Employees must follow the processes. Are you sure?

Processes are reassuring for the business because they allow it to rely on the system to avoid individual deviations. Indeed, since humans are a priori fallible, locking them into a strict operating mode allows them to be certain that everything will be done mechanically, in the manner planned, and therefore that the expected result will be obtained.

In a business, the respect of processes by employees is a guarantee of performance and quality. But are we so sure?

In this post::

Replicating perfection ad infinitum

At the beginning we find again and again the Taylorian heritage. At the beginning of the industrial era, Taylor revolutionized production methods in the way we know. In an industrial context where it was necessary to manufacture the same thing over and over again, without the slightest difference between two parts produced, more and more quickly and, let’s not forget, with a poorly qualified workforce, it was a question of leaving as little room as possible for reflection, for personal judgment.

This is how work was broken down into a number of micro-tasks that were easy to learn and perform by an individual so that he could execute them mechanically, without question, and without risk of quality deviation. This was widely caricatured by Charlie Chaplin in modern times.

In two words it was a question of “replicating perfection ad infinitum”.

A machine job you would say? Yes, it is. But at the time there were no machines, or rather, they were only in their infancy. So, if we could not entrust the work to machines, we designed the work for them but, for lack of anything better and while waiting for something better, we entrusted it to humans.

Then the machines came and we know what happened but that’s another story.

When the knowledge economy…doesn’t learn

Let’s take a leap in history and look at the take-off of the tertiary sector and what is now called the service economy and knowledge workers, or even the experience economy, which is just an extension of it.

How did this economy organize itself and, above all, its production? By copying the existing, that is to say the industrial world inherited from Taylor. And too bad if the industry had become largely mechanized since then, because of the lack of machines, we would use humans to do a job that we had designed for machines.

Waiting for the machines to arrive? We could talk at length about the fact that, yes, if we continue to give humans jobs that are designed for machines, the risk of seeing, one day, robots and artificial intelligences take their place is real, but that’s not our topic today.

However, what has not changed since then is the way in which work and its content are conceived in these sectors.

Surprising? Yes, insofar as the industrial world that we are trying to copy has not stopped questioning its efficiency and practices since Taylor and still does today.

As this New York Times article noted:

Peter Drucker noted that during the twentieth century, the productivity of manual workers in the manufacturing sector increased by a factor of fifty as we got smarter about the best way to build products. He argued that the knowledge sector, by contrast, had hardly begun a similar process of self-examination and improvement, existing at the end of the twentieth century where manufacturing had been a hundred years earlier.

If productivity and quality have increased in the manufacturing sector, it is not only because of machines, but because we have reinvented the way we work, the way we conceive the production chain, and we have rethought the role of people to make them do what machines could not do.

In the knowledge economy, we were content to add machines (computers….), thinking that this would allow us to work better without rethinking the way we work. Thus, in 1987, Robert Solow, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics the same year, stated what is now called Solow’s paradox:

“We see computers everywhere, except in productivity statistics.”

I will add the less known Alain Rallet who in his book “L’économie numérique” published in 2002 said :

You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner to see a computer on every desk. But to cause a disaster, all you need is a computer… And disasters are not good for productivity.

Knowledge workers are therefore the great forgotten ones of operational excellence today, even though they are supposed to be at the heart of the growth of the modern economy.

It’s not so surprising to see that while we’ve been trying to “reinvent management” since the 80s, the great principles we’ve been talking about without being able to implement them come from those who revolutionized the manufacturing world, as shown in this old article on Deming’s 14 points, and that some of the best books on new forms of collaboration or digital transformation come from Yves Caseau, an apostle of LEAN if ever there was one, to whom we owe in 2011 “Processus et Entreprise 2.0“. Already.

The customer comes first

Where did we go wrong on the way? As the saying goes, we “copied the dish instead of understanding the recipe”.

To copy the dish is to set up a codified and mechanized production. Understanding the recipe means doing what is necessary to obtain a quality product/service that satisfies the customer’s expectations. And when the dish changes, the recipe must adapt.

However, the customer’s expectation, because it is the customer’s expectation that conditions everything, is not the same for a manufactured product as for a service. In the first case, each product must look exactly like the one he bought before and the one he will buy after, while in the other case, he needs a service whose nature changes according to his context. It may even be necessary to adapt it between the moment of the order and the moment of the “delivery”.

