Home The Rules of Exception

The Rules of Exception

Sameer Patel of the Sovos Group wrote an excellent blog post on the way organizations tend to deal with exceptions to process.

“The sheer impracticality of channeling exceptions in any scalable way to get the right answers has plagued organizations for ever. Each exception requires a different set of experts or problem owners, some known but most unknown, and often spread across a global footprint at large organizations.”

Patel characterizes three types of work:

  • Process work, done “by the playbook.” This includes order processing, assembly of products, etc. This type of work is easiest to automate.
  • Project work done “by management style.” This includes product development, marketing campaigns and other projects where the overall steps repeat, but the details change every time.
  • Exceptions, done by the seat of your pants. This is practically everything else, especially the unexpected and unpredictable.

According to Patel, organizations have traditionally just accepted that sometimes there would be exceptions, and sometimes exceptions would lead to things going wrong. Because it’s so much easier to focus on the routine, exceptions have been ignored. But he says that’s a bad idea.

“In the age of the social web, those very ‘once in a while’ instances cannot be shoved under the carpet. The social web has a way of exposing and then amplifying our ineffective handling of exceptions. And no, this isn’t just about failed social media campaigns or online service. Its when the social web gets wind of something seemingly dopey we did in the offline world as well. And whilst there’s no trending data suggesting that negative press on the social web instills long term financial damage, find me one executive who wants to own or be a victim of the PR disaster that resulted in lower revenue or operating margins this quarter.”

Patel uses the example of Delta Airlines’ recent blunder (I suppose it’s getting a little cliche to keep picking on United).

Beyond bad PR, there’s what Gartner has referred to as the “De-routinization of Work.” Routine work is increasingly being automated (check out this story about a warehouse run by robots for example). More and more jobs will continue to focus on exceptions.

Patel concludes by noting the advantages that the new wave of social and collaborative enterprise applications bring to the table and reminds of his idea that we’ve written about before:

“I’ve long said that what rigid process systems are missing is a giant Discuss button that sits right between Submit and Cancel buttons that govern what in reality is not a very black and white day in the office. Same applies for face to face customer interaction that’s otherwise governed by rigid protocol, as in the case of Delta Airlines.”

A low-tech approach is simply to give employees autonomy to make decisions regarding customer issues up to a certain amount. If those Delta employees had been able to just $200 worth of “wiggle room” per passenger (a small amount considering the total cost of an intercontinental flight), the issue would never have spiraled out of control.

Photo by kioan

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