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Don't try to avoid hard work by automating

The root cause of automated crap is perhaps the basic notion that applying a technology, methodology, or other management voodoo can replace the hard work required for personal (and organizational) improvement.

One of the great risks of cheap, highly available technology is a focus on technology itself, rather than its application. Businesses abound with poorly considered and implemented practices and processes; perhaps they were implemented quickly to solve what seemed like a short-duration problem or were last carefully considered decades ago and have become unwieldy due to the corrupting influence of time. In short, they are crap.

Throw a cadre of technologists at these "crap" processes, and you'll end up with what my friend and leadership consultant Kevin Berchelmann aptly calls "automated crap."

Moving out of the world of the scatological, this concept remains valid and has caused many an IT project to miss its promised results.

The root cause of automated crap is perhaps the basic notion that applying a technology, methodology, or other management voodoo can replace the hard work required for personal (and organizational) improvement. Billions are spent on everything from diet pills and exercise machines, to "Unified Communications Solutions" and ERP systems, all in the name of applying a magic cure of sorts to a problem that requires hard work. Applying IT-driven automation is no exception, and just as one might purchase fancy new running shoes and gain a benefit from the purchase once they can routinely pound out a 5K, we in the corporate world should apply automation only once a process is already "fit." To determine whether you're considering meaningful automation or the latest adventure in automated crap, look for the following:

Technology won't fix behavioral problems

Are your people not talking to each other, or do line employees not understand your company's core principles? Perhaps you're hearing clamoring for an "idiot-proof system" (as an aside, whenever I hear requests to make something "idiot proof" I tell the requestor that once you build it, they'll just build a better idiot). Most of these are behavioral problems, and applying technology to them without attempting to change behavior is the corporate equivalent of the well-intentioned purchase of the Ab Master 2000, which quickly becomes a dust collector. If your people won't get off their duffs and talk to each other or pick up that most unified and universal of communications systems, the telephone, will a $500,000 video conferencing system change that behavior?

WADITW

A sure sign of the potential for automated crap is WADITW - We've Always Done It This Way. Once you hear that quip, call off the IT forces, cancel the POs for the new systems, and go back to the drawing board. WADITW is usually the sign of a Rube Goldberg-esque process that's grown over the years, with new contraptions being bolted on and other creaky processes mashed together to form a convoluted whole that no one has ever taken the time to understand.

Methodologies to decipher WADITW are cheap and bountiful, and if you're a medium to large company, there are probably a cadre of experts eagerly awaiting your call to benchmark, analyze, and diagram. If you're strapped for time, there's no shame in scrapping the whole lot, considering what inputs you have and what the end outcomes must be and then determining the best way to turn inputs into outputs.

Homeless crap

A more nefarious travelling companion of WADITW is the case of homeless crap, where not only have you always done it this way, but no one can actually articulate why you're doing it. I've seen teams and small departments dedicated to dutifully carrying out processing that was no longer required, yet no one actually took the time to question whether the work was actually relevant. You'll usually find homeless crap related to reporting, compliance with government bodies, or internal compliance and documentation. When you start hearing about nefarious government bodies or the mercurial "auditors," turn on your crap detector.

Finally, always look for the hard, financial value to the process you are automating, even if the best figure you come up with might not be perfectly accurate, at least get in the neighborhood. In the past, I wrote about a $500K solution to a $500 problem, where a company dutifully designed and implemented a carefully considered automated process. The need was there, the process was good, but no one bothered to ask what revenue that process supported. Upon further analysis, it was determined that the company had spent approximately $500K for a process that literally supported around $500 in revenue (selling scrap office paper to a local recycler in a branch office). Just because it doesn't immediately stink doesn't always mean it's not a crap process.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

22 comments
bclomptwihm
bclomptwihm

Remember the concept of "The Paperless Office"? I think the first of the original automated crap devices were the massive printers that spit out thousands and thousands of pages of useless crap. Now everybody has to have all their piles of printouts to feel important...