And even more concretely: the customer is involved in the production of the service, not in that of the product. In a way, a factory is a “stable” environment in relation to its external environment over a short period of time, whereas a service business is permanently open to the outside world and is subject to its evolutions and constraints in real time.

Moreover, the production of services or intangible benefits does not follow a linear and regular flow, and requires the management of numerous exceptions, to such an extent that it is difficult to model in an exhaustive manner. Imagine a factory where after each step you have to define or even invent the next step, with the customer, or even go back two steps and you will understand the difference between the two.

From then on, “replicating perfection ad infinitum” no longer works because the notion of perfection (what the customer expects, what he needs) evolves almost in real time.

A framework rather than rules

Of course, there is no question of freeing ourselves from rules or at least from procedures that avoid going off course and allow us to replicate good practices when a case repeats itself; this would be the best way to make things worse than if we changed nothing.

This is where the notion of case comes into play, because each “product” is, in fact, a different case. Although case management is a discipline that has only just begun to make inroads outside certain professions, it does provide an adequate response to this type of need: a framework that ensures a form of compliance, a framework within which employees are free to adapt their way of doing things to the circumstances.

It’s all about the difference between ERP (Easily Repeatable Processes) and BRP (Barely Repeatable Processes).

And adapting one’s way of doing things introduces a major change because it puts the individual ahead of the process, the individual ahead of the system.

Systems and people

The business is a system, any change that impacts one of its elements impacts the others and therefore the whole. In the manufacturing world, we can try to make production in the strictest sense a system that is as decontextualized as possible from what surrounds it and that influences itself.

In the world of services and knowledge work, where the “machine” is human, it is difficult to separate the two. However, we know, as it has been demonstrated many times, that when something goes wrong in the business it is 94% the fault of the system and 6% the fault of the people.

The solution, in the context I have already described, is not to make the system too rigid, which prevents humans from adapting, but on the contrary to give it flexibility to allow individuals to manage exceptions.

As already mentioned, businesses have responded to a complex environment with a complicated organization, which is the worst response.

The idea is to move from a model where, as on a production line, resources have to fit into a box to accomplish a sequence of prescribed tasks in a linear way to a model where they can to some extent (and as already mentioned here) reconfigure the production line, their box and their tasks in an adhoc way.

The employee at the center

If processes have a bad press with employees, it’s because they see them as a burden and a complicating factor that prevents them from doing their job. In a logic where operational excellence and employee experience come together, I often say, on the contrary, that processes must be seen as a service. Well, the good processes. Besides, if we often stigmatize what doesn’t work well, we never hear employees complain about the processes they use in their service or in their job, which make their life easier because they seem transparent.

In fact, the employee is seen as the object of the process (it applies to him) or its executor (he must obey it) but never as its client, which is however the case. The process is activated by the employee to reach an objective and when this objective is changing, shifting, unpredictable, they must be able to have an impact on it. Otherwise, the process is an obstacle to the achievement of the results that the business would like to see them reach.

People Centric Operations

This brings us, finally, to the notion of “People Centric” processes. We often talk about “putting the individual at the center” of the business, a concept that is attractive in theory but nebulous in content and implementation. It often translates into intentions, attentions, initiatives outside of the flow of work, but in the end nothing that changes the lives of employees and even less their work. This is only logical because most of the time it is the process that is at the center and the employee is only secondary.

Putting the employee at the center means putting him at the center of operations. Considering him as a stakeholder and not as a mere object.

This is where we need to talk about a concept that, although emerging, is very promising in this context, a subject I discovered through research work at INSEAD: “People Centric Operations”. Its purpose is to study how the individual impacts the process in today’s economy and how to build processes that truly serve the individual.

“For many years, most research in Operations Management (OM) has treated people in operating systems as fixed, unchanging, or exogenous entities. However, this assumption has been increasingly challenged, particularly with the rise of service and knowledge-intensive businesses where workers and/or customers fundamentally impact operational outcomes. Research in PCO focuses on the operational significance of having people (workers, customers, or both) interacting with and/or within an operational system.

And why?

