We had already been in the meeting for an hour talking about the pros and cons of what should be on the travel request form. There were more questions than answers.
- What should be on the form prior to travel?
- Who signs the form, and when?
- Does the form include permission to travel or just approval of expenses?
- What if the travel doesn’t include expenses other than mileage?
- Does it matter if the travel is in or out-of-state?
The problem is that this was not our first meeting concerning the troublesome “form.” But here we were, still unclear, still debating, still clinging to our own perspective, and still without a tool that would accomplish the outcome.
What we really needed at that point was not a form.
What we needed was an understanding of how we were doing the work (travel requests), whether or not the current way of doing the work was effective, and who were the customers of the travel request.
None of this could be answered by the form. Our problem was not the form.
Our problem was that we did not have a documented “travel request” process that showed the flow of the work from the beginning to the end.
How often have you sat in a work group that was wrangling with revising some form that no longer supported the work? How many hours did the team argue on what should and should not be on the form? How often did the team end with making only minor changes, or worse, added more to meet everyone’s needs?
I am often asked to help dig a team out of the mire of their paper-filled world. Seeking to streamline their process, the expected culprit is usually “the form.”
This work typically begins with someone bringing a form that no one likes. The “form” has been the source of much contention and ineffectiveness.
The problem is that the form is often only the symptom of a faulty process. We can revise the form all day and still not address the primary issue. More times than not, the real issue is a broken or ill-defined work process.
Need an example?
Most organizations have a form for approving new positions. Does your company have such a form? How many sign-offs do you need for the form? How long does it take to route the form through all the approval levels? Does the form get lost in a black hole of inefficiency? Does anyone read the form, want the form, or use the form?
The responses I hear will not surprise you. Here are a few:
“We don’t use the form. But Ms. Needtoknow insists on seeing all new open positions.”
“I don’t use that form, I created another one because I needed more information.”
“That form? I just call HR. I would never get any new positions if I had to go through that process!”
Any of that sound familiar? We have filled our day with busy work. Then, we wonder why the system is so slow, bureaucratic, and filled with mistrust.
The Real Issue
We start with the wrong issue — the form.
The form may need improving, or we may not need it at all, but how are we doing the work? What is the work, and how do we know we designed the work to meet the needs of the customer or end user?
Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than trying to solve them. – Henry Ford
Many times the form itself becomes the bottleneck. Required by “someone,” the form arrives on your desk incomplete, inaccurate, or late. Now, you must stop your work. Take several minutes or hours to track down the missing information. Make the corrections, or email, call, or beg for the “form.”
Then the blaming begins…
Are you beginning to see the vicious cycle we create? The problem may or may not be a form that does or does not support the process. The problem is not the person submitting the form or processing the form. The problem is not the thing or the person.
The problem is the process.
When something isn’t working, try asking these four questions:
- What is it you are trying to do?
- Who is it for, and what are their expectations?
- How are you doing the work to reach the outcome?
- How do you know that what you are doing is meeting the outcome?
The form is not the process. The process is the problem — so fix the process, not the form.