14 April 2022 15:23:10 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Put purpose at the core of your process

I was in Singapore a week ago. Since it was Lent and I am a vegetarian, I, therefore, had the challenge of locating vegetarian food. For lunch one day, I tried my luck at a restaurant and the maître d at the door told me that there were no vegetarian options. I asked him to show me the menu and happily spotted a dish where meat and rice could easily be separated. But he would have none of it. “We don’t do that,” he said.  

Here was a man turning down my business, albeit minuscule, because he just could not handle the deviation from process. I smiled and decided to try my luck elsewhere but was reflecting on the conflict between process and purpose. 

I’m a big process guy myself. Having come from the BPO industry, I am always looking for ways to create or improve a process so that you can get high quality and predictable outcomes consistently without worrying about who was running it.  

Yet, this obsession with the process can come at a big price when leaders forget that processes have to serve the organisation, the customer, and the teams; not run them. Leaders must frequently check on the processes they manage and see if they still the purpose.  

Process and people

Every process usually has a person at the end of it — a customer, an employee, an investor, a stakeholder. Leaders must check their processes to be sure they are serving these people in the way they were designed to.  

Call centres are a great example where customers are shoved through unending hoops as they go through step after step of a process — wondering at each stage when their problem will be solved.  

After a completely terrible call, with no hint of a solution in sight, haven’t we all heard that cheerful: “Please stay on the line for a survey so you can rate our service.” It’s maddening and yet the reality of many organisations where leaders have allowed processes to mask the people. 

We had a group of college interns doing job postings for our new offering www.BPOSuccess.com — an online Graduate Plus programme, to prepare and place freshers in the BPO industry. I looked at the unusually rising numbers that the interns were able to post, with a mixture of delight tinged with suspicion. Running through the job posts, I found tons of postings for jobs in Ukraine.  

I gave my team an earful for focusing on the process and metrics without thinking about the people at the end of the process. Why would students visiting our site want jobs in war-torn Ukraine? This is the danger when we, as leaders, do not outline clearly enough and consistently enough that the goal is to serve people.  

Getting a 100 per cent quality score and having a customer tearing his hair out at the other end, is not just the equivalent of a zero score, it should be marked negative because of the damage it can do to the purpose and sustainability of an organisation or team. 

I’ve written previously about Stephen Covey and his hotel conference. In the middle of a break, he was struggling to find coloured markers. As he wandered the hall, a bellboy was rushing past. He quickly told the bell boy what he needed.  

We can well imagine what typical responses would have been from employees following the process. “I will inform the right department sir” or “Did you place a request for this when you booked the conference?” Instead, the bellboy looked at his name tag and said: “Mr. Covey, I will solve your problem.”  

I’ve told this story so many times but each time I get goosebumps because this is my ideal teammate, associate, and leader. It is so simple to serve the person rather than the process and yet it is so rare a quality to find. What golden words for us to hear and yet we almost never hear it.

Process and outcomes

It’s part amusing, part frustrating to see all our airlines inflate their arrival timings just to ensure a flawless on-time record. I got in yesterday from Trichy to Hyderabad. The scheduled arrival was 11 am and we landed at 10:15 am to the annoyance of several passengers who now had to wait 45 mins at the airport for family or chauffeurs to come pick them up.  

Everyone knows the scheduled timings are a farce only designed to bolster metrics. The real outcome of building an airline that can operate its planes to a real on-time arrival is forgotten. The metrics almost destroy the outcome. Leaders need to empower teams to check their processes against the important question: “Is this process helping the required outcome?” 

In a VUCA world, leaders must be sure their processes stay agile and relevant. Very often a process is dead, but leaders and their teams neither acknowledge nor are aware of it. A VUCA event may demand the elimination of a process, the complete transformation of one, or a completely new process. Leaders must learn to keep subjecting their processes to the outcome test.  

I remember teasing my Singaporean friends that on a Singapore expressway it was easy to make out who were native Singaporeans and who were Indians whenever the roads were re-laid. The road crews would have finished the re-laying but would still need a day or two to draw back the road lanes.  

Singaporean drivers would freeze the moment they arrived at the un-laned part of the road. Indians would revel in the free space as they swerved from left to right, free of the discipline of the lanes!  

This could happen in organisations and teams as the comfort of a long relied on process suddenly disappears when there is a dramatic change in circumstances. Leaders must stress-test their processes for this so that teams hold the outcome above the process.  

When the situation demands it, when the outcome demands it, leaders must give teams the comfort to abandon, change or invent a process to deliver that outcome. 

Process and the big picture

One of the places we can see this dilemma in full flow is at our airport security lines. Hundreds of passengers wait in frustration as the security personnel examine one more article from your baggage — shaving foam…this is too big; pickle jar…junk it; sweets for Mummy- got to throw it away — their complete tunnel vision in following a checklist destroys any view of the big picture — passenger security, safety and convenience.  

True — they oversee a high-risk process, but they should learn to harness it with the big picture in mind.  

One of the organisations that have done an amazing job as leaders and their teams putting the big picture over process is Seattle-based retailer, Nordstrom. They have a simple approach to Rules (read processes): “Rule 1: Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”  

Employees bred on this culture have been known to iron a customer’s shirt, gift wrap items that a customer has bought from another store, and walk you across to Macy’s (a competitor store) just to help you get that absolutely right-for dress. Lunacy by regular operating standards but pure gold dust as a way of winning customers for life — the big picture. 

Part of successfully navigating from process to purpose comes from having an entrepreneurial mindset as opposed to an employee mindset. The employee mindset is so focussed on the transaction or the process, like the gentleman who turned me away from the restaurant, because he couldn’t adapt.  

I am very sure if the owner was standing there, he would have done everything to get the customer in. The real leader will always ask her teams to look at people, the outcomes, and the big picture to ensure that every process they follow checks those boxes.