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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

Just Follow the Procedure

And leave your brain at the door

Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 - 10:22

The focus for management and support staff when diagnosing problems with customers is squarely on the front line. Many times the failure is diagnosed with the phrase, “If they would just follow the procedure, none of these problems would ever have happened.” If only resolving customer issues were this easy.

Our functionally separated organizations, complete with out-of-touch management, look for someone to blame. It’s the easy way out, so management can go back to making big plans, and support groups can get back to the dictates and objectives of their function.

When studying an organization as a system, closer examination reveals that written procedures become an obstacle. The service industry looks to standardize processes and develop written procedures so that quality inspectors can monitor workers for following the process. This is waste. And it’s commonplace.

Standardization does not absorb the variety of demands brought by customers in service industry. Written procedures can create a “dumb down” effect for workers to where leaving your brain outside the workplace is a daily occurrence. Add quality inspectors, and you have a system that functions like a prison.

Managers working in poorly designed systems think of ingenious ways to reward employees so the suffering in the sweatshop becomes tolerable. Meeting a time target gets you a candy bar, and there’s pizza for the department if a team goal is achieved. Written procedures are still used to “help” workers meet time targets.

The most effective solution is quite simple: Enable the front-line workers. Instead there is over-automation and sometimes cutting-edge technology isn’t even used. Management gives IT a budget, and then a list of projects, change requests, and stubborn defects are prioritized—over and over again. The finance department whittles the budget, and a new round of political posturing occurs to get pet projects prioritized again. The result is a series of disjointed projects that have little chance of ever being useful for front-line workers. Some call this good management with governance. I call it waste.

When the work design is poor, IT locks in the waste. IT attempts to stitch things together from organizational function to organizational function, and IT application to IT application. Sometimes it takes scores of clicks, checks, and, of course, written procedures to make this design “work.”

IT is not the only culprit; the variation that customers bring plays havoc. If front-line workers don’t understand the system and just “follow procedures,” they can’t see this variation as an opportunity for improving service. The price of dumbing down workers is high.

A recent article on CNBC, “‘Average’ Workers Plague U.S. Businesses: Execs Survey” reports U.S. executives calling workers “average at best” when it comes to communicating, creativity, and critical thinking. The U.S. worker has been outsourced, marginalized, and forced to work in organizational systems that have work designs so pathetic that workers are now called “average.” They have been handcuffed by mind-numbing, just-follow-the-procedure initiatives, mandates, and rules.

If U.S. executives want to find someone to blame, follow this “written procedure”: Walk to the mirror and stare deeply.


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.


People aren't Widgets

Question - Does service have the same problems as manufacturing? Over the years I have struggled with this question and the answer is overall . . . NO! As with any approach the question is, "what problem are you trying to solve?" If you have the same problem as manufacturing than the thinking and/or tools may apply. However, service usually has different problems to solve. Some believe healthcare has the same problems as manufacturing . . . makes you wonder what healthcare could be with different thinking.

Different problems, same Lean Thinking

Of course healthcare has different problems - namely that too many patients are being harmed by our health care system.

Lean thinking (yes, it's different thinking) allows people to develop new approaches that meet their customer (patient) needs... namely less harm. More standardization means a more consistent process that's less prone to error. It's certainly not a "check your brain at the door" approach.


You seem to equate consistent with better. Russell Ackoff would reference as "doing the wrong thing, righter." It looks and sounds better . . . however, there is danger in this approach when we lead with standardization. It ignores other possibilities and solutions. Patients bring variety that standardization cannot absorb.


Standardization in a Lean/TPS context does not mean "check your brain at the door." That's the mindset of old school Taylorism and Fordism.

The JAMA journal recently published an article with data showing how increased standardization of care (this does NOT mean completely identical, by the way) resulted in lower cardiac care morality.


The article specifically cited "manufacturing" management techniques, Lean, and the Toyota Production System.

Conclusions and Relevance  The use of management practices adopted from manufacturing sectors is associated with higher process-of-care measures and lower 30-day AMI mortality. Given the wide differences in management practices across hospitals, dissemination of these practices may be beneficial in achieving high-quality outcomes.

Good Article

A key difference between American and Israeli security regarding who gets aboard an aircraft: Israeli agents are trained to use their eyes, ears, brain, etc. TSA folks are forbidden to use any discretion. And those who do usually do so in the form of an abusive excess.

Yes, we rely on technology too much these days

The worker has been removed for legal reasons and technology. Our barrier to terrorism is being compromised with such thinking.


Please refer "Cro'nica de una Muerte anunciada", 1981, Gabriel Garci'a Ma'rquez. Thank you.

Interesting - Chronicle of a Death Foretold

I don't want to assume that I understand your reference. However, I believe you have pointed out this story because of the theme of fulfilling expectations for good or evil. Is this your point? Tx