mad in pursuit: greed & arrogance

2004 political season

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8.6.04 A Wistful Moment for Idealistic Times Past

Yesterday morning I sold one of my books -- Process Innovation by Thomas Davenport. Glancing at the book while I packed it up, I got nostalgic.

I'd had the book for maybe 10 years and 9 years ago I was studying it diligently. I had been put in charge of a project to redesign a large not-for-profit organization and I took the task very seriously. For months we worked on remapping major processes and major job functions. The revitalized organization would not only be vision-driven but would also be rational and efficient.

It didn't quite work out that way. Something there is in a human services organization that doesn't love a process map. Same for government. You can argue that the "people" business in not an assembly line. True, but neither are car sales, mortgage approvals, or customer service calls. The human element is unpredictable in any given interaction, but knowable overall. Having everything well-organized around our wacky human nature should help us do better business.

For years I slaved over process maps -- boxes and arrows, where do you start... what do you do when... and what comes next... but if this, then what... when are you finished? People pretty much took a glance at the tidy little diagrams and said no thanks, I like the way I do it already. In retrospect, I wonder -- maybe people who enjoy intense human service work thrive in oral cultures and have little patience with academic-looking printed stuff. Perhaps we should have converted process maps to chants.

And so, in the organization I worked for, we struggled for a productivity measure of $60,000 of revenue per full-time worker (in other words, it is good to use fewer people to do more revenue-generating work). Last week I read that Saratoga Institute is reporting revenue per worker in 900 companies: $312,738. I suppose this is why wealthy corporate executives sniff at the appeals of labor-intensive non-profits.

In profit-making businesses, you are efficient and kind because it directly affects the bottom line. In lots of government work, in school systems, and in the human service sector, the mission is not driven by profit. What exactly the mission is tends to waver -- are we serving society or the individual service recipient or the demands of the reimbursement system? Politics and ideologies creep in. Factions arise. Practices reflect the idiosyncrasies of individual workers and become entrenched. The message is never clear, so the work can never be clearly changed toward more standardized practices. Do you ever really expect that your x-ray will arrive in the specialist's hands without you having to double-check the system yourself?

My book got sold to a textbook warehouse in Florida. The student who gets it will either quickly jettison the volume back into the used book cosmos. Or, the student will be infused with optimism about how to change the world. I can only sigh.





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