The Problem With Procedure

Today I’m highlighting the dangerous pitfalls of over-reliance on procedures and systems. I’m coming from a perspective of personal experience in this area, as I have felt the effects of these pitfalls as well as the temptation to be overly reliant on procedures.

I’ll start by saying that I’m a big fan of structure and procedure in a team environment. When I see details being missed or communication breaking down, my natural problem solving process drives me right to the toolbox of systems and procedure development. I would guess many of you do the same. It makes sense! When we see that communication has failed and details have fallen through the cracks, we assume that a more structured approach will ensure improvement. And in some cases, especially in the short term, it does work. But this solution alone will cost you.

You know who else has the default problem solving method of systems and procedure? The Department of Motor Vehicle.

Yes, the DMV has procedure down pat! If you want to study how to create forms and processes, the DMV is a research goldmine. And most times, those processes are effective. Everyone’s car can be registered and each adjustment has a process, complete with a form, to fill out. But what is the DMV’s reputation and culture? It’s not efficiency or customer service. It’s viewed as cold, unfriendly, and confusing. The same can be said for the IRS, medical insurance companies, and any other institution entrenched in and reliant on procedure.

This isn’t to say that systems aren’t important. They are! Without a procedure, you might lack the ability to capture important details or keep everyone on the same page. But what happens so often is that a system replaces the need for human interaction and understanding. And a procedure, enforced as the only option, discourages relationships and problem solving, and this is the danger! When your procedure discourages relationship, you damage your team and prevent growth. 

Here’s a real-world example of the dangers of over-reliance on a system. At our church, we have a few systems that track and process every day information. We have one for our building use calendar, one for projects that our design team works on, and a few others. Most times, they work great. We have a ton of incoming information, which needs to be sorted, prioritized, and approved in much the same way each time. A phone call or in-person conversation regarding each one would be very inefficient. So, when a person wants to use a room, they go onto this electronic system, schedule the dates, and then fill out the form, checking boxes for whether they need heat, lights, audio support, and so on. When everything goes smoothly, all that the people on the support end need to do is look at the system, determine the needs, and provide those items. But do this day in and day out, without any other interaction, and you’ll discover that two things are happening:

  1.  The requestor and the supporter never need to speak to each other in order for these activities to happen. What kind of relationship do you think they have when there is absolutely no conversation taking place?
  2. The support team member is trained to always look at the system and never ask questions or think for themselves.

So, with that as your interaction, what happens when a problem arises? Maybe the person requesting the room forgets to check the box saying that they need a microphone for that room, and the support team, having been trained to just read the system and never being in a rhythm where conversation is part of the process, skips setting one up. Maybe they skip it out of an innocent view of just completing what’s on the system. Or maybe they’ve come to believe that the requestor is solely responsible for thinking through and filling out what’s needed, and decides that if it isn’t on the sheet, it won’t get set up.

That’s one example, but this tendency happens in the church world in many different scenarios. Maybe you’re struggling with someone on your team not perfectly executing what they are supposed to (music, tech, grass cutting, you name it!) and you think a procedure is the sole solution. Or maybe you’re utilizing a system to schedule the team and communicate details about Sunday, but you haven’t had a real conversation with those people to allow for questions or feedback.

The biggest breakdown in all this is the lack of relationship! Since no conversation is taking place, and no relationship is being built, any conflict that arises is handled poorly since the two people don’t know each other or feel they have a relationship to maintain and protect. There’s no benefit of the doubt, because the one side doesn’t even know what went into the decision. And the requestor doesn’t really know what they’re really asking for (and what it will take to get it done), because they just filled out the form rather than discussing what’s best and what’s possible. You create a scenario where all parties involved dig in their heels and point fingers rather than come to the table and say “how can we work together to make this as successful as possible?”

So again, I’m not saying get rid of system and procedure. For our context, they remain necessary in many areas. But we need to keep the perspective that we’re all trying to accomplish the same thing! We’re one body with different gifts. What an incredibly relevant picture God has painted for us in using the body to illustrate the church. If you’re walking down the street, and for some reason your right foot doesn’t step out correctly, you’ll start to fall. Imagine the right hand saying “the foot’s supposed to carry us all along down the road, but he didn’t follow procedure. No way I’m covering for him!” Well, guess what – that body’s about to do a face plant on the concrete! We compensate for each other, because we support each other and need each other.

Avoid the pitfalls of over-reliance on a procedure. Look beyond what is supposed to be and begin asking how you can build better relationships with those you serve with. Ask yourself how you can best serve them and bring what you can offer to the table in order to make what you’re doing as successful as possible! Don’t allow a structure or system to convince you that you should shut your brain off and just click the checkboxes. Connect with people and serve alongside them, and use procedure as a tool that can be held open-handedly and sometimes deviated from!

 

How have you experienced the benefits and pitfalls of procedure in your context?

Author: Jon Cook

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