The Failure of Functional Excellence

It is such a common observation and challenge that as process improvement professionals we have become almost anesthetized to the issue of functions dominating the way people work rather than process. Partly this is due to the mental model many people have of “process,” that it is a creature of manufacturing, a widget-making phenomena rather than something that exists implicitly or explicitly in all aspects of work and private life. It is also due to the focus placed on functions and their attendant professional associations, guilds, unions and all manner of informal clans. At your company function you see sales people stick with sales people, marketing people huddle with marketing people, finance types seeking their friends in the finance department etc. Even Lean Six Sigma Black Belts tend to hang out with their fellow Black Belts.

These professional and social silos are simply the most visible consequence of organizations — public or private, for-profit or not-for-profit — basing their activities, rewards, targets, and metrics around functions. The other consequence is that delivering consistently superior service value or consistently superior product value to end customers takes a secondary position. While no one in an organization will ever consciously admit it — the customer, the client, the patient, the student — is not the most important thing to functions; the most important thing to functions and to functional professionals is the continued health, growth and prospects of the function and profession. If things go wrong, it is easier and better to either blame (usually in silence) the stupid customer/client or blame another department (or both).

In a world organized around functions customers/clients are handed-off between departments with all the issues that usually happen when things or people are shuffled from function to function: information is lost or garbled, things or people wait. For a great product to come into existence — think iPhone — functions must take a back seat to the customer experience with the product and all things, especially functions, must work as a whole to concurrently create and then produce, deliver and service that product experience as a whole. In the service sector a great customer experience requires that they are the centre of the universe with all processes oriented to a seamless experience with functional professions all but invisible to the client experience. It is the customer who is truly most important, not the needs, rules, and concerns of any given profession. A simple illustration of a functionally driven organization is the maddening phrase we often encounter in poorly run companies: “That’s not my department, you need to see so-and-so over there…”

It is quite instructive to listen to people talk about where they work and what they do. If they begin and spend most of the time talking about what they do in their function at work (as in “I’m in marketing at Acme” or “I’m an engineer at Acme” or “I’m in the supply chain group”) and less or little time focused on the amazingly great products Acme makes or the Acme company as a whole then that is a tangible example of how, when the going gets tough, the people in that organization will put the interests of their function — and consequently by extension the viability of their own career paths — ahead of the customer and even, quite frankly, their company. This is why the experience of customers with functionally driven companies is so frustrating: as long as their function and they themselves stay out of trouble, the customer’s actual state is a lesser priority. In mediocre firms it is not unusual to find that it is less important to people that the company did poorly as a whole than for the department to meet its targets/budget.

Conversely, people at truly high performance organizations in terms of service or product excellence more often than not talk more about their organization as a whole and about the quality of the service or product. For example, people at Toyota spend more time talking about Toyota than the fact that they are in marketing and happen to work at Toyota; Toyota, Apple, Four Seasons, Disney, Mayo Clinic — you’ll hear people talk about what the organizations do as a whole for their clients and take immense pride in that affiliation, much more so than their functional membership.

Yes, we also need functional competence but it must subordinate itself to the process that generates value to the end customer. As mentioned at the beginning of the post, this is such as well-worn idea that it is easy to forget its profound importance in terms of actually achieving process excellence and consequently superior value generation for both the client and the producer. This dictum applies as much to Lean Six Sigma and other process excellence professionals. Our existence is only a means to a greater end, namely, process excellence and not just the idea of Lean Six Sigma or whatever label one chooses to use. This is what Mikel Harry meant, and I think quite wisely so, when he said that the quality of business must not take a back seat to the business of quality, the cottage industry of process improvement consultants, trainers, and certifications. It is a warning this author takes to heart in how I approach my own work.