Reengineering: The Missing Links

By Leonard, Russell L., Jr. | Human Resource Planning, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Reengineering: The Missing Links


Leonard, Russell L., Jr., Human Resource Planning


Perhaps the most often heard buzzword in management circles today is "Reengineering." Since Hammer and Champy's seminal work, Reengineering the Corporation (Hammer and Champy, 1993), a huge number of "how to do it" books and articles have appeared. Reengineering is the latest in a number of revolutionary approaches to management having been preceded by "Total Quality Management" and "Just-In-Time." A fairly predictable cycle to such "revolutionary ideas" can be identified. First, someone comes up with an idea, invents a buzzword or two, and persuades a publisher to publish the idea. Next, some desperate company offers a testimonial to how their bacon was saved by utilizing the new technique. Other companies jump on the bandwagon and the "guru" leaves his or her position, establishes a consulting firm, and becomes rich. Ultimately, alarm bells begin to sound and someone else publishes a report that documents that the new technique is a fraud. Reports of other failures emerge and the idea fades into history to be replaced by the next fad.

The purpose of this article is to review some of the recent studies that represent alarm bells for reengineering. However, the main thrust is to suggest that the failures of reengineering are not the result of fundamental flaws in the basic idea; rather they are a result of failure to adequately address the human component - the men and women who must live in the reengineered organizations and actually make them work. The article suggests a four-phased approach to addressing the human side of reengineering, the "Missing Links," which when adequately addressed will help ensure that the reengineering effort does not end up on the trash pile of management fads but can, in fact, deliver on the promises claimed for it by such proponents as Hammer and Champy.

In 1994 (The Economist) a review of the re-engineering efforts to date concluded that over 85% of such projects have failed. Two major reasons for these failures, the review concluded, are that they fail to consider the impact of reengineering on other systems within the organization - reengineering is typically done in a vacuum often focusing only on the information systems area, and that reengineering neglects to deal adequately with the human resources who ultimately determine whether the reengineering works or not. Senior management does not always support the effort and fails to articulate a clear vision of what the reengineered company is supposed to be and do. In the absence of clear vision, fear and turf protection become the main drivers of behavior as people worry that their skills will not be utilized in the new organization or that they will lose their jobs. Indeed, reengineering often translates into wholesale staff cuts without a thorough understanding of the specific business actions that are needed to increase profits and without a focused plan for action. The horrific effects of typical reengineering efforts on the morale and motivation of the survivors are often overlooked as well. The review concluded by stating that companies are putting themselves through an enormous amount of pain for little or no gain.

Other writers have sounded a similar theme. Indeed, Champy has recently released a follow-up to the original work entitled, Reengineering Management (Champy, 1995). This work analyzes reengineering failures as due to the lack of management understanding and commitment to the reengineering effort. While these are certainly contributing factors, the real reasons that many efforts at rethinking organizational processes fail is much more complex and involves looking at the organization as a living system where action directed at any one part has an effect on all of the other components as well. Wellins and Rick (1995) reviewed the recent literature on reengineering and concluded that many such initiatives fail because they have concentrated on processes and ignored the people who make them work. Reengineering efforts often fail to consider whether the culture of the organization and its supporting systems - communications, training, selection, compensation, and performance appraisal are aligned to allow people to achieve the quality and increased customer satisfaction that are so desperately needed. …

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