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Monday, June 25, 2012

Box checking

Box Checking Processes don’t have a good name, except with management. Management likes processes because they are easily controlled and managed. You can see the numbers. You can see where things are as opposed to where they should be. You know these things because there are reports that tell you. And many of these reports and activities have no other purpose than to provide management with the numbers and evidence that the process is working as defined. I had a job recently which required me to duplicate work in various ways. It was a contract and I was paid for my work, but it seemed terribly redundant and, well, silly, to keep putting the same information into different formats. When I asked my contact about the demands for the reports and numbers, he said he didn’t know why they were required. “Management needs them to check the box”. The implication of that statement, which for some reason of serendipity I have heard over again the past year, is terrifying. Management is not reading, assimilating, monitoring or actually doing anything with the information. They are just making sure it got delivered so that they can be sure the process is proceeding according to plan. There is a certain amount of reason in keeping TODO lists to make sure that everything is done and nothing forgotten, and to check off the items as they are done. But with a TODO list the items serve a purpose when they are done: you have bought the milk, bread, and eggs; you have washed the car, mowed the lawn and taken out the trash. When the items on the TODO lists that make up processes have no meaning or use in the current process then it does not make sense. Many of those items, like reports, sign offs and verifications are left overs from previous manual or early automated processes where such checks were necessary. Some are left over from the early stages of a process when activities were tried, determined to have no value, but left in anyway. So the additional reports that have the same information in a different format are costing the company money. So, I violated protocol, my own included, and in a meeting asked the senior manager who was requesting the reports if it were necessary to prepare the information a third time in a different way. He stammered a bit (he actually stammered) and then said “I don’t want you putting in extra work if the information is already available.” He asked one of his direct reports, Tom, if the information were available in a form they could use. Tom told him that he currently had the information and was using it and would not use any new version of the information. The senior manager rescinded the request for the new report. Sometimes it only takes asking why the information is needed, what is it used for. If the answer is to ‘check a box’ then you may be performing a useless activity and no one has realized it yet. If you are not worried politically you may challenge the work you have been asked to do. And you should if you feel the work is not adding value to the project, the organization or your job. You have that right.