General management, Working practices

Forms don’t manage demand; people do

Photo by Madeleine BurlesonWhenever I’m in a small or medium-sized company and I find an internal process that starts with filling in a form, then alarm bells ring in my head. Sometimes I sniff danger even in a relatively large company. Examples I’ve come across are: to send an offer letter and contract to a new hire; requesting a legal contract to be drawn up, or asking for advice from the Legal team; asking for a tweak to the company website; seeking investment for an internal project; and so on.

Forms are normally set up as a first line of defence against excessive demand, but where a form is used to organise information the real problem is the excessive demand, not information organisation. Forms probably will delay an individual demand, but they won’t reduce the totality.

Forms tend to force the request to fit a certain shape by asking closed or rigid questions; but the reality is most processes are not as rigid as the form-creators would like to think, and many requests are not so easily categorised. The result is a form comes through with a footnote saying “I’m not sure whether this is an X or a Y—please call me” or the information in it is missing or wrong (because the requester has just taken a guess), and then the process slows down even further when the person handling the request deals with the problems created by the form. This is called failure demand.

Most processes in small organisations are not so rigidly defined. And when I say “small organisation” I’m referring to the size of the operation for that particular process. You can be in a 20,000 person company, but if you’re an HR person who regularly only deals with a hundred managers then that’s quite a small group.

Forms are rarely the answer—collaboration is. The solution is to talk to and educate people so that they can handle some requests by themselves (e.g. managers trusted to fill in blanks in a template employment contract) or understand whether they’re even going about things in the right way. A simple phone call will usually break down barriers, help educate (both parties), might close off the request on the spot, and will almost certainly ensure the requester is more informed the next time they have a problem.

I know internal legal teams who are overworked because no-one thinks to ask their opinion early in each project. As a result they are constantly playing catch-up, picking up deals which have already started out on the wrong foot, but for which they can now only make the best of a bad job. They were first involved past the point where they could have added the most value. In that situation of overwork it might be tempting to erect forms as a line of defence (“Please fill in this form before engaging the with the Legal team”), but things will only improve materially through early and genuine dialogue.

On the plus side good IT helpdesks have a phone number you can call to talk to a real person who can often sort out your problem on the spot, or at least provide some human advice. I know of one organisation whose helpdesk was (shock!) a real desk you could walk up to and speak to an expert face to face. It made a huge difference to the relationships between the IT team and the rest of the business.

It’s easy to fall into the trap where we think our work fits rigid templates. It’s easy to believe we can make things better by forcing demand into those templates. But the real demand can be reduced when there is better mutual understanding and more direct collaboration and communication.

Photo by Madeleine Burleson

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