Last week, life offered me a wonderful lesson in organizational design, which I am going to share.

I saw how a notary in a small Russian town organizes her work. In Russia, notaries do not merely administer oaths and notarize documents. They are trained legal professionals who often get involved in real estate and property matters, services that, while being routine and mostly straight-forward, make the notary’s work very valuable indeed.

Let me describe how this particular notary runs her business.

The reception is teeming with people. There is a queue, but unless you poke your head into the office where the notary’s three helpers reside, you probably won’t get served. The helpers concern themselves with typing, copying, fetching stuff and other like light duties. They don’t do any other work and aren’t allowed to say much.

The notary, a rotund woman in her 60’s with a lot of presence, does almost all the work. She tells the helpers what to type and what to copy, evaluates documents, proofreads, takes payments, writes receipts and so on. While serving several customers at once, she also takes and makes phone calls on matters not necessarily related to the immediate work. There is a lot of face time with the customer but this is clearly where the bottleneck is.

It takes forever (3 hours, in my estimation) to get the first client served. The process is inefficient, confusing and taxing on everyone involved.

Now imagine that you are charged with transforming this small business. What would you do?

If your mind works along the process lines, you will probably think about better queue management, prescreening of applications by a member of staff (a law student would do fine job), extensive templating, delegation of all admin duties, and other measures positioned to alleviate the existing bottleneck.

I am certain that these and other like steps will improve the throughput, but is this what the notary will want? Is this in her best interest?

You see, there are other factors involved here besides the operational efficiency:

  •  The onerous process makes the clients believe that the work is more complex and therefor more valuable than it realy is. A client develops a sense of gratitude and indebtedness.
  • To empower someone to make decisions on her behalf (prescreening), the notary will lose a significant portion of her expert power.
  • The extensive face time with the client allows the notary to evaluate the usefulness of the client, which is so much more valuable than the fee received for her services. What connections does this person have? What services can be obtained from him or her? In the society where one’s success is contingent on who you know and given that she operates in a small town, this is worth a lot to her.
  • Paperwork and receivables are not always transparent, which means that it would be highly undesirable to delegate the seemingly menial cash and receipts duties.

Do you see what is going on here? Too often, organizational transformation is initiated with a one-sided view of the issue. It is tempting to take an engineering approach and build a beautiful process, but it just won’t work at all here. Having the broader take on the issue, understanding the culture and the environment leads to better recommendations, better decisions and better outcomes.

I don’t approve the Russian notary’s way of doing business, but I certainly thank her for the wonderful example.

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