The Curse of Standardization

Everybody likes standardized ways of working. There is comfort in saying:

– We do this as a standard practice

– Our processes are standardized

– We have a standard template for this

Go on, say it out loud. I guarantee you will feel very accomplished.

So, if you are running a group operation overseeing 10, 20 or 30 odd countries, it makes you feel even greater, when you send out a template for guiding a standardized way of doing RA in the countries that your company operates in. This may even conveniently ignore the nuances of the processes, systems and people in each of the end markets. Spare no effort, make sure the Excel worksheet is color-coded and extremely complex. At specific cells, include scary formulae (STDEV, IFERROR, FACTDOUBLE, MULTINOMIAL and MINVERSE) in order to strike fear in the guys who are filling in the returns at end month.  Well, who stops to ask whether we need to standardize everything? I do not have the figures (ahem, Big 4, take cue and do a study on this) but some leakages are detected because people thought a little more outside of the confines of the formal activity universe of RA. Even in human history, it is the people who conformed the least that we remember the most.

Granted, we may not really want to allow RA to run in a cow-boy fashion entirely. Neither are we are  outlaws but the group office sheriffs who keep asking for compliance to templates also have the tendency to keep pontificating and talking down at the  end market staff with little regard for insights from the man who has his hands on the plough. These turn-coats (some who were once working at end-markets) will one day breed a very mean contingent of rogue RA practitioners who will go on to begin an underground movement that makes talkRA gadfly Eric look like a saint. The end-market plough-holders might break loose and unleash untold misery on the Group office bureaucrats who insist on Excel worksheets being completed in a certain manner. And how will they do that? By quantifying the amount of leakage identified through adherence to the template and the amount of leakage that is identified through responsible use of leeway, creativity and imagination. Heck, these miscreants may even show the success that they have achieved by outright disobedience to the communicated templates! The figures may surprise us.

Standardizing and templates are good for Group office arm-chair RA types, but sometimes not so good for the guy in the trenches who is forced to fill 1000 checklists. Should he spend this time identifying and driving the plugging of leakages or doing paperwork? After all is said (at group) and done at (end market), are we better off or worse off? And so it happens that rather than control flights of fancy, standardization becomes a burden. RA departments then start spending time shuffling between this and that template and justifying why this and that task was not done. In a sense, this was always going to happen. Human beings have the tendency to take something good and proceed to mangle and twist and smother it until it becomes a problem. To my simplistic mind, it is due to this very tendency that we found a way to convert plants which would be innocently growing in their natural habitat into a global narcotics problem.

I say forget these blanket standardized templates and the whole flurry of make-believe governance that goes with them. Forget these impressive-on-paper but meager-delivery standard RA coverage maps that we have all become so fond of. Reduce the toll they take on the real RA worker. At most, provide a common core of very generic controls that might apply on every market and make sure that the execution of the same can reasonably and adequately be done within 40% of the (wo)mandays that RA has. Even with these suggested minimalist generic controls that are informative as opposed to being mandatory, let the end market determine which ones are necessary. Then, let 60% of the RA time be spent on customized approaches to areas of greatest need that the guys on the frontline determine to warrant attention. After all, when the music stops, these are the people who are left with no chairs and if they can clearly rationalize why effort was applied to certain areas as opposed to others, shouldn’t they have adequate leeway then?

If we invested less in issuing  and driving compliance to standard RA templates and more in knowledge share and critiques across countries, operators and vendors, I suspect what would happen is that the RA work-environment would balance itself through infusion of the best ideas, the most optimum practices, the most relevant controls and comparison of outcomes. Natural selection will ultimately leave us with only what we need by dropping what we do not need.  We would achieve standardization of approaches while still allowing healthy self-expression. In a sense, an accidental standardization may check in. I don’t know where such an eventuality would leave the group-office bureaucrats but hey, I like that better.

Disclosure:  I would like to point out that as much as I work at a group office. I am not guilty of the ills I have pointed out here.

Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu is a consultant who specializes in revenue assurance. He was previously an internal audit manager with responsibility that covered Airtel Africa's 17 countries, where he led reviews of the Revenue Assurance, Customer Service and Sales & Marketing functions. Prior to his stint at Airtel, he was an RA manager at Safaricom in Kenya. He holds an MSc Degree in Information Systems.

In addition to looking for better ways to do revenue assurance, Joseph spends his spare time finding new ways of eating the hole in the doughnut.
  • Joseph,

    Thanks for this fine analysis of the dangers of standardization. It was a pleasure to read. The subject also reminds me of a famous line by George Bernard Shaw:

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    Revenue assurance needs unreasonable men and women who break the rules to further the investigation. Standardized templates and management forms, as you point out, are a crude tool of group telecoms for managing something that can’t easily be controlled, namely remote operations where the RA team works half-a-continent or half-a-world away from the home office.

    And you point to a larger issue as well. If the RA people at the satellite sites are not skilled and can’t think outside-the-box RA analysts, generic templates and management forms aren’t going to be effective anyway.

    I have no antidote to your issue. But we often hear stories about how difficult it is to manage IT development, say between teams in Europe and India. Many companies have tried and failed to make that work, but the few that have might be have some great lessons to tell.

    One other tack is mentoring. I had an interesting discussion with PwC on mentoring which sounds like a powerful way to transmit the lessons and practices of great RA analysts and managers.

    Your line about Saint Eric drew a chuckle. My vote for patron saint of RA warriors goes to Saint Thomas of Canterbury, alias Thomas Becket. As you’ll recall, he was murdered in a Cathedral for breaking the King’s rules.

  • Nixon Wampamba

    Joseph, you are a true RA leader, keep it up and never let anyone make you live thier dream.

  • Joseph Nderitu

    @Dan Many thanks for the kind words. I especially like your point on mentoring, which is an art which we have all heard of but very few of us practise it. In my view, the true mentor is as much a teacher as a learner because true mentorship assumes exchange. Mentoring is active, sending templates is passive. Is it any wonder that many are choosing the easy way out?

    @Nixon I have deep respect people like you because I know how hard it is to steer RA. Those of you who excel at it have only done so by sheer resilience and I hope you shall keep doing what you do. The people at the frontlines are making tough calls everyday.