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Are You the Efficient Middleman?

January 31, 2014 | By John Donlon

This is the first of a series of blog posts, where SiriusDecisions analyst John Donlon explains some of the not-so-obvious gotchas that hold back real process improvement, what you can do to avoid them, and how to emerge as a process hero. The topic of this article is the Fallacy of the Efficient Middleman.

In this, the first of a series of blog posts on the topic, I’ll clue you into some of the not-so-obvious gotchas that hold back real process improvement, what you can do to avoid them, and how to emerge as a process hero. Today’s lesson: The Fallacy of the Efficient Middleman.

The Situation: “Don’t tell me I’m not efficient – I’m constantly thinking about how I can streamline my team’s activities.”

Ah, the false sense of satisfaction. I once knew a marketing operations leader who had simplified her company’s list-pull process so well that she cut in half the time it took to do the pulls and had made it so easy that anyone on her team could perform them. “We are ROCKING IT in that area of service!” she thought.

What didn’t occur to her was that, thanks to her improvements, the demand managers she serviced could just as easily have done the list pulls themselves. As it turns out (I’ll spare you the math), that’s a much more efficient solution for the whole system.

Here are some hero moves you can use to sidestep that sort of trap:

  • Examine one of your team’s activities, but also zoom out to get a sense of the larger process across all the teams involved. Are all the steps really necessary, or have some been grandfathered in as “the way we’ve always done things”? How can you better organize the work? Identify the steps that add value in the eyes of the end customer (internal or external), and cut out the ones that don’t.
  • In deciding whether a task should be centralized (i.e. employ a middleman) or decentralized, consider the degree of specialization required and how frequently someone would need to perform this work. If there’s a big learning curve, and it’s something someone would do once a year (think tax preparation), sure, use a full-time specialist. If the opposite is true, though, push the task out to the team to be handled individually. This can be a cultural hurdle, to be sure, but don’t listen to any whining about people having to take on “admin” work that distracts them from their “real” work. In unicorn-and-rainbow land, I’d love to have someone else write all my emails so I could do thinkier stuff, but there’s a reason we did away with typing pools. Handoffs are bad!
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    Finally, put aside any fears that you’ll be optimizing yourself out of a job. In my experience, the people who point out – and execute – ways the company can save money are the ones the company wants to keep around. Be a process hero, and don’t make any apologies for it.

    So there you have it – don’t shy away from your streamlining instincts; just be sure you’re taking the larger view so that you don’t settle for Efficient Middleman status.

    Up Next: “It’s not my job to fix it…”

    John Donlon

    John Donlon is a Senior Research Director for Marketing Operations at SiriusDecisions. A recognized thought leader in marketing operations, he has over 20 years of experience in information technology, process improvement, and measurement and reporting. Follow John on Twitter at @SiriusJD.

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