The Way Things Get Done

The Way Things Get Done

There’s the way things get done. And there’s The Way. Things. Get Done.

A Process Breakdown That Hit Home

For the past several years, summers have brought a predictable routine within my house as we tackle the forms the school requires for my children to play sports.

  1. Complete the forms (physicals, parental consent, etc.).
  2. Submit the forms.

At a glance, it seems straightforward. And after all is said and done, everyone’s happy. But the process leaves much to be desired.

With no standard process for electronic submission of the forms, the school requires parents to provide paper copies.

Several years ago, the paper-only process failed. Somehow, forms were lost, requiring a repeat set of paperwork — including physician-verified physical exam forms — to be completed.

I don’t believe I’m overstating the issue when I say that the situation was a tremendous hassle. That’s when I began scanning completed forms and emailing them to the school district. (Coincidentally, there was another form mishap this year, so I feel justified in my approach.)

Perks and Pitfalls of Shadow Processes

Why did I share this story with you? It’s a perfect example of a “shadow process.” A shadow process occurs when a standard process (internal, external, or both) has flaws or is not optimal for one or more of its users. The regular process might be broken, inefficient, outdated, or have some other weakness. The process might involve technology (Shadow IT) or analog tasks accomplished through “nonstandard” means.

The point is: A shadow process is a workaround.

Shadow processes are quite prevalent in small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), yet they occur in organizations of all sizes and levels of sophistication. They even exist in organizations with dedicated process improvement specialists and systems.

I guarantee that shadow processes DO exist within your organization.

Shadow processes are not necessarily a bad thing — unless they shortcut necessary protections, such as safety requirements or cybersecurity protocols. They are an opportunity to learn from front-line “doers” to improve organizational efficiencies and accomplish tasks in a superior fashion. However, if your organization becomes riddled with shadow processes, it may indicate larger, systemic problems. Also, it can cause team morale to drag as employees engage in one continuous eyeroll over the “official” processes for doing their jobs.

Questions to Jumpstart an Evaluation of Your Organization’s Shadow Processes

  1. How well-documented (and understood) are our processes?
  2. Do we properly train new hires on our processes?
  3. Do we think that shadow processes may exist here?
  4. Which stakeholders might use shadow processes? (e.g., employees, customers/clients, vendors, etc.)
  5. If shadow processes exist, how might we best identify them? (e.g., observation, surveys, other feedback mechanisms, etc.)
  6. Why do these shadow processes exist? (i.e., Why is the “standard” process not working?)
  7. Do the identified shadow processes provide us with an opportunity to improve our operation?
  8. If the shadow processes are superior, how might we incorporate them into our “standard” processes?
  9. What might we proactively do in the future to recognize and compare shadow processes against our standard processes?

Step Out from the Shadows

Shadow processes are real, and they are prevalent in nearly every organization. You have a choice to either acknowledge them and unleash their power or continue to pretend they don’t exist.

Got a question about shadow processes and what they mean for your organization? Drop me a line. I’m always up for a good convo about the way things get done. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go digitize some paper forms for my kids’ school.


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