There is a business reality show on cable network CNBC called “The Profit”. It follows Camping World CEO and entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, as he invests in small struggling businesses, leverages their strengths and assets, and turns them into successful, scalable operations. Well, quite often he turns them into successful, scalable businesses; if the ego of the original owner doesn’t torpedo the effort and flush the attempt down the drain. I don’t normally watch reality television, and largely believe that there is little reality associated with the genre. However, I like this show, and respect the grander vision that Lemonis demonstrates across a variety of concepts and industries.

The cornerstone of the Lemonis philosophy is the “Three P’s”; People, Process and Product. The prevailing notion of this concept is that without all three firmly defined and of the highest caliber, any business effort will struggle and potentially fail. 

I’ve thought a lot about the importance of process since this past weekend, when I wrote the article published Monday on the United Airlines “customer re-accommodation” fiasco (At United, it Wasn’t the Beating. It was the Self Inflicted Wounds). Certainly, United Airlines has “processes” in place. In fact, it could be argued they find themselves in the mess they are in because they followed those exact processes. They rely heavily on the fine print of their “Contract of Carriage”, and appear to expect their customers to understand and meekly accept when they cannot perform their agreed upon service as originally expected.

Clearly it is a process that has significant flaws. And they are making some changes. Just this past weekend they announced that “no more customers will be forcibly removed from their seats” (think about that for a moment, and let that sink in). Any “must fly” crew members must now secure a flight 60 minutes before departure. The previous process allowed them to secure seats right up to the point of departure, when the paying passengers were already greased up and stacked tightly into their comfy 17 inches of contracted paradise, prepared for the promised departure.

I would note, however, that this change in process won’t necessarily earn the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The airline will still have the right to bump passengers and deny them access to a seat they thought they had; it’s just that it will happen in the relative comfort of the gate area – and hopefully no one will lose any teeth.

I actually get the need to overbook some flights; and I understand that sometimes customers may not get a seat. It is just that I believe a better “process” would be one that respects and recognizes the inconvenience and frustration those actions can cause.

That is a lesson we in workers’ comp should also take seriously. Our processes can also lead to delays and frustration.

Poor process is not the eminent domain of our industry or the domestic airlines. Corporate America is rife with systems and practices that are not optimal for the enterprises they serve. There is a reason the Dilbert comic series resonates so strongly in this country. We as a nation provide ample fodder to keep the daily strip running strongly. The problem is exacerbated when the process becomes gospel; sacrosanct among the people who execute it. That is when the culture of an operation becomes most at risk of going askew. The corporate culture that was recently reflected by the employees at United Airlines was a great example of this. 

That man refusing to leave his seat was violating their process, dammit, and that was an unforgivable sin.

None of this happens overnight, and at times what I call “process creep” is silent and insidious. I recall years ago, one of my associates asked me a question after a particularly difficult request from a customer. This employee was a good person, and had been with us since the very beginning of the company. His question, however, caught me off guard. He asked, “Bob, just how far backwards are we supposed to bend for these people?”. My response simply was, “You mean the people who sign our paychecks?” My point was pretty clear. However, if we had made the exception, and refused an accommodation request because it didn’t fit into our normal scope of services, it would have established a defacto standard and potential slippery slope that could have been counter to the best interests of my company. Process creep can start with the smallest of seemingly insignificant events.

So, while we are talking process, let’s talk about workers’ compensation. Are we a process driven industry? How often do we get upset when an injured worker or employer simply refuses to understand our processes? Do the outcomes we see suffer at the expense of our procedures and policies? Does the “process” sometimes strangle opportunities for success? Are the delays we see in treatment and resolution unavoidable, or just an inherent part of our process?

Has process overtaken outcome as the primary driver in the treatment and administration of injured workers’ claims?

And, most importantly, recognizing that process in claims management will likely never be smooth as glass, can we at least 1) recognize the inconvenience these injury situations create for families and employers, and 2) sympathize with injured workers and employers who just don’t understand the process?

I’ve been heavily engaged in the “National Conversation” on workers’ comp that has been going on this past year. Much of our discussions boil down to the processes that produce the issues we have been concerned with. Some state regulatory agencies often have requirements that serve their own specific needs, and not necessarily that of the constituents in comp. Insurance carriers can be overwhelmed with process protocol, to the point that divisions must negotiate with one another internally to accomplish projects and move forward on objectives. The insurance industry, after all, was the one that invented fine print – before the airlines adopted and mastered it themselves.

Proper process is critical to success, but if your process sucks, everything could be out the window. The same could be said if the mandated (regulatory) process you must follow is subpar or inefficient.

Lemonis’ emphasis on process is obviously intended on making sure the right process is in place. But we could all benefit from remembering that the presence of “a process” does not necessarily mean it is the right one for the job. As a regulatory driven industry, we seem to struggle with this dilemma endlessly. I’ve said it before; the best reform effort state legislatures could provide would start with defining proper outcomes, and working back from that point.

The rest is up to us. The best process for companies managing workers’ injuries are those that will produce the best outcome. Short term, or short focus methods, concerned solely with the bottom line, are costing us more in the long run. 

The process for improving process can be a grueling process; beginning with the questions, “What do want as the final result?” and “Why do we do it this way?”

Many of us were very quick to criticize the recent customer incident at United Airlines. Theirs is a process that cannot continue to operate in the age of social media and instant communication. When you think about it, some of the processes in our industry are no less rigid, and can easily suffer the same criticisms. True, unlike United’s incident our process doesn’t cause the initial injuries, but can we honestly say we do not exacerbate or worsen them in some situations? We need to remember, when we are pointing at the airline industry, the old adage that four fingers are pointing back at us may be very true.

Lemonis is correct. Process is critical to the end result. We just need to work and make sure it is the right process for the job.

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