Managing By Exception

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When the Process is Bad

Early in my management career, I had the opportunity to build and manage a team whose sole purpose was to deal with failure in the organization’s business processes. Saying that may sound a little harsh, so let me put some context around it to temper my statement. The company I worked for was a competitive local telecom. At a very high level, the company’s business model was built around selling local telephone services to business who were already served by one of the massive incumbent local telephone companies. The sales team worked to convince potential customers to switch their local telephone services to our network for cost savings, better service, and enhanced features.

In ideal situations, the sales pitch would land with the right stakeholders who saw the value in moving their services. Then, the fun work would begin. To simplify, the organization built a provisioning process that was supposed to account for all the moving parts. Old lines were disconnected, new lines were installed, appropriate feature sets deployed, new billing established, etc. In reality, the provisioning process was almost never smooth. In fact, the provisioning process often had upfront delays so extreme that many customers cancelled their contracts before formal provisioning ever began. For customers where the provisioning process formally started, it was rarely smooth. More than half of customers had at least a minor issue during the transition. If that wasn’t concerning enough, nearly a third of customer provisioning had issues so significant, the customer transition had to be considered a failure. That failure either resulted in rework, credits, or customer cancellations. Simply stated, the entire customer provisioning process was horribly flawed.

A bandage or surgery?

It was clear to the senior management team in the organization that the provisioning process was a nightmare. It needed to be addressed, and it needed to be addressed quickly. It needed to be fixed, and it needed to be fixed immediately. But fixing the process was a challenge that would prove nearly impossible. There were too many systems, too many people, too many workflows involved in the process. The end-to-end provisioning process was a behemoth and the organization was plagued with no meaningful metrics around process activities. Fixing the process would require careful analysis and planning over the long-term. So the question was asked, is there anything we can do in the near-term? My response was simple – we could deal with the exceptions.

Dealing with exceptions is hardly ever an elegant solution when there are deep underlying problems. Although it wasn’t an elegant solution, it was a near-term solution that was promising. I was commissioned to stand up a small team of subject matter experts. We were given the authority to break whatever rules we had to in order to take the exceptions – those things that fell out of or failed within the provisioning process – and do whatever was required to get the customers on the network.

Identify Exceptions and Improving Process

With the team established, it was clear that we needed to understand what would trigger our activity in some tangible way. We analyzed many failures and to identify common areas where things would go awry in the process. We needed an understanding of the process end-to-end. We ended up with a better mapping of the provisioning process than the stakeholders who initially contributed to its design. Along the way, we identified the common failure points and established triggering criteria. When the right criteria was met, our team would get involved right away and do whatever was necessary to get the customer on our network. When we retained a customer that we would have otherwise lost in provisioning, we deemed it a customer save. Our success was business success.

It was true that our work often required clean-up. For example, there were things that “fell out” of the normal provisioning process that we needed to deal with after the fact. Customer records and billing would often have to be addressed after-the-fact. But this was small in comparison to the bigger issues related to customer provisioning.

But one thing about our team was bothersome to the senior management. Even though we could clearly show a significant contribution to revenue through customer saves, the entire team was completely unnecessary if the provisioning process worked correctly. And now, because of our efforts to address the exceptions, we had the right data to begin to address the underlying issues.

Taking Action

I wish I could tell a story about how the data we gathered from our efforts was used to streamline and correct all the issues in customer provisioning. Unfortunately, our story was different. We were sitting on a market bubble in the telecom industry. Reports emerged about hostile sales tactics, falsified contracts, and corporate malfeasance. These reports weren’t all related to our company, but they rang throughout the industry.

The data and information was there to fix those underlying issues. But, we never acted beyond a handful of simple and easy improvements. I’ve often wondered how much we could have addressed the provisioning process given the chance. What I do know, is that I’ve used this experience to help drive real improvement in other organizations. How? By looking at the exceptions to the process, analyzing them, and determining how they should be dealt with in the right structure.


If I had to do it again, would I have taken the same approach I did all those years ago? I might have modified my approach in a few areas, but that’s what the organization needed then. Time and effort spent analyzing exceptions can provide great benefit to your underlying processes.  

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