Are Workarounds an Excuse to Accept Bad Process Design?

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Workarounds can lead to dramatic process inefficiencies when the temporary fix becomes standard practice.

Are Workarounds an Excuse to Accept Bad Process Design?
Credit: KREUS / Shutterstock © 2018

Our University Process Innovation (UPI) team at the University of Maryland, College Park has done countless process assessments, and almost every process we have examined has had one thing in common: workarounds. Despite extremely different subjects, breadths, and complexities, each project's existing processes were littered with these supposedly temporary solutions.

This situation prompted some questions:

  • Are workarounds a good or bad thing?
  • What can they tell us about a process?
  • What can we learn from them?

In our examination of these questions, we came up with some interesting answers.

The Nature of Workarounds

The term workaround — which means to work around a problem, issue, or roadblock — often carries a negative connotation. Workarounds are typically used in conjunction with technology, but when we take a deeper look, we see that they actually impact business processes that may not relate to technology at all.

Many workarounds circumvent a problem or issue by taking steps to avoid rather than address it. When you need results quickly, the path you take — and the issues you encounter along the way — are not as important as getting to those results. Thus, while a workaround is beneficial to attaining a solution, it masks issues and can create messy processes. Workarounds can also quickly go from being a temporary fix for an emerging problem to being the unofficial new business process.

Given the nature of business, we often need to find new solutions to get results quickly, without having the resources or time needed to fully address the related challenges. Directions such as Just figure it out or I don't care how you do it, just get it done often result in creative solutions; these typically entail one or more workarounds focused only on completing the task with the immediately available resources.

The Detour Example

An example of a classic workaround is a road detour — that is, an alternative route we use when the standard direct route to our destination is unavailable due to construction or other obstacles. Road detours might involve a few extra turns and a longer drive than the original path, but we will eventually get where we want to go.

In a detour, the problem (say, road construction) is clearly identified and the workaround (the detour) is clearly marked and will be in place until the construction is complete. Although the detour is inefficient relative to the original route, it is understood to be a means to an end. It was anticipated, is temporary, and ultimately exists to fix an issue — that is, it was not simply created to avoid dealing with the problem but rather to facilitate the solution. Completion of the construction should bring a streamlined path (solution), and thus the workaround, which was a necessary step in creating a better process, will no longer be needed.

As the following examples show, however, many workplace workarounds are less intentional than road detours, and few are implemented as a temporary process aimed at ultimately facilitating a better way of doing things.

Examples of Problematic Workarounds

At the University of Maryland, our UPI team has uncovered numerous workarounds when analyzing various processes across campus. Following are two examples that show how well-intentioned workarounds can bury the original issue and result in dramatic process inefficiencies.

Document Tracking Workaround

One problematic workaround we found concerned physical documents that were being routed to various offices around campus for signatures, where they would sometimes get buried on someone's desk. The original problem was tracking those documents as they moved from office to office to avoid having documents get lost in the shuffle.

The workaround was that the document would be routed back to a central location after each signature for a check-in before moving to the next office. The tracking system there included the date and location of each document as it moved. So, someone who needed to know where a document was would simply call the central office, where someone there would check the tracking system and confidently convey the document's location.

As you can imagine, this workaround was not ideal for the overall process. The additional step in the process after every signature caused days of delay to the process, which was already time-sensitive. Further, the workaround gave the central office several new tasks: manually tracking the documents, moving them to the next location, and answering questions about document whereabouts. No one asked at any point why the documents needed so many signatures, and no one researched the use of digital signatures instead. The project team was asked to reduce the number of lost documents waiting for signatures, and the new routing workaround was the solution.

This workaround was implemented and remained in place for more than a year until the overall process went through a process improvement effort. That effort identified the workaround as insular and as adversely affecting other processes. The underlying issue was that the documents were taking too long to be processed, and the initial assumption was that this was because they were getting lost in the routing. However, once the big picture was assessed, it became clear that the documents did not need nearly as many signatures as previously assumed and that they could be digitally signed. A new solution was quickly implemented, saving both weeks of time on document processing and countless staff hours on routing and tracking documents.

Manual Invoicing Workaround

Another workaround we found was in a financial processing area, where accounts and invoices were manually created, but their use was unclear. When we asked various stakeholders why these accounts and invoices were created or what they were used for, we initially had problems obtaining a clear answer, other than the fact that it had always been done that way.

Finally, after much digging, we found that the financial processing system required an invoice number for every transaction. To comply with that requirement, accounts and invoices were created for every deposit. This tedious, multistep process worked well when there were very few of these transactions, but it became calcified over time, and as demand increased, more people were hired to keep up with this nonscalable process.

The real issue here — that the system required an invoice number and some transactions did not have one — was buried over time. In fact, as we explored these processes and the history behind them, we discovered that they were the result of a workaround that had been neglected for more than 20 years.

After our process assessment brought this to light, we outlined a relatively simple fix. Had the original issue been properly addressed in a timely manner, it could have saved thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, because the workaround masked the real problem, it remained in existence for decades.

How Process Improvement Assessments Can Help

As these examples show, workplace workarounds are often shortsighted, quick fixes for identified issues in existing processes. If the workaround is uncomplicated and facilitates task completion, it may become the new way of doing business. This can lead to significant losses in productivity and missed opportunities to improve data, information, and workload as the real problem is diminished (and sometimes neglected altogether). Finally, just as road detours impact surrounding traffic patterns and lead to congestion and slowdowns on other routes, workarounds can negatively affect other parts of the overall process.

For these reasons, it is important to identify workarounds and their triggers and establish a path to fix issues so that workarounds have an end date and processes can be optimized. In our experience, process improvement efforts are a great way to uncover workarounds because the analysis forces us to answer the question "Why?" in addition to "How?"

When learning a process, most people ask how it is done. In contrast, when analyzing a process, the questions focus on why it is done in particular ways. Assessments also look at end-to-end processes and their relationships and interactions with other processes. This helps identify root causes rather than only the symptoms of problems.

Further, when processes are examined by outside parties who are not ingrained in the existing way of doing things, it is often easier for them to see the inefficiencies. By questioning the existing processes and procedures, these outside stakeholders can often identify workarounds — along with the originating issues that sparked their creation — to recommend improvements to the related processes accordingly.

The Role and Limits of Workarounds

Although our lives are filled with known workarounds, many more exist that we don't think of as such, and these are often the most important ones to identify. To do that, it's helpful to establish a process-review cycle, as well as to always document workarounds and develop a plan to fix the trigger for each one. When possible, you should bring in a process improvement team to do an unbiased review of long-existing processes and to search for areas for improvement within them.

Finally, remember that a workaround is simply a temporary fix and should be implemented only to facilitate forward progress while the problems or issues that triggered it are being addressed. Workarounds are useful, and we will always need them in business. However, if road detours were left in place indefinitely, the result would be greater congestion in our roadways; similarly, workarounds that become standard processes in business can create serious inefficiencies and many lost opportunities.

Kristine Maphis is a Senior Process Consultant with University Process Innovation in the Division of Information Technology at the University of Maryland.

© 2018 Kristine Maphis. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.