White Space Forever

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Partner, Performance Design Lab
Alan Ramias is a Partner with the Performance Design Lab (PDL), a consulting, coaching and training company that specializes in organizational performance design and improvement. He brings 30 years of consulting experience in the analysis, design and implementation of performance systems. He has worked with organizations in Asia, Europe and North America. He is a co-author of the books White Space Revisited: Creating Value through Process and Rediscovering Value: Leading the 3-D Enterprise to Sustainable Success. Before becoming a management consultant, Alan was an instructional designer, training manager and organizational development manager at Motorola, where he worked for ten years, including as a member of the team that founded Motorola University. Alan led some of the first groundbreaking projects in process improvement that were the genesis for Motorola’s Six Sigma program. Alan joined The Rummler-Brache Group (RBG) in 1991, and led improvement projects in such companies as Shell, Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Citibank, DuPont, Steelcase, Citgo, Hermann Miller, Louisiana-Pacific, Bank One, Microsoft, Chinatrust, and Standard Chartered Bank . He became a Partner and Managing Director of Consulting Services at RBG and was responsible for selecting, training and overseeing RBG’s consultant teams. He also conducted RBG’s process improvement training for such companies as Hughes, DuPont, Shell, ABB, Ericsson, Citicorp, Sun Microsystems, Steelcase, Eli Lilly, Dow Chemical Europe, Dow Chemical South America, Square D, Pioneer Hi-Bred, UOP, 3M and Shell. Alan has presented on a wide variety of topics at numerous conferences, including the following: •“The Dangers of Prefab Models," BBC conference, November 2012 •“Repositioning BPM for Sustainable Success,” keynote presentation at Gartner BPM Conference in London, March 2011 •“Crossroads: How HPT and IT can Improve Organizational Performance,” International Society of Performance Improvement (ISPI) national conference, April 2009 •“How to Make BPM Work (Even in a Recession)”, International Quality & Productivity Conference (IQPC), April 2009 •“The Two Dimensions of an Organization: An Architecture for Achieving Business Results,” Fall ISPI Conference, September 2008. •“Designing the Process-Centered Organization,” ISPI Annual Conference, April 2008. •“BPM Methodologies: Turning the Land of Confusion into Solutions for Your BPM Initiatives”, Gartner BPM Conference, Las Vegas NV, January 2008 •“People, Processes, Technology: Why Can’t They All Get Along?” Shared Insights Conference, April 2007. •“The Origins of Process Improvement and Six Sigma at Motorola,” ISPI Annual Conference, April 2005. SELECTED PUBLICATIONS Ramias, A., "Integrating Process Management," BP Trends, October 2014 Ramias, A.and Wilkins, C., "Baby Steps: Making Process Management a Reality," BP Trends, June 2014 Ramias, A.and Wilkins, C., "Making Process Management a Reality," BP Trends, March 2014 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Remembering Geary Rummler,”BP Trends, November 2013 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Location, Location, Location: Does It Matter Where Your Performance Department Reports?,” BP Trends, June 2013 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Who Does What? Role/Responsibility Charting in Improvement Efforts,” BP Trends, December 2012 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Uses of the 3-Dimensional Enterprise Model,” BP Trends, September 2012 Ramias, A., “The Mists of Six Sigma’” Performance Xpress, April 2012 (reprinted from BP Trends) Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Reference Models: The Long, Long Shortcut,” BP Trends, March 2012 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “In From Left Field,” BP Trends, January 2012 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “The Process-Centered Organization: Oh, For a Crisis,” BP Trends, September 2011 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “The Process-Centered Organization: Do You Know Where You’re Going?” BP Trends, August 2011 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “The Process-Centered Organization: The Long Road,” BP Trends, May 2011 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Who is Responsible for Process Performance?,” BP Trends December 2010 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Building Metrics for Processes,” BP Trends September 2010 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Measuring Process Performance,” BP Trends), May 2010 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “The Role of the Performance Architect,” BP Trends January 2010 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “What Process Owners Do,” BP Trends, October 2009 Ramias, A. and Wilkins, C., “Varieties of Process Ownership,” BP Trends, July 2009 Ramias, A.J. and Rummler, R., “The Evolution of the Effective Process Framework: A Model for Redesigning Business Processes,” Performance Improvement, November/December 2009 Rummler, G.A, Ramias A.J., and Rummler R.A., “Potential Pitfalls on the Road to a Process-Managed Organization,” Performance Improvement Journal (published as a two-part article in April and May/June 2009 issues). Rummler, G., and Ramias, A., “A Framework for Defining and Designing the Structure of Work”, BP Trends, (published as a 3-part paper in April and September 2008 and January 2009). Rummler, G. and Ramias, A., “The IT-Business Gap: Another Root Cause,” BP Trends, December 2007. Ramias, A., “What is a Process?” BPM Institute.org October 2007. Ramias, A., “When You Say ‘Process,’ You Mean…?” BPM Institute.org, August 2006. Ramias, A., “The Mists of Six Sigma,” BP Trends, October 2005.