People, not organizations, are self-optimizing. Although research often focuses on
organizations and the actions “they” take, in reality the anthropomorphic organization is a
simplifying assumption: It is people within the organization who make choices

People are different. People have different goals, different beliefs, different skills, different
rates of change (e.g., learning)

People change with time. Unlike finished goods inventory that may sit in a warehouse, people
are never “finished”: they add skills with use and require training in order to maintain skills

People have discretion. This discretion can manifest itself in numerous ways, but the
implications of individual choice are vast”


Yet, over the last 40 to 50 years, OM was primarily based in operations research, where everything tends to be modelled mathematically. Modelling typically reduces human beings to variables in equations, at the risk of ignoring relevant dimensions.

That’s how to say in three paragraphs what it took me a long article to explain. But if the various articles you can find on the subject of People Centric pose the problem in an intelligent and argued way, the “how” remains vague.

How to (re)put people at the center of operations

However, we can draw from the above some lines of work while waiting for perhaps one day INSEAD to propose more elaborate and illustrated things on the subject.

Case management

The logic of case management should inspire the construction of operational models built around individuals. Provide a strict framework and guiding principles and a toolbox to move within the framework. This will require some work on them from the control freaks.


Mutual trust between employee and manager (but especially from manager to employee) is essential.


If the manufacturing world has made gigantic progress, it is thanks to the use of data that has enabled the measurement that has enabled the improvement.

We have little or no data on service or knowledge work activities because we cannot capture them and because we tend to think that what is invisible and immaterial does not exist. This is a good excuse to change nothing.


The collection of data will only be possible if it is acceptable to employees, which will be determined by the expected benefit and trust in the business.

Design Thinking

Paraphrasing Solow, I would say, “you see design everywhere but in business operations.”

Today, businesses are using design for any purpose to create the best customer experiences and journeys offline and especially online.

In a broader sense, design thinking, product design, journey design, experience design and service design are omnipresent when addressing the customer, in order to put the customer’s needs at the center. And what about the employees?

If design has made its entry into the business, it is only in a rather modest way and most often at the periphery of operations. Let’s talk about the difference between customer and object?

Human Resources

As a logical outcome of this approach, the study suggests that we look at the impact of HR on operations.

“As a final note, we echo the call of Boudreau et al. (2003) for further work studying the human resources (HR) function and its operational impact. Interestingly, the HR function at such companies as Google or Netflix is now known as “People Operations”.

Here I would say “yes and no”. It may be a subtlety of language, but if you rename the HR function to “People Operations” you are still limited to the HR domain, and fortunately employees don’t spend their lives consuming the HR process, they still happen to work. I much prefer a “People and Operations” function which, although rarer, says what it means: it is interested in people not only as such but in their work environment. It looks at the individual in his or her operational context (manager, colleagues, tools, processes, etc.) and not just in the absolute, being off the ground. It does not develop talents for the beauty of the gesture but so that they perform well in operations…which requires that it does not undergo the latter but contributes to their design. That’s the whole problem with the employee experience right now, that said: the eternal glass ceiling of the flow of work that materializes in this matrix.

But the real problem lies elsewhere, as the study concludes:

Despite this label it is fair to ask: How many HR professionals have a deep understanding of operations?

This is the problem of the HR function today and even more so tomorrow (having both roles, I know how useful it is to know how to use both levers).

One way to reinvent the HR function, or even a prerequisite for putting the individual back at the center of the business and operations: HR with a deep understanding of operations and an impact on them.

Continuous improvement

As long as individuals are allowed to use their judgment and ability to take control of the content of their work, it is essential that they develop this ability over time and learn from each other to make the best choices as quickly as possible in a given situation.

A dynamic that is both individual and collective: making a decision for oneself in an operational context always has an impact on others (the system…) and the sum of local optima does not always indicate a global benefit of the same order.

It is therefore necessary to learn and improve continuously, not only individually but also collectively. This implies solving another age-old problem: how to make “run” and “build” coexist at the same time, i.e. to make the business work while transforming it at the same time when everything leads to dedicate 100% of one’s time to the daily business.


In the complexity of today’s world, it is no longer obvious who of the human or the process follows or precedes the other. It is obvious that it is simpler and safer to follow defined operating procedures…which does not prevent them from being designed and adapted according to the needs of the person who will follow them.

Image :People-Centric Process by Master1305 via Shutterstock

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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