Zenith545
Zenith545

I guess most of the points that you make in this article (or are they Kevin Berchelmann's points???) are irrelevant to big business today. Most of them still treat thier IT departments like CRAP. Am working for one right now who is thinking about outsourcing again. I am already a contigent worker, am getting no feedback at all about the "conversion" process. Cannot find anyone in the company to talk with me about this. Seems they really don't care. Of course, many of us have heard the old "this is for the stability of the company" while many top officers supplement thier mutli-million dollar salaries with multi-million dollar bonuses much bigger than thier salaries, plus stock options, severance packages, perks, benefits, etc,etc,etc,etc. Seems like the French phrase "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche", is applied to all the people that are in the trenches keeping the companies foundational processes (I.E. technology) working. But, then again I have heard that the reason I am not a company employee is that our IT department does not generate revenue.. Go figure. Seems that even D. Kevin Berchelmann, buys into that. His website is full of "key employee retention plans to maintain executive and manager continuity". No mention of rank and file employees at all.

umar185
umar185

Being the head of Prevoyance you must be knowing the usefullness of softwares in the communication arena , even calculators are automation. why don't you go with paper & pencil and log book instead of automated calculator , don't use spreadsheets , employ ten people to do the billing. Don't use email us pigeons .. Dont wear a watch wear a sundial .. Don't use your shaver go to a barber and allow him to use a flint stone to burn your beard .. Instead of writing this article , you could have come up with a secure algorithm which does not crash. You could build it and education people for betterment.

DFO_REXX
DFO_REXX

and I agree the biggest problem is behavioral. WADITW is prevalent, particularly at large companies, more particularly at conservative companies like insurance and financial companies. Automating processes to eliminate typing (e.g. looking up stuff in a database, filling in fields etc.) works well IF you can get people to use it. When I wrote tools I was careful to include how and why answers along with the tools to make sure people knew what was "under the hood" in case something went wrong. Those comments also told people enough to decide when to use the tool and when to just do the process manually. I will add I often automated processes which had historically been done manually... and sometimes pointed out automation which cost more to run than the process they automated. Sometimes automation gets in the way of doing your job, and sometimes streamlines processes. You have to treat each situation individually to see if it makes sense to automate, or de-automate, a process. Very nice article, thank you for writing it... although I think the title could be misleading, it is certainly an attention-grabber.

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

Broadly speaking, when you automate a process (such as defining header numbering in a document) that can be easily done manually, you often make the software more-difficult to use.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

I see this, and constantly fight it all the time. 99% of the time somebody wants to add a more specific term to a database because they're too lazy to select the ones already there that encompass the condition being entered. They NEVER enter terms based on what the end result or report is supposed to be.

blackhawx
blackhawx

This is a great starting point for many users who "idol" a certain programing process to do all the hard work. I would also attach to this article that knowing "when" to use automaton and for "what" will not only make your management time more effective but will also impress your staff who is giving you the thumbs up to process company data.

JerseyTech
JerseyTech

Staples Easy Tech in a nutshell--thanks to the CEOs to district and store managers who know more about selling than servicing or implementing technology properly. And who would probably be better off sticking to what they know best and care about the most--office supplies...

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

This article doesn't discuss one aspect of automation that the author probably recognizes but is probably loathe to mention: People are living beings! While it is true that we LOVE to automate things, it is those moments and situations where we decide to break the patterns of habit and take a fresh look that some of the most "human" advances in human civilization are made. You can't automate creative imagination! Most people never think about automating the arts. But for some reason, the service industries are fair game. Including even teaching. Manufacturing: OK. In a world where each product that comes off an assembly line has to be identical to every other one, maybe that's fair game for automation. But for those of us who aren't interested in a robot society where individuals and groups don't need to adapt and innovate unless some programmer decides so, we must avoid the temptation to automate processes where real human perception and decision are in fact required. Babbage sold us automated computation on the grounds that it would avoid costly human errors. Industrial automation used to be sold as a way to free us to do more creative work. More recently, the importance of the human being in the life of a society has suffered a general downgrade. But if we are automating to benefit all of society, and not just the profiteers, then the truth of our spiritual existence must remain a central guiding principle in human advancement.

RES0239
RES0239

Automation has solved many problems in the past so it is often assumed that it can solve every problem. These problems are often quagmires or hot patatos that no one want to spend the time or plitical capital to actually investagate. So insted they pass the ball to IT or an outside consultant and say "automate the process". The only benifit of the the valumous new IT policy trend (more crap) is that change management policies now requires a boat load of paperwork that delays bad decisions. Roy Smith

blarman
blarman

Great job, Patrick. This is spot on and should be a must-read for every manager. The quick take-away: if you don't know exactly WHAT and WHY something is doing something, it pays to figure that out before going any further.

