Does the Paper Outweigh the Product?

In 2000, a the height of the dot com craze, I was contracted to build an e-commerce site. I had three months basically to build a portal for online trading of bonds, money market and foreign exchange products, translate it into six different Asian languages, and get it out to bank customers to start using before our competition did the same thing. It was an aggressive plan, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Along the way, of course, I was going to need equipment, and a secure facility. So I called up the bank’s data centre, and set up a meeting.

My network guys had done an amazing job designing a network infrastructure that would be extremely robust, with lots of redundant pathways and failover. My developers put together a crack design, and provided their requirements. The UI guys were hard at work making sure the front end footprint was very small. When I approached the data centre, I expected them to be excited we’d basically provided everything they needed, and all they had to do was source the equipment and plug it in.

The Request

“We are an ISO 15000 compliant data centre,” they informed me, sitting imperiously across the table from my team and I. “We will review your requirements and inform you of when we can attend your request.”

“But…you have everything you need, don’t you?”

Robotic Process-Adherence Makes Me Scream

Robotic Process-Adherence Makes Me Scream. Image courtesy of tfrancis on Flickr

“That remains to be seen.”

Knowing that I had three months to get this whole schmeer finished, I wasn’t prepared to walk away from the table to have my requirements vanish under a stack of red tape. “Okay, here’s the thing. I need you to have all this stuff in place and set up one month from today.”

The data centre rep laughed, and told me that there was a global shortage on some of the equipment I was looking for. There’d be no way they could honour my request.

“Surely there’s a reseller in this country somewhere with that exact equipment sitting in a warehouse collecting dust,” I said angrily. “I refuse to believe that just because the vendor isn’t manufacturing this stuff very fast doesn’t mean it’s not around to be had.”

The data centre rep mocked me, and told me he would be in touch if he was able to place the order, but that I shouldn’t hold my breath.

The Follow-Up

I let a week go by, and finally, when I called up to hear “global shortage yadda yadda” one more time, I called a friend at a reseller.

“I need this stuff,” I said to her. Don’t tell me you don’t have it lying around somewhere.”

“Why yes, we have a whole bunch of those earmarked for the Board of Education,” she told me. “They haven’t claimed it yet, and they’re not moving very fast, so if you can get me a purchase order, it’s yours.”

A quick call to the finance department took care of that. So I called the data centre. “Where do you want it delivered,” I asked, “I can have it in the back of a taxi in an hour.”

The Denial

The stunned silence was palpable. “You can’t have it,” the guy on the phone informed me. “There’s a global shortage.”

“Well, I do have it, and what’s more, I need it installed so my people can do their work.” I was starting to get irritated. “Where and how would you like to receive it?”

Their response stunned me. “You…you didn’t go through proper channels! We’re supposed to buy from the manufacturer! There’s paperwork to do! It’s not possible for you to have those things!”

By this time I’d pretty much lost my temper. By following its procedures to the letter, the data centre was forgetting all about its customers needs, and putting priority on its processes. Actually, they were behaving like robots, and when presented with facts that didn’t jive with their view of the world, they effectively shut down in denial.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an ardent supporter of ISO, and CMMI, and other certifications that permit quality control and continuous improvement. But when the paper becomes more important than the product, I start to go ballistic. Here was an example where instead of working to support their customers, they worked to follow a manual. But what’s the manual for?! I guarantee that the procedure documents at your company have not been sitting around since the dawn of time like desktop-published Ten Commandments. They exist for a purpose, and it’s the purpose that matters.

Incidentally, I got my equipment installed. 😉

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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