Reengineering Recycled


How the Process-Centered Organization Is Changing Our Work and Our Lives

By Michael Hammer

HarperBusiness -- 285pp -- $25

These are tough days for businesspeople. Profits are hard to come by, and the pace of technological change seems to make planning futile. So it's not surprising that CEOs everywhere turn in desperation to consultants for advice. Unfortunately, many executives end up bewildered. One consultant recommends a dose of reengineering, another points to a tight focus on core competences, yet another favors boosting economic value-added, and so on.

Now, add to the list a pitch to become "process-centered." That's the quality that characterizes the 21st-century corporation, according to consultant Michael Hammer's latest how-to, Beyond Reengineering. Hammer, who, along with his former partner James Champy, helped spawn the reengineering movement, once again tries to inspire nervous businesspeople to embrace change. His recipe? "The radical redesign of business processes for dramatic improvement."

But isn't this just plain old reengineering? No, says Hammer: It is the same definition he has always used for reengineering. But previously, he says, "I felt that the most important word in the definition was `radical."' Today, he realizes, "the key `process': a complete end-to-end set of activities that together create value for the customer."

Changing the word emphasis hardly amounts to a huge revelation. Hammer's incremental shift pales next to the critique his former colleague leveled at reengineering almost two years ago. In the 1994 book, Reengineering Management, Champy renounced reengineering's overemphasis on impersonal processes, instead extolling management leadership. But one hardly expects Hammer, an engineer by training, to take such a warm and fuzzy approach.

So what we have here is a restatement of first principles. Beyond Reengineering is useful as far as it goes, peppered with smart insights about what it takes to make it in business these days. But Hammer's unwillingness to address the human side of corporate change--so much in the news over the past few years, thanks to downsizing--gives the book a bloodless feel. There's passion aplenty here about the need to change, but no warmth. He lectures that the New Business Order will free people to use their brains at work and take on bigger responsibilities, then admits "the engineer may find himself working at full steam all day, all week, all year." He adds: "Many forty-four-year-olds will find it exhausting."

In Hammer's world, that's just the way it goes. You'll be tired, but at least, Hammer says, your job will be more rewarding.Why? You can thank process centering. Hammer never provides a neat definition of what the term means. His first stab is fairly tautological: "Process centering," he writes, "more than anything else, means that people--all people--in the company recognize and focus on their processes."

Reading on, it becomes clear that process centering means reuniting the various parts of such now-fragmented functions as customer service so that customers actually get served rather than just passed from one worker to another. At GTE Corp., for example, each customer-service worker was once limited to performing a single task--diagnosing a technical problem, say. Now, they are involved with the full range of work required to resolve a snafu. This means GTE's "customer care advocate" must be a master of several disciplines, ranging from assessing problems to dispatching technicians to dealing directly with customers. The result, Hammer says, is that 33% of problems are resolved on a customer's first call.

The better part of this book is spent laying out the implications of becoming process-centered. Each worker will transform him or herself into a professional, "someone sho is responsible for achieving a result rather than performing a task," he writes. "A worker is a kind of organic robot, operated by a manager via remote control." Professionals, on the other hand, possess "whole jobs," where they act and think for themselves. Meanwhile, companies will have to destroy the walls erected between them and their suppliers, so that they form "a kind of corporate consortium, each member contributing its special expertise."

If you've stayed current with the latest management theories, none of this will seem particularly new. It's all well-stated, if a bit naive. For instance, he lauds customer relations at General Electric Co.'s Large Appliance Div., but later in the same chapter, when he talks about supplier relations, he fails to note that the division has consistently treated suppliers poorly, demanding they cut prices or lose business. So much for partnership.

The book's most useful new insight is that processes, not products, might provide companies with a new form of competitive advantage. Like L.L. Bean Inc., which has broken new ground by selling its order-taking service to the likes of AT&T, he suggests that companies might sell their processes rather than rushing into new fields or just concentrating on current products.

Unfortunately, there isn't much else that's new here. Beyond Reengineering is a rather dry book that does a good job of explaining the challenges businesses face--but does little to ease executives' confusion regarding how to move forward. Perhaps Hammer's own process, which has created three reengineering books in four years, could stand some reexamination.

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