Lackosleep
Lackosleep

When productivity is not fully realized, mgmt often looks at technology as the limiting factor first, before looking at human processes, behavioral norms and values, etc. When new technology looks all sparkly, blinding mgmt and getting them too excited to evaluate properly, I rein them in a bit and send them an email requesting a faster replacement for my two year old computer because I can only type at 30 WPM. Most of them get it... at least enough to start asking questions. Technology should only be employed if all the human behaviors and the process have been examined and optimized first, and technology itself is the limiting factor. And most importantly, there needs to be a real net gain rather than just a cost shifting from direct line to IT... another factor often lost when blinded by the sparkle. P.S. No, a faster computer will NOT allow me to type faster. Taking the pen out of my hand while typing probably will.

Ray Baker
Ray Baker

I tried but failed to get my company to implement SPC, Statical Process Control. I could not get them away from automating the data to make pretty charts. Literally hundreds would be printed weekly. Thousands of dollars were spent to build and maintain this ineffective system, that only made charts. No one actually looked at a good chart and said "what caused, or not caused, this change? No one did the work as outlined in a very good book from the 1950's. AT&T Statistical Quality Control Handbook, formerly Western Electric Co., Inc., Statistical Quality Control Handbook, 2d ed. Easton: Mack Printing Company, 1956

Dknopp
Dknopp

is the feeding and caring for it. Once it is setup and running, then the layoffs start, or the off-shoring starts and the people that built it go away. Then when something happens nobody knows what to do about it. It is kinda like a car, you do not have to goose the gas and hit a spark switch to to have a car run it does it by itself, but since you were not the one who put that car together your out of luck when it craps out ( or at least the majority of Americans nowadays are, use to be it was a point of pride to know how to work on a car ).

mwclarke1
mwclarke1

I think all the points made are great. However I think most of the crap processes are due to the baby winning executive management in most companies these days that do not understand what the processes are but have no problems dictating what they are going to be. In most corporations I have worked, top executives in the company can mostly explain what the company does or produces, they are great looking at numbers, but most have no idea how the company operates past their own administrative assistants. But these same folks can make dramatic changes in overall processes, policies, etc and have no idea how it affects the bottom line, and the inner workings of a company. Until top level executives realize that all the work that produces and makes revenue for a company is solely done by all the people down in the trenches and would run effortlessly without them and decide to start listening to those actually making the company run most processes are going to be crap when those decisions are made, not not made in some cases. A CEO having a vision as to where the company needs to go is one thing, but better trust and rely on the people running and operating things if he is going to get there.

seanferd
seanferd

or trying to shoehorn a tool, or just expecting a tool to do what you want doesn't help either. This always provides for bad automation from the starting block.

dregeh
dregeh

I thought I was going to hate this article after reading the title, but it made me read it, so I guess it was well named. I have to agree, that using automation will not help you straighten out a mess (most of the time). Automation is great when used to facilitate an existing process. Even better when the process is well thought out. It sounds like the author has run into more than a few poor processes that were further confused by automation. Good luck in the future.

D. Kevin Berchelmann
D. Kevin Berchelmann

Zenith, though I sense a ton of personal frustrations, I do appreciate your comments. I must, however, take exception to the "no mention of rank and file employees" on my website comment, as it is simply inaccurate. Most organizational retention efforts are aimed at individual contributors, not managers and executives. My website has numerous articles discussing this group of key employees in various fashions; feel free to read, peruse, and download at your convenience. Many of my clients list one or more IT professionals in their purposeful retention plans. Further, it's been my experience that organizations place the highest value on those functions adding demonstrable value to long-range plans and efforts. "Demonstrable" is the key word, of course, and is in the eyes of the beholder. Sometimes, IT is treated like a king, other times a pauper. Sometimes HR is top-of-the-food-chain, other times bottom of the barrel. Finance is either a favored son or bastard step-child. All organizations are different. As a former HR executive, I'm no stranger to that bastard-child thinking. I continue to believe -- now and then -- that much of the functional value and significance that organizations have comes FIRST from the senior executive of that function. But that's just me... KB

jdayman
jdayman

I'm another one who saw the title of this article and immediately reached for the Flame Thrower! Then, when I actually read the article, I had to admit that Patrick makes a valid point. Furthermore I think he might have opened my eyes! Maybe this explains some of the pain that we're experiencing where I work. I still think that a well thought out automated process is far superior to a manual process. But the underlying process better make sense, or else automating it is not going to help anyone. Good article!

EmilyD
EmilyD

I agree - that title totally made me read this. I figured it went against what IT was all about automating processes. But the author was correct automating crap is still going to produce the same crap just maybe faster or easier.

Lackosleep
Lackosleep

Well, I HAVE been told I am a fast talker!