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Tales From the Trail

3rd January, 2023 Like Paper, but Faster

If you consider many of the businesses of the previous century, everything ran on paper. Carbon copies. Interoffice memos. Paper receipts. Work orders. Routing slips. There are a few noteworthy things about the paper-based business process. The process was represented in paper forms that needed to be printed in bulk to be cost-effective. Custom forms for a business might be bought a year’s supply at a time; otherwise, the forms would be too expensive. Next, changing the process often meant changing the paper. New forms with new layouts would need to be printed. Changing business processes might mean throwing away six months’ worth of paper and getting new forms re-printed, which could take weeks or even months. Naturally, this discourages rapid process change. However, paper processes are surprisingly flexible. If the forms don’t support a particular exception to “business as usual,” one can apply their best judgment and simply write some notes in the margins for the next person to read. The paper forms don’t prevent humans in the real world from continuing to do what needs to be done.

With software-driven businesses, these dynamics reverse. There’s lower cost and less waste when deploying software-based process changes; however, software does a poorer job of dealing with the unexpected exceptions to typical business operations. Consider how often we deal with customer service people who frustratedly tell us, “the computer won’t let me do that.”

While one of the benefits of software-based processes over paper is stricter control, the downside is that it’s harder to deal with situations that are out of the ordinary. You have to plan ahead for the unexpected. Well, more accurately: you must be intentional about what parts of your business need strict control, and which parts need to make space for human judgment. For instance, once I was charged late fees and interest on a zero-interest purchase because I began making payments earlier than the bank expected. The customer service representatives that I spoke to understood the problem but had no way to correct it. It required me escalating all the way to the executive level. Not only did this digital process inflexibility cost the bank dozens of hours of personnel time (including an executive assistant’s time), it also cost them a future customer. I won’t do business with that bank again. If this were a paper process, the first CSR I spoke to could have simply written in the margins and solved the problem themselves.

Software’s ease of change tempts us to under-invest in thinking through how business processes should work: where should the strict controls be, and where should we create intentional flexibility? Software-driven processes can accomplish exponentially more than paper, of course. But consider how much bigger the consequences are when digital processes cause harm because “the computer won’t let me do that.” Strict control is tempting for business leaders that are concerned about margins and waste, but strictness might also mean losing business or customer goodwill when the unexpected strikes. Good business automation should be flexible enough to handle the exceptional scenarios. Leave some room for your people to “write in the margins” when designing your digital business processes. It should be like paper… but faster.

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