The title of the book that made Geary Rummler and Alan Brache authorities in the emerging field of process improvement and management back in 1990 was Improving Performance, but it was the subtitle (How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart) that caught attention.  Decades later, people still refer to it as the “white space” book; that was why Geary’s 2009 follow-up to Improving Performance was entitled White Space Revisited.

Today the term “white space” has entered common parlance.  There are even a couple of consulting firms using the term in their names. It’s come to mean any general lack of connection between things that should be connected.  But its original meaning still has value for BPM and Operational Excellence.

Rummler first used the term at Motorola, during a meeting of senior managers of a newly created business that crossed multiple organizations.  His depiction of this business clearly highlighted the gaps between different business units and their leaders.  It looked like a map of islands floating in a vast white sea.  While examining this map with the management team, Geary quipped, “You guys have got to manage that white space together.”  It was an “a-ha” moment, evolving to the recognition that classic organization charts also inadvertently show white space and so the sub-title came about.

The problem of organizational white space is these areas are unowned and thus unmanaged.  They are the gaps between one department (or functional silo) and another, or between business units, regions, countries.  Seen from the viewpoint of a cross-functional process map, white space exists wherever handoffs are made from one area or role to another.  It is in those unmanaged boundary areas where often misunderstandings occur, mistakes are made, delays come about… in short, bad things happen.

Silos themselves get in the way of total organizational performance. Because it is often virtually impossible to see the chain of cross-functional work when sitting inside any silo, it is hard to understand and effectively contribute to the goals of the entire organization.  Work crosses the boundaries between silos, but nobody is necessarily responsible for what happens after a piece of work leaves a given silo; instead, accountability is fixed at the borders.  And so, the need for managing the white space across the functional silos.

But how?  A good number of readers of Improving Performance and similar books about functional silos decided that the goal was to somehow eliminate white space by reorganizing so that the silos would disappear, replaced with an organizational structure based on processes, or customers, or technologies or products.

The problem of white space, though, is not really solvable that way.  Functional silos exist for very sound reasons even if they do have a bad reputation.  As soon as an organization starts up and work is divvied up, silos start to rise.  People who have something in common focus on their self-interest and look to each other for mutual support.  Silos are the consequence of having to divide up the work of an organization.  No matter what the divisions and the rationale behind them (e.g., functional specialization begets departments; geographies beget territories and regions; products and services beget customer segments and product/service units), the long-term consequence is that the people inside those silos tend to have an incomplete view of the work to be done and they begin to operate according to rules that make sense to them but not necessarily to the whole organization.  Over time, they develop loyalty to their silo instead of to the larger organization.  Their leaders tend to see their responsibilities as territory to own and to manage, and they may encourage sub-optimizing loyalty and behavior.  All of this is natural, inevitable and unavoidable.

There is no way to design an organization to get rid of silos; you just create a different set of silos and the behavior that goes with them.  Organizations that have busted up traditional disciplines such as manufacturing, engineering, finance, marketing and so on and put everybody on cross-functional teams would discover that the employees in the same discipline flocked together anyway. (Hence the popularity of “centers of excellence”.) It makes sense to work together with people who understand you and can support your goals and your growth.   And matters are not improved by extreme flattening of the organization.  If you’ve ever been in an organization run by someone with 25 direct reports, you know the amount of frustration, inattention and begging for help that occurs, which is hardly any better than functional silos.

The other problem with trying to design white space out of an organization is that it’s an impossibility.  Reorganize by teams and you’ll have white space between teams.  Reorganize by customer or market or region and you’ll still have white space—you’ve just moved it around.  So narrowing down the amount of white space may be achievable by redesign, but total elimination is not.

What can be done is to install what we might call compensating mechanisms—things that enable employees to see and respond beyond their functional boundaries. Cross-functional process teams are a compensating mechanism.  Employees on such teams are collectively responsible for the entire process and are required to learn about the participating departments beyond their own.  Process metrics that measure performance across functional boundaries is another mechanism, encouraging end-to-end collaboration and accountability.  Rewards that are contingent on cross-functional performance are even more powerful for engendering attention and cooperation beyond functional boundaries.  Technological solutions also have the potential to break down boundaries by closing handoffs and facilitating sharing of source data rather than having each function keep its own information about products, customers, etc., which can a strong perpetuator of functional silos.

Management itself—its practices and processes—has the potential to provide mechanisms for leading and controlling an organization across its internal divides.  However, in organizations of any size, virtually all of the existing management and control systems are there to reinforce silos and silo thinking.  Pay for performance systems try to pin down accountability at the lowest individual level rather than hold anyone accountable for cross-functional work; measurement systems are designed to measure functional and individual performance, not process performance; management development programs teach and reward heroes (i.e., managers who lead their teams inside their functional, or regional, or whatever silos).

But when managers are well aware of the existence of white space and the potential for self-serving behavior within functions, they can become the stewards of cross-functional thinking and company-wide performance.  So, while white space is forever, the task of managing it is also a permanent preoccupation of leadership, or should be.  Which is where BPM and Operational Excellence come in.

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