Friday Roast: Byzantine CYA paper based processes

SUMMARY:

Continuing our occasional series, this time it is about redundant paperwork and the pain that goes with CYA

Workday ERPIf you’ve ever wondered why Company A asks you to complete box 23 page 3 on certain forms and then provide almost the identical information on page 2 of the next form then you are not alone. We see broken processes and annoying paperwork all the time. Occasionally it saps the will to live.

Many of us wonder why this is the case. I reckon I’ve got a pretty good handle on the problem. By way  of example, I’ve just completed a consulting on boarding process that has been on going for around three months. To say it has been painful is an understatement. Give me root canal fillings sans anaesthetic any day.

As in most cases, the process starts with someone wanting to do a deal with another person that runs over a period of time for a given set of work. The bones of the deal are usually contained in a SOW – or Statement of Work. Each company has its preferred format for these kinds of thing and that’s not normally a big deal. They cover the usual kinds of thing like who the parties are, an outline of the job, who pays for what, the terms of payment and so on.

This may sound a tad onerous but once you’re into the swing of these things they’re really not that bad.

Where things get bad is when companies decide they need to engage in CYA, or Cover Your Ass paperwork. This usually involves some kind of tedious tax paperwork, some sort of statement that you’re not an employee and really, really are a contractor/consultant and that you swear by all the gods known to man and woman that you will never, ever divulge anything you learn during the engagement to anyone – not even your cat. Screw the fact you might only be delivering a seminar where YOU are the one imparting knowledge and not the other way around.

CYAThe tax form declaration/filling alone is enough to send people crazy. Despite the fact we’re supposedly living in a global economy, I have yet to come across a single global enterprise that gets this. They consistently send over paperwork that is domestically oriented and when you state the obvious as in: you are in New York, I am in any-other-country-except-the-US then things get sticky. You can almost see the eyes glazing over.

What usually happens is that you have to point out that Government Issued Paper or GIP (put their favourite number here) is not relevant and that there is (possibly but not always) an alternative piece of GIP (put my favourite number here) which does apply. Of course in nine out of ten cases, the poor sod on the other end of this exchange has never heard about my GIP and has to go running off to check out whether what I am saying is right or wrong. That alone can lead to inordinate delays, depending on the degree of sophistication at the department of GIP fillers you’re dealing with.

In other cases, there are arcane declarations for which there is no alternative. In some countries, they’ve clearly given up on figuring out a sane way to deal with this and simply ask you to self certify that the domestic GIP applies but not really cuz you’re a foreigner. In those cases I am so tempted to sign D.Duck and wait to see if anyone notices.

Then there is the repetitive nature of the paperwork. Name, address, date of birth (yes, I’ve had that), country of origin, country of residence, inside leg measurement…it goes on and on.

How did we reach this parlous state of CYA’ness? I have a theory which, courtesy of Mark Nittler at Workday I can now share. (See image at top of this story to get an illustrative idea of what this means.)

When companies are small and flying under the radar, they often need to get stuff done quickly. They don’t have a ton of regulation hanging over them and even if they are in a foreign land, the people wanting to GTD (Get Things Done) are often in a position where an email here and one there is enough to get stuff out the way. If anything, these companies go the other way and avoid paperwork as far as possible. These are the Wise Ones. Things rarely remain that way forever, at least not for fast growing companies and especially not those that decide they want to play on the world stage with the big boys.

What seems to happen is that processes grow up in ad hoc fashion and while they work for a time, they stop working the moment a regulation gets in the way. At this point, the company concerned usually tries to duct tape their interpretation of the regulation on top of something that’s working fine. On its face that’s a reasonable approach. The thing that was working still works but now we have a third leg in place. Ever tried walking on three legs? Quite.

Then at some future point, more regulation piles in and we have yet another addition to the process with attendant paperwork. At no point along this chain of sorry ass events does anyone say: ‘Stop – this is a mess.’ Why? Because the original piece of process is often working fairly well. It’s all the other administrative chores that in themselves are kind of working but are adding complexity to the problem.

