Operations in the post COVID business: formalized, simplified, automated and People Centric

The COVID crisis has shown the limits of certain business models and forced businesses to operate in a completely different way in many cases. Of course, with the “return to normal” it would be tempting to say that this is just a bad memory and quickly go back to old habits. But we can also imagine that some will learn from it and use it to make their organization more efficient.

In this post I will focus more specifically on service activities and knowledge workers. Why? First of all, because the industrial world has rarely had the chance to keep on working because of the impossibility to resort to remote working, and therefore has not had the same lessons to learn from this period. Secondly, and more importantly, because historically, it has always been able to question its operating methods and the organization of production, and does not have much to learn in this respect, unlike the two sectors mentioned above which, in my opinion, are often in the stone age of operational excellence.

More formalized operations

The first lesson and the first area of progress concerns the formalization of operating procedures. When it was necessary to operate remotely and sometimes with a reduced management line due to short-time working, many businesses experienced considerable turbulence. Why did this happen? Because once you are at a distance, any information that is not shared and circulated in an organized way circulates very poorly. At a distance, the informal dimension of exchanges disappears to a large extent and what is not planned rarely happens by chance.

The traditional “how do we do it?” question, which is usually answered by a neighbor in the open space, remained hopelessly unanswered. What about collaboration/communication tools? If everyone finds it normal to throw a bottle into the sea in an open space, many are reluctant to do it online in a chat or a forum and thus show what they think which will be seen as a form of ignorance.

And we had to continue recruiting and onboarding remote employees. And everything that used to be transmitted orally, informally, as the employee discovered his or her new business and position, was no longer transmitted, or was transmitted less fluidly than before.

Several years before the pandemic, I had the idea of setting up a global knowledge base in my business, organized as follows: who we are, how we are organized, how we work (processes and tools). Looking back, I can tell you that it practically saved our lives when we had to integrate new recruits from a distance.

I will add two things about the subject.

First of all, such a tool does not have to replace human transmission of information when it is possible. It serves as a lifeline when it is not possible, when it is complicated, when one does not know who to ask or even when the employee does not dare to ask.

Then formalizing things does not mean complicating them and there is too much of a tendency to associate the two. Formalizing means “writing down and documenting what is, what we do”, not adding processes in all directions. If your organization is complicated and overwhelmed by inappropriate and useless processes, this formalization work will make you aware of it but is not the cause of your complication.

Simplified operations

This is my second topic: simplification. Documenting and describing the way the business works allows you to put your finger on many points of friction, things that are inappropriate or counterproductive but that you have come to terms with over time.

During the COVID, businesses often learned to work in what they might have considered a degraded mode : priority to efficiency by sometimes freeing themselves from certain control mechanisms, reduced chain of command with middle managers on short-time working…. to realize in the end that it worked rather well and sometimes even much faster and more efficiently than before.

What they thought was a degraded mode was in fact sometimes just a glimpse of an optimized operation once some of the unnecessary “fat” accumulated over the years had been willy-nilly removed.

The problem with businesses that rely heavily on knowledge workers is that the work is not visible, nor are the workflows, the processes are more or less informal because they are more about case management than linear flow…and in the end, since none of this is visible or formalized, it’s easy to say that it doesn’t exist. This is a huge mistake that businesses suffer from on a daily basis as they unconsciously organize the non productivity and inefficiency of their employees. I often say that you don’t need to be an expert to realize that a factory is dysfunctional just by walking around. In an open space you can’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean that everything is working optimally.

This is a subject where operational excellence and employee experience come together and we will have the opportunity to talk about it frequently in the future.

Automated operations

This is a subject that is sometimes anxiety-provoking, but it cannot be ignored. No, robots will not take the place of white-collar workers in the future, but only if we don’t make white-collar workers do robot work.

And we had the proof during the pandemic. An Oracle study conducted at the time told us that 82% of employees think that robots will support their mental health more than human beings. A figure that may seem terrifying but is only logical when you read the details of the study. It doesn’t tell us that employees prefer to talk about their problems with a robot rather than a human being (although when you see the human qualities of some managers…) but that they want robots to do the tedious and non-value added administrative tasks, reduce their workload, help them find useful information…

Many tasks have been designed for robots and given to humans for lack of robots. Now robots exist and it’s time to give them back the work that was designed for them and let humans focus on the things they are unique for.

People Centric Operations

I’m going beyond the strict subject of lessons learned from COVID, but if we’re going to dust things off, we might as well take advantage of it to deal with subjects that have been swept under the carpet until now.

The world of service and knowledge work has historically copied the industrial model when it came to setting up its organizational model. A process is a sequence of tasks performed by people in a linear way. This does not correspond at all to the reality of these jobs. Try to model your key processes with a BPMN tool and you will quickly reach the limit of the exercise given the level of complexity and unpredictability inherent to these activities.

The difference between the two approaches is that in one approach the process is king and the individual has to fit into a box to do a standardized and repeatable job, whereas in the other approach it is the individual’s ability to manage exceptions and adapt his work that is key and that, from there, it is no longer up to him to fit into the process but to the process to adapt to him, what influence the individual has on the process.

What I often translate as “a good process is a service for the employee, not a burden“.

Here again, a subject that I will deal with in more detail in the near future, but if you are interested, I suggest you read this interesting research work by INSEAD on “People Centric Operations”, which I regret has not received more attention to date, but which is fully in line with this logic. After taking for granted that the process impacts people, asking to what extent people impact the process is a salutary step forward.

Conclusion

The COVID has pushed businesses to sometimes hack their business model to operate in a context never considered before. If not everything is done to stay there are friction points that have emerged, interim solutions that have been found and it would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity to cure some recurring ills.

In this series :
The post COVID business: myth or reality?
COVID has not been a change agent but an excellent consultant
The post COVID employee: an one-unseizable person market
The post-covid manager: more indispensable and lost than ever.
The post covid organization: flatter, agile, flexible and fast.
Post-covid operations: formalized, simplified, automated and people-centric
The post covid workplace: hybridization in pain.
Post COVID business culture: the great reconstruction in the mess
Post COVID business values: a lot of promise and little effect
The post-Covid Digital Workplace: ATAWAD and open to all
Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
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