VAT taxes, tribal knowledge, and clarity


Passing through Frankfurt Airport, you'll notice dozens of travelers lining up at the VAT tax refund window clutching credit card receipts and official forms. They talk for a moment to the two staffers, look confused and frustrated, and then shuffle resignedly down a dingy corridor to an even dingier office about 50 yards away. They pull out their receipts and forms again so they can get an official stamp from a customs agent. Then they haul their bags back to the original VAT refund window. This is how you're supposed to get your tax refund at the airport: first you go to the customs office for some sort of official stamp, and then you go to the VAT refund window. The process confuses everyone -- not because it's complex, but because it's opaque.

Given that no one gets it right, you'd think that there'd be some guidance for the uninitiated. Travelers don't enjoy dragging their luggage back and forth through the airport and waiting on line at the tax refund window twice. Presumably the people in the VAT refund office don't enjoy telling passengers over and over and over again that they have to go to the customs office first. By my count, this system produces at least four of Ohno's seven wastes: transportation, motion, waiting, and defects.

All of which got me thinking: how transparent are your processes? Sure, you've got voicemail trees help your customers navigate to the right department, but what about your employees? Do they know how to do all the tasks that are expected of them? Or do they rely upon tribal knowledge -- undocumented techniques, tricks, and procedures to get their jobs done? How much waste does that create?

I'm working with a company that is taking this problem seriously. According to their own customer service staff, it takes about 6-9 months to become fully facile with the various databases they need to use. Think about that: nine months until they're fully able to address all their customers' needs, even with the standard user's manual new employees get. So now the customer service team holds semi-monthly meetings to share, teach, and document the hidden shortcuts and techniques that the experienced people use when they do their work. They're creating a robust body of knowledge that captures their tribal knowledge and institutionalizes it -- and they're shortening the time it takes to get up to speed.

My guess is that you're probably in a similar situation -- and not just with your software. You likely have myriad processes that have undocumented workarounds, shortcuts, and tricks. Navigating those processes is as difficult for your people as navigating the VAT tax refund process is for travelers. And that creates an enormous amount of waste.

The Outstanding Organization, a new book by my colleague Karen Martin, extolls the value of clarity for a company. Clarity has many dimensions (clarity of purpose, clarity of values, clarity of thinking, etc.), but one of the most important is clarity of process. (Check out her webinar on this topic.) When employees don't know how things operate, it's impossible for them to perform efficiently.

Next time you're walking around your company, ask some people how much of what they know is in their heads, and how much is actually documented. If there's a discrepancy, you can be sure that at least some of the time your team looks like the folks at the Frankfurt VAT tax refund office. And that's not a pretty sight.

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