This is the story of a $200 t-shirt … and company systems gone terribly wrong. Earlier this year, an employee wanted to send a shirt with our logo to a customer as a gift. There was nothing special about this particular shirt. It was an ordinary, 100%-cotton crew neck. But by the time this employee got approval — factoring in his own time and everyone else’s up the org chart who had to weigh in to validate the request — the cost of this t-shirt had ballooned to $200 … if not more.
Systems and processes serve an important role in any organization. This is something I’ve realized as my company, a social media management platform, has scaled from a few dozen to nearly 1,000 employees. With that many moving parts, you can’t operate efficiently without a playbook. Systems ensure that projects get done, quality is maintained and there are no surprises.
But it’s important to distinguish between good systems and bad systems. Good systems make things easier. Bad systems do exactly the opposite. They make everyone’s lives harder. The problem is that bad systems often end up in a kind of corporate Bermuda Triangle — no one really monitors them; worse, one is empowered to change them when the need arises.
That’s how we ended up with our t-shirt snafu earlier this year. In our early days, we decided managers needed to approve requests for company swag: the cost of all those t-shirts and plush toys adds up, after all. But as we grew, this blanket policy became more cumbersome. In the case of the $200 t-shirt, our senior director of technology, Noel, had to spend several days chasing down his manager — our CTO — to get a rubber stamp on a request for a $15 gift.
Finding our Czar of Bad Systems
Fortunately, Noel wouldn’t let the issue die. He spent a day or two chasing down the right people in finance and marketing. In the end, he persuaded them to ditch formal approvals in favor of trusting that everyone would use their own discretion when ordering, like grownups. Worst-case scenario — a few extra Hootsuite t-shirts find their way into the world.
This example might sound trivial … until you start to do the math. In a company of 1,000 people, we’re talking about hundreds of employee hours saved over a year’s time — just on ordering swag. Once I realized that, the gears started turning. How much time and money was being tied up in other bad and broken processes — simple stuff that was eminently fixable, but that no one was looking into?
And so the Czar of Bad Systems role was born. It’s not an official position for us (yet). Noel has been generous enough to volunteer for the first tour of duty, on top of his day job. But our employees now have a go-to person who can take an objective look at processes that have outlived their usefulness. If people have a problem they can’t fix, even with help from their manager, they reach out to the Czar. In the past, these processes would have fallen through the cracks: cursed at but ultimately complied with. Now, there’s hope that they might actually be corrected.
In the few months since we’ve anointed our Czar, other faulty processes have been zapped, in departments as diverse as finance, customer support and marketing. In the past, for example, our creative team — the brilliant people behind our graphic designs — regularly found itself swamped. Requests from other departments were submitted without clear requirements; urgent projects stalled in a backlog of older briefs. Noel got the stakeholders to sit down and agree to the idea of a dedicated resource manager: someone who could prioritize projects and help our internal team function like a mini creative agency.
Making it work at your company
Hootsuite isn’t necessarily a pioneer in its zeal for eradicating bad systems. Ecommerce giant Shopify actually has an official Director of Getting Sh*t Done (which inspired the title of this article), with a team under him, tasked with similar efforts. Ombudsmen are a familiar sight in large companies, encharged with resolving internal issues. And businesses have long turned to strategic consulting firms to help them identify inefficiencies and streamline operations.
But I’d argue that this isn’t just something for big companies and shouldn’t necessarily be left to outside experts. We’re in our early stages with this initiative. But I think we already have some clear takeaways that anyone can apply, regardless of size.
First and foremost, bad processes won’t fix themselves. Often, they lurk in a kind of power vacuum. Frontline employees aren’t empowered to change them. Leadership overlooks the issue or assumes it’s someone else’s problem. Precisely for that reason, it’s key to put someone in charge. This doesn’t have to be an official or full-time role, but employees need to know there’s a go-to person.
Like any good czar, this individual needs to have the skill — and authority — to work across teams and departments: to transcend processes in order to correct them. (An engineering mindset doesn’t hurt here, either.) Doing this right, almost as a rule, involves getting stakeholders to actually sit down together. A little shared input and a little buy-in goes a long way.
Social media can be a powerful way to surface broken systems in the first place. On Facebook, for example, we’ve started an internal Bad Systems @ Hootsuite group to log issues. Noel generally follows up with an in-person visit, to observe and ask questions. Interestingly, most bad processes seem to boil down to a few common failings: needless complexity, unanticipated bottlenecks or irrational fear of worst-case scenarios.
Not all problems can be solved, of course, and it’s important to know which systems are worth going after. We’d love to find a better way to do expense reports — a chore that, even with the latest apps, ties up thousands of employee hours a quarter — but the silver bullet is elusive. Generally, we triage efforts based on a rudimentary points system: the number of people impacted by a bad process is weighed against the estimated time needed to fix it. But it’s not really an exact science. Ultimately, trying something — even if it only leads to marginal improvement — is better than the status quo.
Am I a little concerned that this new role might eat up bigger chunks of Noel’s time? Well, maybe. Up until now, requests haven’t exactly poured in: a sign that we’ve either got great systems in place or (more likely) that we need to get better at IDing the broken ones. But even if we eventually do have to hire a dedicated Czar of Bad Systems, I don’t think that’s a bad thing — quite the contrary, in fact.
After all, the problem with bad processes is that they institutionalize inefficiency: they ensure that things will be done the wrong way, over and over and over again. For that reason alone, it’s worth investing the time and resources to ferret them out.