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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

The Shocking Role of Support Areas

The three costliest are also the most wasteful

Published: Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 11:06

OK, brace yourself for a shocking disclosure that will revolutionize service businesses everywhere. Are you ready? The role of support areas such as human resources, IT, finance, and of course, management is to... wait for it... support the core business. And by core business I’m talking about those who deliver what customers want or solve customer problems.

Now, on the surface that doesn’t sound too shocking, but actually support areas in a functionally separated organization rarely “support” anything. They are more like elected officials with mandates to enforce their will on the core business. After all, support areas have performance measures to meet, just like the production or service departments do, but typically these measurements have little to do with customer wants or problems.

From what I’ve witnessed, things like meeting budget, scheduling, and functional improvement targets have nothing to do with improving the end-to-end system or enabling workers. The excuse is that support areas can only affect what they can control—namely, their function. What’s more, rewards, bonuses, and budget dollars are on the line. Everyone knows that if you “perform,” you get more, and if you don’t, you get less—or worse. Setting achievable objectives and targets can compromise that system. So every area achieves its functional targets instead, and the business falls apart.

Somewhere along the line organizations have lost the focus on the customer, and along with that, they have lost profit and innovation. Departments are too internally focused on their own objectives and problems to see the big-picture issues that surround the customer. Support areas have lost their way in the confusion of customer focus vs. internal focus.

Of all the support areas, there are three that stand out, either because they have the largest expenditures, or they control the money. Let’s take a look at each of these.

Information technology

I’ve written about the problems of information technology (IT) in many columns and blog posts. My background as a chief information officer (CIO) and consultant to IT organizations has allowed me to see the issues firsthand.

IT has been burdened with increasing bureaucracy and decreasing performance. The expectation of IT is worth more than its actual execution and delivery. This is proven daily by the investment that organizations put into IT as well as the cost overruns, missed schedules, and disappointing performance that results. Organizations the world over are coming up with ways to measure return on investment (ROI) with IT, but they are doing little to address the methods by which IT is developed or how IT is used.

Unfortunately, IT is built from a list of priorities from disparate departments that are competing for resources where change requests and enhancements have to be prioritized from top-to-bottom with cost estimates (from high-level requirements) via a review by a governance group. Finance reviews the list and items are cut to meet the budget; this sometimes creates the need to review the prioritized list one or more times. Project plans are built, detailed requirements written, and software coded.

There may be many derivations of this and a slew of activities that happen in between, but you get the idea: IT requires a large investment just to get prioritized and planned. The problem? Most of this activity is waste, and the software that results rarely helps the worker or improves the work.

IT does have a purpose, but it isn’t to replace people: It is to serve them. Anyone observing a frontline worker use IT can quickly see whether it’s useful or not. But even if IT doesn’t work, management keeps it for its data and reporting features.

Further, finding a developer these days is almost impossible. Software developers are either overseas or buried away by business analysts, testers, and project managers. The user and developer rarely (if ever) talk to one another anymore. How can we develop usable software when the user and developer don’t discuss the project?

IT cannot provide support to the core business until the two protagonists (user and developer) are brought together with a deep understanding of the work.


One area that has dominated business and government is finance; budgets have dominated meetings for decades now. I’ve sat in on discussions about whether budgets and profit are or are not more important than the customer. People will actually argue that profit is more important than a customer.

How could this be? No customer = no business = no profit

Many people in finance or management take this line of profit over customer, although it’s not a logical argument. Crunching numbers becomes more important than creating value for customers.


Let’s face the fact that management rarely does the actual work of a company, and the higher in the hierarchy a manager is, the less likely it is that he will have knowledge of the work. By “work” I’m referring to what results when customers and workers interact. The understanding and delivery of service is the work. Management’s job is to support this activity so that customers get the service they desire.

Supporting the worker is not what managers do, and this can be proved by looking at management activities. Targets, inspection, appraisals, and management mandates leave workers feeling... less than supported.

Many other supporting areas like legal, human resources, marketing, and quality all have their own unique issues that prevent them from providing actual support. Regardless of the support area, the fact is that organizational hierarchy and functional separation of work drive a stake between those who do work and the supporting areas. One result of this is that supporting areas do more telling than listening. This is the proverbial tail wagging the dog.

Better support = better perspective = better design = better performance

Over the years, I have discovered that providing better support leads to better performance. However, this can only be true if the support areas know what to do. By studying the interaction between customer and service worker as an observer, one should be able to understand:
• What customers want from the service organization
• Whether the service organization can deliver the services as required
• What goes into providing the service
• How well the supporting area helps deliver the service

This sounds very simple. However, most “observers” can’t help but intervene. Studying is done to help understand how to support. It doesn’t matter that the worker didn’t use the IT system right or she didn’t follow the procedure, or that he hung up on the customer. The aim should be to understand why they did these things. This will give you a better perspective and potentially a better work design. Better designed work always improves performance.


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.


Supporting Supporters

Just reading some History, I would like to quote four recognized leaders: Enrico Mattei, Epaminondas, William T. Sherman, George S. Patton. All of them were quite unfortunate in their adventures and, while the latter three fought their battles on battlefields, the former fought his battles at stock-exchange level. But they were all in favor of effectively using local resources, they were all against any kind of "colonialism", they were all very close to their combatants, they fought among them. Colonialism doesn't only meaning managing or exploiting "colonies", it also means make a "colony" out of any industrial / economical process, and of its people, who deserve instead full independence. Thank you. 

We prove this everyday


I have followed your writing for a few years and marvel at your intrepid syle. As you suggest here and in other articles and blog posts, the opportunity for improved performance are virtually everywhere in most businesses, if only managers were willing to rethink the time-worn practices that now greatly limit both individual and enterprise performance.

Business isn't easy, and yet the fire fighting that consumes most managers is quite often (though unknowingly) of their own or their company's making. If they would only momentarily step out of the smoke and flames of day to day activity and take a systems perspective in order to see more clearly what's going on, the clarity this would provide could be the necessary first step on their path to more effective operations and more enjoyable work.

I've thought of commenting before, but your closing comment in this article made it necessary. You say, "Better designed work always improves performance." At DesignedWORK (www.designedwork.com), we prove this everyday.

Best wishes on your continued success.

Jim Pepitone, Managing Partner (james.pepitone@designedwork.com) and (www.linkedin.com/in/drjimpepitone/)