Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Process Flow

What do these three questions have in common? – Why was APJ Abdul Kalam frisked at New Delhi airport by the staff of an American airline company? Why was Shah Rukh Khan singled out for a ‘secondary interrogation’ and put through a finger print and retina scan at an American airport? And why was Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrested from his Harvard home?
There is one answer to all these questions – process flow.
The men who executed these acts are likely to be entry level officials who were thoroughly following the procedure given to them. They were not being deliberately malicious. They were just doing their duty. They are probably actively discouraged from thinking about the process. And they are forbidden from making any changes in the process-flow. Their job is to follow the process, not create it. We can hardly target a Sgt. Crowley or any of those anonymous airport workers for being racist, prejudiced or paranoid.
We should, however, question the processes that instruct these people to behave in the ways they have. We should haul up the creators of these processes. We should criticize the lawmakers who let these unintelligent processes take over serious issues such as a country’s security. We should condemn all acts that push these problems under the carpet, methods like ‘beer diplomacy’. Ironically, it is being celebrated! The problems within the processes of the police force of the world’s most powerful nation cannot be settled over a few mugs of beer and small talk. Sgt. Crowley will maintain that he was doing his duty, and rightly so. For that was what he was doing. If we overlook the fact that lack of deference towards the uniform bothered Sgt. Crowley so much that he arrested a man who showed a valid ID card to prove that he had more of a right to be in that house than Sgt. Crowley did. Well, if the entire government mechanism of the US, including its President is ready to overlook this fact, should we be bothering?
Yes, we should. But for the moment, let us also overlook that slight human emotion that got into Sgt. Crowley’s uniform-clad person. Let us focus on the fact that this policeman reported to a place where someone broke into a home. Being a good policeman he has to go through the checklist set in the procedure given to him. He does that. Mr. Gates, being a scholar of African-American studies reacts as any person obsessed with race issues would. A regular check done by a policeman quickly snowballs into an issue of such gigantic proportions that we see two sides of the world’s most powerful man. As a knee-jerk reaction, he is as astonished at the process as any average citizen of a liberal democracy should be. He is quickly reminded that he is not an average citizen but is the citizen who is responsible for the validity of these unintelligent processes. He retracts with speed. Stylishly sharing a few mugs of beer with the dramatis personae and his deputy on the lawns of his official residence, he indicates that the policeman was doing his duty. He validates a process that had astonished him. The policeman is vindicated. He got to have beer with the president of his country for having stuck to his checklist, if not his guns. That is a big pat on his back for following the process. And the police force in America, now knows, there could be a good incentive in scrupulously following the process.
Similarly, the staff of Continental Airlines and Newark Airport will be appreciated for doing their duty, without letting human elements like thought, courtesy and diplomacy disturbing the process flow. They might actually be penalized if they are caught overlooking the process flow. They will not make compromises in the process for anyone, when they know that changing the process flow might lead to punishment. They will proudly declare that their senators and a former vice-president of the country have had to go through special checks at their airports. They do not see anything wrong with the process. Sadly, their lawmakers also do not see that deifying process is turning it into a Frankenstein’s monster. It is targeting as indiscriminately as any unthinking but powerful monster will.
A process cannot think for itself. And the people who are supposed to think for it have declared it their superior. They cannot recall it without admitting serious system failures. An acceptance of failure will raise an expectation of repair. Instead of admitting failure and promising repairs, they will let faulty processes go out of control. Moreover, they would like everyone to join them in calling their processes fool-proof. They will pour beer over the chinks in the process, as had happened in the Harvard incident. What kind of fool-proof process lets a policeman expect deference for his uniform but will not allow an African-American scholar to react sensitively to being subjected to a police interrogation for forcing open the door to his residence? There is an obvious imbalance in this process. If there is scope for human error in a process, as this one has, is it fool-proof?
It isn’t. And there are two ways to correct this. Either work real hard to make all processes fool-proof or encourage people to use processes intelligently. Show them that processes are frameworks that should guide instances of action. That every action need not have an analogy in the process-flow chart. That every instance that does not fit in a slot in a process flow chart needs to be subjected to more processes.
The process flow chart should be a grammar book not a compendium of every possible sentence in a language!