Why Having Good People Isn’t Enough


Bad customer service doesn’t usually start with employees. It starts with your company’s (poorly planned) processes

Businessman standing confusing with strategy process step.

My wife and I ordered some takeout food recently, and, like a lot of people during the pandemic, we opted to support a local establishment with the order.

Many small restaurants and businesses have improved their web presence with order and payment apps integrated into their operations to handle takeout and delivery. While most of these experiences are seamless for the customer, the only option available from this restaurant was a third-party provider that forces customers to establish an account, register personal and credit card information, and follow a process that is not only time-consuming and cumbersome, but largely unnecessary in a world of “guest” checkout. Unfortunately, we had already entered our food order before it was clear what the payment process would look like.

Such challenges are not unique or limited to small establishments like this restaurant. I like to say that an organization bumping into issues with customer enthusiasm or retention likely has either a people problem or a process problem. And since most often firms have good people, they have process issues.

Organizations are often not aware of these process challenges, exhibiting what Noel Burch would refer to as Unconscious Incompetence, or the state where we aren’t aware that we are bad at something. Or, specific to this discussion, we are not aware the design of our organization or a process causes the customer difficulty. This lack of awareness happens for a couple of reasons (which we will discuss shortly), but crucial is our appreciation of the impact of that ignorance—we are frustrating our employees and driving our customers away. Poor process design can disable a change agenda, reduce morale and impact overall performance. W. Edwards Deming used to say that a bad process beats a good person every time.

If we have good people, how can this problem happen? How can our processes frustrate our customers? Ultimately, there are two reasons: 

  1. A lack of process ownership and expertise
  2. Our processes were designed for us rather than the customer

Lack of process ownership and expertise

In many organizations, people are accountable for departments, but less obvious is their responsibility for the design and function of the processes within that department. This becomes more problematic when the process overlaps departments.

Expertise and experience with process design and optimization is not as common as it should be within firms either. Have a look at this simple example below for a minute. It is a three-stage process, with cycle times as noted. Assume there is a queue of customers waiting to enter the process before Stage 1, and customers move from station to station as each opens up.

Question 1: How long does it take a customer to get through the process once they enter Stage 1?

Stage 1
30 seconds


Stage 2
20 seconds


Stage 3
10 seconds

The answer is 60 seconds or one minute, the sum of the three cycle times.

Question 2: How many customers can we serve in an hour?

This one is a bit trickier. The answer is 120. The output isn’t one per minute or the 60 seconds we saw in Question 1, but is determined by the bottleneck or the station with the longest cycle time, which is Stage 1. That is, a customer leaves Stage 1 every 30 seconds. This is where the optimization discussion comes in: How do I make this process faster? Looking at Stage 2 or 3 will have no impact. I need to do something with Stage 1.

The purpose of this simple example is to highlight that even with a basic process, the attention and skills necessary to evaluate and improve our operations aren’t always focused where they can improve the lives of our customers.

Our processes were designed for us rather than the customer 

This relates to unconscious neglect or bias, but few organizations start off designing their processes with the customer in mind. For example, PhD candidate Carol Bailey was programming a robot for surgical applications using Microsoft’s voice recognition software. The software wouldn’t recognize her voice, as it was designed by an all-male team (which makes me wonder who programmed the voice recognition GPS in my vehicle). 

Or consider the bus schedule for school children across North America. High school students are picked up on the first run of the morning, often between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., and they start classes by 8:00 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. Elementary students get the second bus run and may start classes around 9 a.m.

We know that this is done to “optimize the schedule” for cost, after-school activities (jobs, sports, etc.) and to reduce the overall number of buses required. All of these reasons are “internal” to the school board, with no real consideration for the customer, which in this case could be argued is the student. Do any of you remember sitting in calculus or physics class at 8:30 in the morning? It is well documented that children’s biometric “clocks” go through massive changes at puberty, where high school age children are up later in the day and really don’t function well before 9:00 a.m. or 10:00 a.m. Studies have shown that adjusting the start time for high school students to an hour later improves attention, attendance and overall learning and performance.

Another example is from health care. Think about the height of patient beds in most hospitals and clinics, and ask why the beds are so high off the ground. Again, this is for the practitioner to facilitate communication and attend the patient. Bed height, on the other hand, is a contributor to patient falls in hospitals. Dr. Samir Sinha at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto lowered bed heights as part of a larger acute-care strategy for seniors and found it facilitated far greater patient ambulation.

We need more attention on process design 

Society is spending more time and attention on product design, while focusing insufficient resources on the processes we interact with. People who design processes think about best cases or ignore the user experience altogether. Worse, in a situation Scott Berkun refers to as drive-by design, designers assume their design expertise trumps domain ignorance.

How can we improve the process focus in our firm? I suggest the following three steps:

Identify the customer. My readers will be familiar with my focus on the customer. Who is our customer and what do they want? When we are specific with who we serve, we enable an enhanced focus on aligning our services and processes for those customers.

Put someone in charge. Assign a cross-functional team, ideally with at least a few who are familiar with the process in question, and tackle challenged areas that are causing users grief.

Map the process. Identify the customer pain points, bottlenecks and constraints. These drive customers away or reduce your capacity and the number of customers you can serve effectively.

Ultimately, your people want to do a good job. Their work becomes so much easier when we align our processes to create value seamlessly, making it easy for the customer to do business with us.

Barry Cross is an assistant professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Operations Strategy at Smith School of Business. He is the bestselling author of Simple: Killing Complexity for a Lean and Agile Organization.