Earlier this year, an employee wanted to send a customer a T-shirt with our logo 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 before signing off on the request–the cost of this T-shirt had ballooned to at least $200.
Every business has its own systems and processes, and they serve an important function, especially as a company grows. I’ve learned this firsthand has my own has scaled from a few dozen to nearly 1,000 employees. With that many moving parts, you can’t operate efficiently without some kind of playbook. Systems help you make sure things get done, quality remains high, 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, making 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 and, worse still, no one’s empowered to change them when you need to. So I recently tried to fix that.
In Hootsuite’s early days, we decided that managers would need to approve requests for company swag; the costs of all those T-shirts and plush toys adds up. But as we grew, this blanket policy became 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.
Fortunately, Noel wouldn’t let the issue die. He spent a day or two hounding the right people in finance and marketing. In the end, he persuaded them to scrap the formal approvals rule in favor of trusting that everyone would use their own discretion when ordering, like grown-ups. 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 were 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’ve fallen through the cracks–they’d be 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 from 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 amid a backlog of older briefs. Noel caught wind of that and 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.
Hootsuite isn’t necessarily a pioneer in its zeal for eradicating bad systems. E-commerce giant Shopify actually has an official Director of Getting Shit Done, with a team under him, tasked with similar efforts. Ombudsmen are a familiar sight in large companies, charged 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 huge corporations and shouldn’t necessarily be left to outside experts. We’re in our early stages with this initiative, but we’ve already learned a few things that any company can apply, regardless of size.
First and foremost, bad processes won’t fix themselves. They often lurk in a power vacuum; frontline employees don’t have the authority to make changes, while senior leaders overlook these issues or assume they’re someone else’s problem. That’s why it’s so helpful to put someone in charge, even if it it’s not an official or full-time role–it gives employees somebody to go to.
And like any good czar, this person needs to have the skill–and authority–to work across teams and departments, to transcend processes in order to correct them. (An engineering mind-set doesn’t hurt here, either.) Doing this right means getting everybody concerned to sit down and talk about what they do, why they do it, and why it may not be working as well as it could. A little shared input and 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 keep track of 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 ones 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 solution has so far proved 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, just trying something, even if it only leads to marginal improvement, is better than the status quo.