Pointless paperwork

The train was full, of course – standing-room only. I made my way down to the onboard cafe-bar, not in the hope of finding a seat, but more of finding some place to stand that wouldn’t result in jostling someone else with every lurch and jolt of the hour-long inter-city journey.

Leaning back against a convenient corner, at the edge of the cafe’s serving-hatch, I sipped at my plastic coffee, and watched the stream of people coming in with their various orders. One man noticed, after he’d ordered and paid, that there was a separate special-offer advertised – but the cafe’s systems wouldn’t allow the cafe-manager to change anything retrospectively. Oh well – but a probably-unnecessary service-design flaw that, with other people and other circumstances, could well have resulted in a unnecessary anticlient-relationship, too.

After half an hour, the flood of customers settled down to a trickle – and that’s when she turned to the paperwork. I’d noticed that, whenever she’d taken an order, she’d not only checked it into the cash-or-card payment-system, she’d made a note by hand on a wall-chart – exactly the same information, about the same sale, twice. In addition to that, it became clear there yet more paperwork to do, of at least four distinct types:

  • full-page checklist for each of the special-offers
  • multi-page checklist for stock-control (re-entering information that, she said, was already in the sales/payment system)
  • half-page stock-management list for a separate charity-oriented offer
  • half-page formal signed report, multi-copy, on a tear-off carbon-copy pad

(There may have been more, but those were just the ones I’d noticed.)

All to be done every trip, she said. Doing it all took up about half an hour at the end of each journey: four times a day on her ten-hour shift, two full out-and-back journeys each way. And an additional complete stock-take and inventory-check before handing over the cafe-bar to the next crew-member at the end of her shift. Paperwork upon paperwork.

Why?

For whom?

For what purpose?

She didn’t know. Didn’t care, she said: “I just do the paperwork, like they ask, and leave it at that. I’m not going to be nosy, it’s not up to me to pry.” She guessed that some of the duplication was because on occasion the computer-system did break down: a train is a pretty unforgiving environment for standard business-electronics, it seems. But that didn’t explain why just about everything was duplicated – sometimes more – for what in principle is a fairly simple and straightforward business-context. Nor, for that matter, why it was so onerous, taking up something like 15-20% of her entire work-time: some even-more-than-usually-mindless manager creating make-work just to justify their own existence? Odd, all round…

But it was nothing new, she said. “Been in this job nigh on twenty years, and it’s always been the same. Each new company that takes over the train-line” – as I remember, that’s happened at least three times in the past twenty years, maybe more – “they change the paperwork a bit, but it never gets any less. It’s just part of the job.”

Overall, running this cafe-bar is obviously not a job she hates – not if she’s been doing it now for so many years – but even so… And as I look at this mess with an enterprise-architect’s eye, I can’t help revolting against the pointlessness of it all, the sheer waste of everyone’s time – not just hers, but of everyone who deals with that pile of paperwork at the other end. That ever-awkward, ever-unpopular yet ever-important question: Why?

Implications for enterprise-architecture

This is yet another example of how and where the IT-centrism (or, more accurately, computer-centrism, since paper-forms and the like are information-technologies in their own right) of ‘classic’ EA can turn out to be dangerously misleading: we need to track all of the information-flows here, not solely those that are managed through computer-based means.

Typical business-analysis questions we’d need to ask would include:

  • What need does this information serve?
  • Who uses this information? – for what purpose?
  • If paper-records are used to back up for a computer-based system, how could the duplication be reduced?
  • If paper-records are subsequently entered into a computer-based system, why is this done? – and by whom?

And, of course:

  • How could we do this better?

Which should also bring up another very important yet all-too-often-forgotten question:

  • How can we engage people in making their own work better?

For enterprise-architecture, this questioning needs to go deeper again: we’re not dealing with a single information-system – as we would do in a typical business-analysis task – but the entire context, from information to process-flow to interleaving-timescales to performance-metrics to employee-engagement and much more.

  • How does the context work as a whole, for everyone within that overall context?
  • What part does each element play within that context-as-a-whole? – what are the interactions and interdependencies across the whole, and over time?
  • What options do we have to improve effectiveness – efficient, reliable, elegant, appropriate, integrated – within the context as a whole?

Given your own experiences of contexts such as this in-person example of pointless-paperwork, what do you see “with an enterprise-architect’s eye”? What – if anything – could you do to make it work better? (If apparently nothing, why not?) What options and assumptions would drive your choices and interpretations?

Something to ponder about, perhaps? 🙂

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4 Comments on “Pointless paperwork

  1. Obviously bad processes, which could be improved. But here’s the thing:

    “I just do the paperwork, like they ask, and leave it at that. I’m not going to be nosy, it’s not up to me to pry.”

    One wonders what’s going on “at the top” with the “they” that’s led to this lack of empowerment.

    • Phil: “One wonders what’s going on “at the top” with the “they” that’s led to this lack of empowerment.”

      Yep. I had much the same conversation later that day, with a long-experienced police officer on his way back home from an all-day training-course. Painfully aware of what’s going wrong with policing in Britain right now – see, for example, BBC today, “Report on police: Victims ‘asked to investigate crime themselves'”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29053978 , or the ever-wry Inspector Guilfoyle http://inspguilfoyle.wordpress.com/ – his response was all too predictable: “It’s just four and a half years until I retire, then I’m out of here”. Ouch…

  2. This paper comes at the right time : I was wondering the same thing this morning.
    The Paris transportation company buys NFC card related to a yearly subscription. Each time I go to their stores, I see the sales assistant both using its computer and writing the same info with a pen.
    “This is supposed to back up a possible IT problem” and “our bosses ask us to do this”. No meaning for the sales assistant, no rational for the client, and of course, an increased delay for doing the job…

    PS : I like your definition of effectiveness, especially the “elegant” word. This reminds me Vitruvius and his expected qualities for an architecture : “utilitas, firmitas, venustas”.

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