Friday, September 3, 2010


Now there’s a word to start a conversation. “Encrustment.” It naturally brings about a cringe, as if we forgot to wash our hand before a meal. However, in the world of shellfish, it’s a natural course of events, and it suggests a way to think about how simple things grow complex, and beg for renewal.

One definition of “shell” is a “hard outer covering secreted by an animal for protection.”[1] Imagine the layers that get built up on a shell over time, all with the good intention of protection. With some shellfish, this process happens again and again until the shell doesn’t fit anymore, and it must be shed and the process started anew.

Don't Legislate Exceptions

A story may illustrate how encrustment happens in our organizations. In his book, Growing a Business, Paul Hawken writes:

"Mrs. Green buys your widget and six months later returns it and wants her money back.

[1] New policy: 'All goods must be returned within thirty days of purchase.'

Mr. Jones brings back your widget and says he bought it twenty days ago; he wants a refund. But you know that the discounter up the street just had a close-out sale on the item, and you suspect that Jones might have bought the widget cheaply there and now wants a full refund from you.

[2] New policy: 'All items must be returned within thirty days and accompanied by the original receipt from this store.'

John Doe brings back one of your widgets and it looks as if it fell out of his car, or something equally serious. The widget is useless.

[3] New policy: 'Damaged items will be exchanged only within thirty days of purchase, only if accompanied by original receipt from this store, and only if defect is a manufacturer's defect.'

Mrs. White orders a widget and asks you to ship it to her home upstate. Three weeks later it's returned to you in unrecognizable shape. The customer wants her money back but the trucker says she signed for it in "good condition" and he won't accept an insurance claim.

[4] New policy: 'This merchandise left our store in first-class condition and shall not be returned for any reason without proper authorization. We definitely are not responsible for any damage whatsoever incurred at any time to any of our products while merchandise is in transit. Any merchandise returned to us will be refused. You must file a claim for damage, cost of repairs, shipping charges or replacement parts.'"

"This last new policy is not a joke. That statement accompanied $17,000 worth of file cabinets delivered to our offices. It was on a sticker glued to the front of every file cabinet."[2]

Hawken provides an amusing case for how simple things get encrusted with layers of policies until the whole organization gets weighed down and sinks to the bottom of the process sea.


This week I attended a workshop on business processes. As in the Hawken story, I’ve been thinking about how well-meaning organizations become so encrusted with processes on top of processes that they begin to ossify and lose their vitality. In my part of the world, we call this “bureaucracy.” I’ve been playing with a definition of bureaucracy that may point the way to how we can begin to shed the shells and revitalize the organism. I’ll offer two definitions:


  1. Any more than the minimum steps and approvals needed to accomplish something and not bankrupt the organization or foreclose on its the mission and values.
  2. Any process that no one can remember why it's needed and how it improves the mission and the lives of our customers

We would do well to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and ask “how easy are we to do business with?” (If you don’t work with customers, you serve someone who does… and they just may be your “customer!”) If the process doesn’t make it easier, then it’s time to shed some shells.

Who do you serve?

At the workshop, I gave a brief presentation in which I told the story of the London bus drivers.

It seems the city was hearing a growing number of complaints about the bus service from the city riders. So like all good organizations, they hired consultants to study the problem. The wise team began riding the bus lines and immediately noticed a problem: the buses were passing by stops where would be riders were waiting patiently. When they gathered the bus drivers together at the end of a day they asked them why? The answer from one bold chap: “If we stopped at every bloody stop, we’d never make the schedule!”

This is an amusing response that begs an important question: who is your customer? Is it the schedule… or the rider? Substitute the word “process” for “schedule” and you can begin to see the problem. Processes are not the customer. And when the processes get so thick that we shut out all the light to the simple things that customers want to do, it’s time to shed the shells and start anew.

If you are clear about who your customer is, start asking yourself how you can help them get what they want done in a way them makes them smile. And for those who work mostly with internal customers, keep in mind another Hawken gem: “service in, service out.”

[1] The Free Dictionary, , accessed September, 2 2010.

[2] Paul Hawken, Growing a Business, Simon & Schuster; reprint edition (October 15, 1988), pp. 191-92, emphases and numbering added.