Thursday, February 11, 2016

Of Moving Houses

Efficiency is one thing I admire about Singapore and its people. I’ve seen it everywhere: at the hospital, at the train, at school and at work. I imagine rows of desks documenting processes and procedures for a whole lot of scenarios and possibilities.

At work, we have a term for clients who are overly bureaucratic — we’d say they’re huge on processes. Well-defined processes are good but can sometimes be stifling. Experience teaches us that efficiency doesn’t always mean effectiveness. I keep coming back to a project we did a few years ago as an example. The client, a huge bank, had outsourced its IT operations to one of the Big Boys. The Big Boys were huge on processes and often used bureaucracy to their advantage but to the detriment of the project. A job that could be done in 15 minutes took 65 hours just because the process gave them the leeway of one to three days to take action on a request.

On that same project, where about seven vendors were collaborating, it was the Big Boys who refused to lift a finger if something was not explicitly stated in their Scope of Work (SOW) even though the rest of the team was trying to find a solution and were willing to go the extra mile, and even if the client was actually prepared to pay extra if necessary. Instead of welcoming the possibility of more business, the Big Boys were constantly slamming the door at the face of the client.

I have another example of how processes can sometimes cause anxiety to the ones meant to benefit from them, especially if the big picture is not clear to the everyone involved. Say you’re moving houses and need to update the address on your NRIC (National Registration Identity Card). To make the example more specific, say you’re moving from Pasir Ris to Sengkang. You surmise that the best way to go about the address change in your NRIC is to head to the Sengkang Neighborhood Police Center. There you meet Ramjoo, a policeman who’s attentive enough to ask you what you need. After stating your case, he asks you to hand him all the necessary supporting documents. He takes a look at the ICs and goes over the tenancy agreement. After flipping the pages a few times, he asks you where the list of occupants is, which he says is supposed to be part of the tenancy agreement. You realize you don’t have it and quickly apologize. Ramjoo tells you he can only update the IC of your husband because only his name is mentioned in the document. You try to plead your case by politely explaining that you’re a family and gently pointing out the same surnames in your IC as proof of that, but it’s not good enough for Ramjoo, who’s already shaking his head. You try to explain that it’s only logical that a husband, wife and an only child would live together under a single roof, but are quickly met with more unrelenting, dismissive shaking of the head. Never mind that you brought along your passports, marriage certificate and your son’s birth certificate. What’s not written explicitly in the process manual can’t be considered. You finally realize the futility of the situation and simply agree with the alternative.

As Ramjoo explains what will happen, you argue with yourself about the validity of your logic. You convince yourself that there is indeed the slight possibility that a family of three would live in separate houses, no matter how unlikely that sounded. Then you begin to think that maybe it’s a problem with the heart, that people are maybe trained to follow processes, not to be considerate or to excel in customer service. Maybe that’s why Ramjoo isn’t very accommodating. Maybe that’s why Ramjoo doesn’t waste any second trying to flash a smile. And then suddenly, the word service triggers something in your head — maybe the police motto is To Protect and To Serve, in that strict order. But then, a quick few glances here and there shows you exactly what you need — you read that the mission of the police is to uphold the law, maintain order and keep the peace. After a few more minutes of rumination, you successfully convince yourself that whatever transpired was probably best for your own protection, that Ramjoo’s job is not to make you happy but to protect the citizens and residents of the state.

You say to yourself that it’s not a very bad day after all as you walk out of the police center and into the outside world under the bright blue sky where all hope is certainly not lost.

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