Alcatraz: Avoid Processes that Imprison Your Staff


To the untrained eye, the image above may look picturesque — an island with a bold, sprawling white building surrounded by the blue waters of the San Francisco bay complemented by mountains.

But this is no regular island.  It’s Alcatraz.

The island received its current name, La Isla de los Alcatraces, in 1775 from Juan Manuel de Ayala. Roughly which translated it means Island of the Pelicans. It was described as having “little to offer, with its swift currents, minimal vegetation and barren ground.”

Being a solid rock surrounded by rough waters, it was never a hospitable place for human life. It makes sense that it was originally used as a military fort. In the 1930s, it eventually became home to the infamous maximum security prison by the same name.  It was once home to America’s most notorious criminals.  Now it’s a museum and during a visit years ago, one of the “souvenirs” I bought was a replica of the rules and regulations given to each prisoner.  A prisoner’s manual, of sorts.

This manual contained processes, policies and procedures that were just as harsh and rigid as the rough waters of the bay.

So what does Alcatraz have to do with your company?

As I examined the manual, the rigidity of the processes was palpable.  When we create processes and policies, we have to take into consideration the environment that we can create.

How do you know if you have a rigid or unrealistic process?

  • Employees consistently underperform despite following the process
  • Employees are fearful to provide process feedback
  • The process is ridden with bottlenecks
  • Only one or a small number of people can perform the process

Do you want to create an environment of fear and retribution?  Or do you want to create an environment where people can come to you and express concern and offer suggestions for improvement?

Consider the following scenario for a B2B Invoicing process.  The diagram below shows the process starting once service is rendered and the Bookkeeper creates an invoice.  If the software is working properly, then the Bookkeeper can email the invoice to the client.  The customer then has up to 30 days to pay.  Seems harmless, right?

But look at what happens when the Bookkeeper is out on a 2-week vacation.  Because the process is designed such that no one else is trained to do invoicing, the process is delayed by 10 days.  This leads to wasted time and the refusal to cross-train others on the process has caused a bottleneck because it literally impedes the flow of the Invoicing process.

Switching to a mobile payments system and training the consultants on it provides the flexibility this process desperately needs.  It is no longer dependent on one person’s presence.  Consultants can initiate the Invoicing process sooner by accepting deposit payments onsite.  This also reduces the cycle time.

The Moral of the Story Is…

Creating an Alcatraz-like process can cause unanticipated bottlenecks not to mention leave your staff feeling imprisoned — like their hands are figuratively tied; fearful to make a wrong move.

There are times when you cannot bend the rules in executing a process mostly for health and safety reasons.  However, designing an inflexible service delivery process will eventually cause people to rebel or leave altogether.  The increase in turnover will be chaotic and when your company’s ability to deliver on its promises becomes compromised, customers will leave too.

Alcatraz was forced to close after operating for nearly 30 years following a prison escape that revealed vulnerabilities in the prison’s structure. And like Alcatraz, once enough people leave (or in their case, escape), you might have to shut down altogether.   Fortunately, you can avoid this!  When staff or customers start complaining about rigid processes, investigate solutions immediately.  Be proactive in designing a more flexible process.  Not only will it save your business, but it may add more money to your bottom line too!

Do you or someone you know need support in redesigning an existing process?   

Contact me so we can discuss solutions.

Feature Image by Paul Davison Crime.

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