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  • Writer's pictureHillel Glazer

Can of Worms? Pandora’s Box? Or Surgeon’s Instrument Tray…

Which best describes your collection of business processes?

You’re busy running your business and you’re good at it.

At some point you decide that you want to automate something or you want to streamline some process, say, customer orders, and you put a form in place or maybe some technology. Pretty straight forward, right?

But now you want to do the same with inventory. Oh, and accounts receivables. Oh, and payables. Oh, and customer service requests. Now you’ve got two? Three? Four different systems or process bits and pieces?

Somehow you haven’t found those efficiencies you expected, and we haven’t even addressed fulfillment or inventory or time tracking or … or … or … and your processes have become a can of worms and your head is about to explode.

Contrary to how this set-up may appear, and as much as it looks like a technology problem, this scenario is not a technology problem. It’s an operational problem. That’s where it started and that’s where it remains. Technology notwithstanding. A very wise engineer working for one of my very early clients once said, “if your processes don’t work by passing index cards across the table, technology isn’t going to help.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. (That’s why I quote Sami, that’s his name.) For the record, 20+ years later no one’s surprised that Sami’s since built and sold several companies of his own.

Orders, fulfillment, accounting, inventory, time tracking, and many other business processes we can rattle off are all quite intuitive, tangible, and germane to our businesses. And despite the criticality and visceral nature of these processes we can easily get bogged down when they don’t follow a well-defined operational design, let alone a technology strategy. But what about processes that don’t come intuitively? What about less-tangible processes such as those that promote compliance, or planning, or knowledge work such as solutioning? How do you design such processes so that they don’t bog you down?

You don’t.

Remember, “You’re busy running your business and you’re good at it.”

It would be very hard for anyone to figure out how to design seemingly intangible processes into their operation, let alone someone already busy keeping the floor dry and the lights on. If you went with the D-I-Y approach before, rest assured, solving it this time will not happen by D-I-Y.

Most DIY processes end up as Pandora’s box. Similar to the big orange home improvement store’s old tagline, you need someone else to help you do that. You need someone to arrange your processes as neatly and efficiently as a surgeon’s instrument tray.

Let’s say that you have such a person. What does it look like when they’ve done their job? Perhaps more importantly, what does it feel like when they’ve done it right? (To borrow equally from home improvement stores.)

Whether through judicious application of technology, careful operational design, or likely some combination of both, you should not feel your processes. Literally. Your processes are probably not great if you feel friction while exercising them. Friction could feel like delays, errors, lost opportunities, extra work, work-arounds, stress, approvals, or even unhappy customers or employees, to name a few. When your processes are working well you see the results and the trappings of success usually characterized by happy customers, fulfilled employees, a relaxed atmosphere, steady profit, compliant accountability, and excess capacity to pursue greater opportunities.

When you’ve achieved this state of “nirvana”, what do you do then? It’s tempting to sit back and let the operation coast along. And as you might guess, coasting is not the right answer. Why? Because just like your business, your business processes must constantly adapt—and contrary to what some software vendors would have you believe—they will not adapt themselves. Someone needs to own them to see to it that they’re adapting.

I’ll illustrate this with an example from a more recent client who (unlike Sami) realized that their processes wouldn’t survive first contact with reality only after the processes failed when needed. In their case, they had a process subject-matter expert come in and fit the company processes to the (then) current state of the operation. The expert moved on once done. My inbox saw some love a few months later when an executive at the company realized that:

  • the company had changed significantly since the expert left,

  • no one at the company internalized how the processes worked,

  • the processes didn’t facilitate the company’s growth plans,

  • some of the compliance standards had been updated but not the processes,

  • after deliberate effort to find evidence of the processes in use, none could be produced.

Their request to me was obvious, but also demonstrative of a company with the all-too-vanishing faculty of learning from their mistakes: “teach us to make our processes

  • ours,

  • resilient,

  • holistic, and

  • keep us from relying on experts.”

I’ll leave you with my game plan for them:

  1. Identify all revenue streams and flesh out the operating models that provision them.

  2. Determine the extent to which operating model parts need to be rigid or loose based on complexity and contribution to customer and company value.

  3. Map out the processes of the operating models to see where and how they interact. (Think: process canvas, a la, “Lean Canvas.”)

  4. Orient all process activities to a bias for saving time.

  5. Fold in necessary activities, tools, technologies, and measures.

  6. Test resulting processes, adjust, and deploy.

  7. Return to top.

All of this will be done with the people directly performing the work, not just “process people” who oversee or facilitate it. Items 2-6 typically include guidance and coaching designed to convey new knowledge and capabilities to the company, but not in any way to create new dependencies on more experts. Once the baseline set of processes is established, changes can be introduced anywhere along the plan.

For you, if your processes resemble a can of worms or Pandora’s box more than you’d like to admit, feel free to copy this plan and find someone (not you) to work it. If you’d like some help towards crafting your surgeon’s tray, show my inbox some love.


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