The natural state of things is chaos. This is the principle of entropy: Any process, no matter how orderly and well-designed, will degenerate to chaos unless we keep adding energy. And yet, many seemingly bright managers appear shocked to find that the gains so painstakingly achieved have disappeared in only a few short years -- or even months.
Every business process requires energy in the form of controls, redesign, new procedures, additional training, performance measurements and many interventions just to maintain its original level of performance. If we want to continuously improve the level of performance, we must add even more energy to the system.
There are many reasons why processes degrade over time. Some of these reasons are obvious, others more subtle.
When we redesign a new process correctly, we provide extensive training to the people who will be involved in operating this new process. We give the people carefully written procedures, provide training in applying the procedures and give people time to practice using the new procedures and systems. We provide facilitators to answer questions and to demonstrate easy ways to do things.
But we often fail to provide adequate support after the people leave the training and start using the new procedures and tools on the job. Numerous studies have shown how quickly people forget what they have been taught in classroom settings if they do not apply it soon after the instruction. As much as 70 percent of what we have learned may be forgotten within 72 hours if this knowledge is not used.
Many times, the new knowledge and skills we have so carefully provided our people in the classroom are not needed right away. By the time they need to apply their new knowledge and skills, they have forgotten much of the training. They may find the new procedures clumsy and awkward, and start making minor modifications or revert to old ways to feel more comfortable.
Another problem is that people frequently change jobs, even within the same department. The procedures and skills they originally learned are no longer the ones needed in their new jobs.
The third problem is new people. We may have provided extensive training for all our people when we implemented the new process, but no training is available for the new people. They are assigned to a task and told they will receive "on-the-job" training.
Over time, all processes and procedures change. Customers have new needs, and we add a few lines to the order-entry form to capture these needs. Management requests new information for review and decisions, and we make changes to our routine reports or credit new reports. The way data are entered changes because of advances in technology or "new, improved" data-entry procedures. We change our analysis systems to accommodate the way the data are entered and stored. We acquire new technology that is advertised to be upwardly compatible and find out that it is not. We make many changes in the software and databases to work with our new hardware and software systems, and then discover we have destroyed someone else's ability to use the software or databases.
One of the ugly facts of quality management is that the key processes within an organization have many complex interactions. Processes are not independent of each other. It is impossible to understand all of the interdependencies. When we implement a new business process management system, we usually make many simplifying assumptions about other processes that interact with our process. If these assumptions are wrong, we usually discover our errors during the testing and implementation phase, and make the necessary corrections.
But we often forget that many changes will be made in the other processes over time. Some of these changes will have a major impact on the performance of our process. A simple change in the form that the sales force uses to capture information about customer needs may create havoc in other critical processes in a company. A change in our internal purchasing processes may change our inventory and maintenance costs dramatically.
Even small changes within an organization can have major impacts on the performance of other processes. New printers may not be compatible with the software we are using for critical reports. New suppliers and subcontractors may provide information in different formats, with different accuracies and on different time schedules. Changes in environmental or labor laws may have significant impacts on current practices.
Without a good system of measurements and operating system self-controls, we often find out about entropy the hard way. Our wonderful new process starts leading toward chaos.
About the author
A. Blanton Godfrey is chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc. at 11 River Road, Wilton, CT 06897. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.