Roles and Routine

27 Aug 2021

"Reduce mistakes by having a standard approach that always applies". Or not.

A common approach in many companies is to have some form of SOP (standard operating procedure) defining how things should be done. Management love an SOP; in theory, it doesn't matter who is tasked with what, it's all being done the same.

Whilst this might be desirable in some cases - for example, I wouldn't want the water treatment plant to not take all due care and attention required when I'm inevitably going to drink that water - a really out of touch management team will try to force SOPs on everyone, everywhere.

I've worked in places like this and am firmly of the belief that it just doesn't work.

Think, for example, if you've ever had the "pleasure" of calling a company for some form of support. I'm going to use Virgin Media for my example, but singling them out is unfair as they are far from the only experience I've had like this; anyway, you inevitably get an agent who has a script in front of them, and try as you might you're going to struggle to get them to deviate from that script. Why? Because there's an SOP in place, and so every customer gets exactly the same treatment.

I don't need to check if the cabling is intact, or the router turned on, or any of the basics - I want to discuss download speeds and response times. But I can't, because we need to work through these steps. And attempting to talk around the topic, it becomes obvious that there is little to no understanding of the issues on behalf of the agent - purely suggestions from a script, a following of a flow chart, or similar.

The problem with this approach is that it breeds ignorance into your workforce. What becomes the norm, is:

"Don't think outside the box, do as you're told. Do as the process tells you."

You could change this around, looking at it from the point of view of the accountants looking at the wage bill; you should in theory be able to employ cheap, unskilled staff as the script they have put in front of them covers everything, right? But I'd counter this with another, different saying:

"Pay peanuts, get monkeys". And it's true. The best experiences I've had in this kind of situation are always the ones where I've been able to engage with the agent, share a bit of banter, a discussion about a shared interest or similar... even, during this pandemic, a simple "how are you? What's it like where you're working?" is disarming and welcoming all at once, leading to a more relaxed conversation whilst the issue at hand - the car insurance, a kitchen appliance repair, all sorts of things - gets resolved. And the best experiences have been with the staff who have been able to leave their script, have confidence in their roles and get the issues sorted without freezing at a question or unknown situation.

I suspect that these experiences are also likely indicators of the working environment - that the companies involved are probably more switched on to their staff's strengths and similar.

I firmly believe that when management force an SOP on their workforce, they're potentially weakening their team. Being constrained by a process is the bane of independent thinking. If you find yourself in a situation like this, engage with your higher-ups and explain:

  • why you feel constrained
  • what you would change
  • how you tackle the issue in a different way to the one specified
  • why you feel this is more successful

See if you can bring their viewpoint around. Every good boss wants their staff to be the most productive, best version of themselves, so make it clear how you can be that version of yourself and retain your individuality. And no one wants to deal with robots.

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