This week, I visited a manufacturer of electronics components that believes that process design and key performance indicators (KPI) are the key to its business success. In parallel, Harvard Business Review just asked me to write a blog entry for its website on the role of co-creation in customer experience. This led me to reflect on what comes first in business design: the process or the experience?
Most companies have been trained to think that processes are what matters most for corporate success, and that good processes generate good customer experience. In this view, process clearly comes first, and a good customer experience is the result. By contrast, co-creation starts with the broad experience of two of more people (customers and employees) and invites them to develop new processes or interactions between them that will result in new experiences for both. In co-creation, the human experience comes before the process (or the interaction).
Back to my visit of the semiconductor manufacturer: I first thought the large wall displays were integrated circuit designs with red and green coloring, but I was told they were actually “trees of KPIs.” I think I saw a KPI tree in their bathroom urging me to do my business effectively. I asked one of the executives whether KPIs were always defined by management in top-down fashion, or an operator on a particular line or in an office could instead define her own “bottom-up” KPI. His answer: “Oh yes, we discuss those things all the time.” Upon pressing, he conceded that what could be discussed was the way to meet the top-down target, not the definition of the KPI itself from the vantage point of the operator.
In a subsequent private discussion with another executive at the same company, he started exhibiting some impatience. “What do you propose?” he asked. “That we ask every employee whether they like the goal we give them? This is not a popularity contest. We have to hit cost and volume targets.” I pointed out that my goal was the same as his, but the way to get there might be different. “I believe the best way to uncover new, innovative ways of lowering the cost of your operation or increasing throughput might be to tap into the individual experience of your operators and let them define new interactions between them – maybe between equipment manufacturers, suppliers, or your management team. You need a combination of a top-down and bottom-up process.” He clearly thought this was the most absurd thing he’d ever heard.
The notion that the personal quest of a fabrication line operator for a self-interested, better experience of work might provide the most direct line to a productivity improvement for the plant was so foreign to him that he could not even conceive of the connection. He could only think of my suggestion as a gratuitous expedition into an experiential la-la land and a demagogical bridge to nowhere. I pointed out to him that it is a sad place where business goals and aspirations to experiential well-being are structurally incompatible. “The business world is not a happy place,” he told me, as we parted.
At the risk of veering toward “angelism,” as French people call it, I believe there is something inherently good about placing the human experience at the center of business design. Human experience is rich, varied, and unbounded, while processes are made of blue steel. Who wants to live in a business world of cold rationality? Experience before process, please.