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Bad Calls, Fools, and Office Follies

By Liz Ryan It's the oddest thing: If you're hoping to add a new position to your department in mid-2005, you had better start making the business case now. Likewise, if there is something bigger than a pocket calculator on the New Year's wish list for your department, better let your numbers people know soon. But in the midst of all this penury, there's shocking waste of one unforgivable variety: Any manager who gets the urge can fritter way valuable employee time by implementing what I'll call a Foolish Process.

Too many managers -- including plenty of recently minted MBAs -- seem as addicted to creating a Foolish Process as other poor souls are to gambling or reality TV. To them, any process is a good process. And unfortunately, by virtue of their positions in the pecking order, they can impose any process they want -- even ones that are pathetically poor. For example, I used to work for a company that, in the days before everything was automated, received its supplier invoices at a post-office box. From there they went to accounts payable, where someone stamped them and sent them off for approval by department heads like me. We would send them back for payment. But sometimes, the invoices would be accidentally lost, dropped behind the credenza, or put in a briefcase that was left on a plane. There were problems.

BOGUS SAVINGS. To fix them, someone in accounting dreamed up a Foolish Process. Once a week, at a scheduled time, I or another department head went to accounting and looked through the prepared invoices. Accounting folks signed or denied them, right on schedule. This process was supposed to save us department heads lots of time. But another problem cropped up: We couldn't reschedule these weekly appointments, not even if we worked miles away, or were in an airplane above Milan, or at a sales call.

Long story short, the new process was withdrawn just as violence seemed ready to break out. Thank goodness someone with authority realized that the very worst processes are ones that have no regard for how people actually behave.

If your company is creating new processes at breakneck speed, you should be nervous. Naturally, it's appropriate to add logic and reason to your operations as your company matures. But layering on too much procedure, too fast, can stifle efforts to solve problems and move the business forward. Managers can tie up business for months or longer with their motives, since most companies don't have a Process Czar to make sure a Foolish Process isn't being hatched. In most cases, a manager (or worse, an office manager) simply says: "Here's the policy," and that's it. CEOs are often reluctant to slow the process-mongers because they've often bought into the frequently bogus idea that the new process will save money.

MORE HARM THAN GOOD.. Funny how often that doesn't happen. For example, a human-resources person I know in a large division of a major company recently was asked to "broker" the services of specialized HR people in the corporate office. He was responsible for making arrangements when a department needed help from corporate compensation folks or required someone from security to assist with an investigation.

Something terrible happened, however. In a panic over budgets, the top corporate HR guy decreed that the divisional HR person would literally schedule these conversations -- as in, "Are you free at 2 p.m. Tuesday?" In a flash, he was demoted from capable manager to clerical help, spending hours a day setting up other people's meetings. It took months for him to prove to his manager the damage the silly process had done.

As a manager, you can't give people any title you dream up, and you can't pay them any sum you want, So it's ironic that you can make them do a lot of goofy things, in the name of process, that do more harm to a company than the other two possibly could.

OUT OF THE BOX. I suggest that if this goes on in your company, you start by calling attention to it. As you trim budgets and evaluate other expenses, look at your processes, too. Start a competition -- call it the Process of Elimination Contest -- to get rid of a Foolish Process once a month. It's time to act if a process adds no clear business value and serves to:

1) stifle the problem-solving freedom of your knowledge workers;

2) slow the transfer of information;

3) cover someone's rear at the cost of speed;

4) give employees a reason to hate their jobs.

Create a suggestion box where people can nominate truly stupid processes for the guillotine. And pay special attention to managers whose love of new processes overshadows their business judgment. They could be costing you a fortune, without actually spending a cent. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization

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