Lessons on Process from 10 Downing Street

Kate Middleton and Prince William may be grabbing headlines around the world over their pending nuptials, there’s another Briton that has been sharing the limelight lately: Larry the Cat.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, whose responsibilities includes solving gaping fiscal deficits and dealing with fallen Middle East dictators, has more earthly problems when he gets home at night. The harbingers of bubonic plagues roam his halls.

Yes, a rat infestation at the official residence of the Prime Minister, 10 Downing Street, hit the headlines earlier this year when one of the rodents was spotted live on British newscasts. And the Prime Minister engaged the services of Larry the cat to fix the problem.

One needs to give full marks to David Cameron to have brought in Larry immediately after the vermin was spotted by the members of the fourth estate. The government took decisive action to deal with the problem swiftly. It even was even commended for adopting such a cheap, low effort, eco-friendly solution.

Mighty praise, indeed. But is it warranted?

Let’s look at the facts. Cats have been noted for centuries for their mouse-hunting ability. American cartoons like Tom and Jerry popularize the notion that the cat and mouse (we’ll include rats in this definition) are forever locked in a game of, well, "cat and mouse".

But how effective is a cat in comparison to pest-eradication specialists of the human persuasion? Put another way, when is the solution that seems obvious not really the obvious solution?

The statistics on feline mouse-eradication effectiveness is admittedly a little difficult to come by but what we can say is this: the cat will be unable to determine the root cause of the rat infestation and will simply deal with the symptoms of it. Further, the cat will presumably live for a great many more years – average life span of a cat is 15 years according to Wiki Answers – during which time it will need to be fed and have its veterinary bills paid. These are costs that would not come with the services of the average pest-control company.

Larry has already been accused of, well, napping on the job, with a particularly catty insider accusing the feline of having a distinct lack of the "killer instinct", according to a recent report on NBC News.

In such circumstances, how do we determine whether the cat has succeeded or not? Simply because we cannot "see" rats any longer? And what if Larry the cat gets sick? Do we bring another cat onto the payroll? And will Larry stay in residence permanently to be bequeathed to future residents of number 10? And if he leaves, how will the rat populations be kept in check?

Clearly there are a lot of unanswered questions here and the cost to benefit ratio of engaging Larry’s services becomes less compelling when you look at the bigger picture, which leads me to my next question. Are there any activities that can be done without a process?

In the example above, Larry will indeed be following some sort of process to catch mice:. Wake Up > Drink Milk > See Rat > Chase Rat > Kill Rat

Indeed, I believe that there is no work which cannot be done without processes. All work is process. If we wish to achieve an objective we need a well defined process. Larry’s methods, although periodically successful, would not fall into this category as they are neither repeatable nor measurable.

To define processes does not mean that all processes need to be documented. Any work that has become a habit need not be documented. However, when we design the work processes have to be an integral part of the design. In the example above 10 Downing Street thought to take the services of an unpaid civil-servant as Larry instead of thinking through a process framework and I believe that this is a mistake for many of the reasons I’ve outlined above.

However, what I realized that this event at 10 Downing Street provides lessons for practitioners keen on embedding process thinking in offices and businesses around the world.

So what are the key takeaways?

  • All work is process. An integral part of work design is delineating a well-defined process to accomplish the task. Perhaps Downing Street could have avoided enlisting the help of Larry the cat if a well defined process had prevented the rat infestation in the first place.
  • Designing a process is just not about putting a few steps together. It is about best known method of doing a task that has been developed with buy-in of all stakeholders. Today when technology provides large number of solutions to get rid of rodents I wonder why the dimension of innovative thinking/solutions was not looked into?
  • Even if there are processes they need to be improved continually or else they could degenerate over a period of time.
  • Create a culture to unfurl problems and abnormalities. Don’t shove them under the carpet to fester for future. Whenever a problem is seen take actions.
  • All processes need to have metrics / outcomes which should tell us how they are performing. How is the performance of pest-control being measured?
  • All processes have to have owners (preferably not of the feline version) and the outcomes of process have to be linked to the performance management system of teams. Who was ultimately responsible for ensuring that the Prime Minister’s residence was rat free?
  • For successful execution of processes it is important to manage the hand-offs between the various functional silos.
  • Problems are just symptoms . We need to get into hidden root causes. Getting Larry is just addressing the symptoms and someone should be looking at the systemic issues that made this happen.

In the meantime, I wish David Cameron and Larry well and hope that Larry’s record on rat-catching is better than I predict.