At no point does anyone stop and think – how can we refactor this lot so that it follows a logic AND can be automated? In some cases, it even goes this far. Having gone through the arduous process of on boarding, a contract might turn up that needs signing. This is another CYA thing that supports the SOW. In extreme cases, you might have to print off said form, sign, scan, email back AND forward the original signed paperwork by snail mail to the company in question. In this day and age there’s only one way to describe THAT state of affairs: totally borked. (You thought I was going to say something else- -c’mon, admit it.) At which stage, you are praying that the Mail Gods don’t lose the paperwork or you really are truly f*cked. (There, I said it.)

There has to be a better way.  And there is. It all comes down to plotting the if/then/else of each regulatory requirement and then automating the process. It’s not that hard people. It’s a decision tree. In all cases I have seen and across all regulatory authorities, this is probably the easiest to get right. It goes like this:

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It’s about metaphorically peeping over the top of the cube and understanding how to cope with what today are exceptions but which tomorrow may well be the norm. Try telling that to the person with whom you’re coordinating this shit pile. While they may be sympathetic and are often sending apologetic emails, nothing changes. They’re heads down in their own world of pain. Here’s why.

Processes that have grown up in the manner I am describing employ many people along the way. If things get automated then those same people have to find other work. Companies don’t like that because it upsets the status quo. The fact my life is hell is a secondary issue. But the reality is that these Byzantine CYA processes are incredibly inefficient and costly to run. What most companies REALLY don’t understand is that it is they who bear the largest cost burden.

I could go further and argue that in the case of contracts for services where there are milestones and dates – as there always should be – then the buying party could also think about self-billing and automated payment operations. But again, this is rarely considered, even though the processes involved are not that complex. The UK construction industry figured this out over 30 years ago so why can’t service based businesses do the same today? I sense the reason is that accounts payable needs something to do and finance departments need head count to remain relevant. Cynical? Perhaps. But the smart CFO will see that automating the onboard to payment processes of its contracting cohort brings many benefits well beyond the initial problem I am describing.

How about this. If payment terms are normally net 30 days, then what discount will a contractor be prepared to offer me if I pay in 5 or 10 days? What discount could I get if I offered self billing? This is real money we’re talking about. But no. As we get ready to close out 2014, it seems that for many of us, the prospect of Byzantine CYA processes will be with us for 2015.

End note: This story arose out of a confluence of discussions where the same basic problem seemed to be occurring time and again in conversations. It’s not that uncommon anymore. However, for some companies, even those that play on the world stage, they still see this as a case of exception handling rather than one where a root and branch rethink of processes could reap much broader benefits. In one case, a colleague was telling me that if he is dealing with a certain class of company, he employs specialists who know how to deal with the Byzantine processes. Tell me how dumb that is given the unintended additional burden of administration that has to be paid for?

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    1. says:

      Thanks – an interesting read on a favourite subject of mine. You reminded me of something I experienced and reflected on a while back. Self Inflicted ComplexityRick King gave a short talk at the opening of a Thomson Reuters unconference I facilitated. He recognised that in order to be more effective, we have to learn to simplify. The general buzz in the room indicated to me that a lot of the audience felt he was right. Then Rick landed a killer question, and it’s one I want to share with you. He asked,

      So how much of your complexity is self inflicted?

      You could have heard a pin drop. It’s a fantastic question – one that requires us to front up and be really honest with ourselves. It’s a tough one to answer. Our job is a big part of what we do, it is key to what defines us, and over the years I have observed many people convolute, layer, and stretch tasks and activity way beyond what is necessary to get the job done well.Leaders need to be critically aware of the tendency to over complicate within themselves. It has a corrosive effect on trust and leads to lots of ineffective, unhelpful behaviour. When you trace a lot of ‘cover your ass’ type activity back along the line, you frequently find the fear that drives CYA is borne out of a lack of understanding amplified by people’s self inflicted complexity. Over complicating stuff doesn’t make you smart, it makes you the A in CYA.So – with thanks to Rick, in my work I often ask ‘how much of your complexity is self inflicted?’

      1. Awesome response Doug (and Rick) and one I will surely bring up in a call I have with a certain CXO. 😉