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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

Has Your Organization Contracted Humpty Dumpty Syndrome?

Functional separation of work is one reason why process improvement is so futile

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 12:05

The rhyme we all learned as children rings in my ears: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall / All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. I like to use Humpty Dumpty to describe companies that have functionally separated their work. These companies group similar tasks together, which shatters any cohesive workflow. For service industries especially, this can be extremely counterproductive.

My British colleagues describe this as “functional specialisms.” I call it the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome. Regardless, the functional separation of work has long penetrated the design of most organizations. Functional separation is in our DNA. Frederick Winslow Taylor and proponents of scientific management introduced this design of breaking work into functions and optimizing the pieces. Scientific management theory was a breakthrough—100 years ago. A century later our work structures are still designed in the same way except that modern organizations grapple with information technology (IT) more often than physical layout.

As organizations attempt to manage the increasing dysfunction of these archaic designs, more analysts are brought in. They know how to break things down into pieces, but like the king’s men, they can’t put things back together again (i.e., synthesize). Ultimately, the pieces don’t work well together, and sometimes they don’t work at all. W. Edwards Deming used the word “suboptimization” to describe the phenomenon.

Organizations increase their costs by clinging to outdated thinking and design. A company’s bottom line takes a direct hit when customers must struggle to navigate through various departments to find answers to their issues. Getting lost in a quagmire of electronic voice routing and speaking to multiple specialists to resolve a single problem makes no sense.

Like an archaeological find waiting to be uncovered, many organizations have buried incidents of some poor sap who called in to get his problem solved. One service organization I know of had a customer who made more than 25 contacts over nine months to get an issue resolved. When customers have to work so hard for service, they begin to look for other hassle-free alternatives.

Some will say this is an accountability issue, that the person who answered the first call should have solved it. However, management is responsible for the work design that prevents a customer from getting her problem solved on the first attempt. Ownership must be built into the design of work itself. Outsourced back offices and other organizational “parts” have become commonplace. Misguided management believes it is saving money with this approach. However, managers fail to realize the effect multiple calls have on customers or the loss in revenue from customers who walk away—and there are many.

Contact center agents must be able to work problems through to completion, and they need access to resources to do so. Too many agents simply add information to a database and pass the caller on to someone else in the organization.

Although it has been labeled as the glue that holds the pieces together, IT has exacerbated the problem by locking in the waste of a separated work design. My experience has been that IT makes things worse by being poorly designed from the beginning, and the problem is aggravated every time a new functional patch is added.

Looking at software development, we can see the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome at work there, too. The process has been fragmented. Business analysts write requirements, developers do the coding, testers make sure it works (whatever “it” is), and then we need project managers to put a plan together so that deadlines are met. The result is cost overruns and software that doesn’t enable the work. The work design is ignored in favor of schedules and managing scope and costs.

Functional separation is one reason why process improvement is so futile. The problems that need to be tackled by organizations are systemic and not process-related. Today’s organizational problems are larger—and strangely, much simpler—than we make them out to be. Trying to solve them by separation of work is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

CEOs and top management badly need to learn to synthesize, to put the pieces together again. The best way for them to begin is by studying their organizations as a system, end-to-end, from a customer’s point of view.

As international competition increases in our shrinking world, organizations will need every edge they can get, including eradicating the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome. That will require different thinking.


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt the managing partner for The 95 Method - Executive Education and Advisors. The 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to use new theories to grow business.  Babbitt can be reached at tripp@the95method.com. Reach him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt

Tripp also has a podcast and YouTube channel called, The Effective Executive.


Outsourcing function has

Outsourcing function has emerged to bring in more specialization of functions in the organization.

It aims to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

Organizational thus thins out and it reduces the management layers.

This has evolved as contemporary successful model that helps management in focusing the core functions and specialized segments.

Once the outsourcing is done, processes should be re-engineered to support the new business model as well IT systems should be upgraded with sufficient previliges to the customer support empowering them to resolve issues and problems.

May be processes re-engineering and ITIL should be the focus instead of status quo and reverting back to the functional design.

I suggest that we really need data to support the premise that this is sub-optimization.


Hi Zak- I have heard this argument many times. I am afraid it doesn't have any merit in reality. A piece of data to compile to help you is the amount of failure demand coming in from customers. I have never found it less than 60% in any service organization. It is important to understand that redesign should happen BEFORE outsourcing, otherwise you are outsourcing your waste. An expensive proposition. Besides outsourcing contracts tend to lock-in the waste. Regards, Tripp

Systems cannot be understood by analysis

As Dr. Russell L. Ackoff put it: It isn't the actions of the parts, but their interactions that matter. But, that has been a very difficult lesson to learn as we're not designed to think in terms of interactions (non-linear). We seem to be naturally wired for and then systematically programmed to think linearly using analytical techniques.

(Shrikant Kalegaonkar, twitter: @shrikale, LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/shrikale/)