weekends, the conversation shifted to work. She was frustrated at how hard it was to get anything done in her organisation.

Her next question then surprised me – “what % of our workforce do you think are frontline staff?” Considering the type of work and industry, I guessed about 65-70%.

I was notably off.

It was, in fact, the inverse – the majority of their staff base was corporate administration. The organisation was top-heavy, with current enterprise agreements providing very little option to do anything about it.

And this flowed through into their processes. The organisation governed itself like an organisation 5x its size – because, frankly – all these people have to do something!

The result: a culture of ‘sustained inefficiency’.

Interestingly, I suspect the root cause here is psychological – staff are caught in the region-beta paradox. A region-beta paradox arises when a less painful situation leads to a worse net-result than a more painful situation. It’s based on the idea that small amounts of pain are durable, while large amounts of pain stimulate a response. We’re all probably guilty of falling into this trap more than once… I’m sure I’m not the only one who has attempted to shrug off mild cold symptoms, only for them to linger for weeks. But, if I pick up an ugly sounding infection, I’ll go see the doctor, take the anti-biotics, rest up, and recover much faster.

And so is true in our organisations. Sustained inefficiency is often the result of insufficient pain. Painful enough to complain, not painful enough to act… A dangerous place to be indeed.

What sources of ‘mild pain’ are slowing your organisation?

Here’s A Wild Idea: Embrace The Mystery

Staying on the topic of inefficient processes, I came across an interesting post on LinkedIn this week. The CEO of Scenic Rim Regional Council made public the yearly mystery-check that he runs with his procurement & financial teams. In short – he submits a fake invoice to see whether it gets processed or picked up.

While the comments on his post swayed from applaud (‘what a great idea’) to worry (‘leave it to the auditors’, ‘that could be fraud!’) – the underlying idea behind his actions is one that’s too often ignored: we should be unbiasly-testing our internal processes. Even better if it’s from the point of view of those using them. Retail stores do this all the time when they employ ‘mystery shoppers’.

It’s all too easy to fall prey to proximity bias, and look more favourably on the processes within our own area – especially if we had a hand in shaping them. This often lead to blindspots.

What would mystery shopping your processes look like?