“Work arounds are evil,” seethes Andy Carlino, co-founder of the Lean Learning Center, as he works with a team to map a very tangled, complex and strangled process to take orders for custom equipment at a large successful manufacturer. He works with the people involved in the process like an investigator attempting to identify a thief invading a neighborhood. Step by step, the actual process unfolds, post it by post it, articulating the amount of resource energy that goes into a system that must be improved to continue to provide excellence and innovation at a pace customers expect.

A work around is a method to accomplish an activity when the usual process is not working.  We see work arounds every day. In operations processes, the symptoms of workarounds are usually visible. They are the reset button that is pushed instead of repair downtime.  They are rework, extra tools, work in process, and materials inventories held to prevent a predictable issue.

In business processes work arounds are not as easy to see.  They slip in quietly, disguised as long hours for salaried personnel, multiple communications with people, many reviews and revisions, late and/or defective deliveries to the customer.  Work arounds generate stress from the brute force required to get the process to work. Capacity of these systems is low and resource hours high. The workarounds in business systems thrive in silos going undetected until the end of the process when actual costs are higher than the P&L can afford or the customer is delayed. Many times someone in finance will ask why headcount is high in departments supporting business processes with many work arounds.  To be clear, people will recognize that the process needs work but rarely do they detect the complex work arounds in place. The workarounds have become the current accepted way work is done. The “MacGyver’s” who find ways to work the system are often recognized and valued, but they usually don’t improve the system at the root cause. Capital planning, sales and operations planning, new product launch processes, and materials planning are examples of business systems that can bog down with workarounds.

A process with many workarounds

A process with many workarounds

What can be done about it? The first step is to understand the current process beginning to end through the eyes of the product. How many steps of review and rework are present? How much time does the product wait for action?  How does information flow through the process? How many hand offs are embedded in the process? How many connections occur?  What is the cycle time? How does it compare to delivery commitments to the customer? Quantify time and costs. Once the current state is defined it is easier to define targets and causes for gaps between the current process and the target.  Be sure to use a Plan-Do-Check-Act based process to solve the problems you surface.

What are some of the typical causes of workarounds in business processes?

Fishbone Work Arounds


There are many potential causes for workarounds in business processes. The fish bone diagram represents some causes identified by teams while working on process improvement.  Causes and their impact need to be validated with direct observation and data.

Some solutions used to clean up processes and eliminate workarounds are noted below.  This is not prescriptive – you need to go through your process to understand what to do about your specific opportunity.

  • Keep a data table to track costs, cycle time, and capacity in the current state baseline. When an improvement is made, track actual results compared to expected results.  The data will build momentum and credibility.
  • Understand what the customer expects as early as possible. Include the external customer (right product on time at specification) as well as the business customers (expected cash flow and profit).
  • Simplify the flow of information from the customer through the system. Have one clearly defined way to get and give information.  As an example, use one shared drive folder rather than share drive and hard copy folders.
  • Develop quality gates at critical points through the process. Identify specifications that need to be in place at each point. Don’t pass defects forward. Have a process to make exceptions visible and learn from them.
  • Identify a process owner who is accountable for the health of the improved process. The process owner may have a scoreboard for tracking the key indicators of the process and problem solving initiatives arising as people experience wastes or barriers.  Structured team huddles will create a common view of the process performance, problems, and priorities.
  • Recognize the importance of identifying the situations that result in the potential for workarounds. Once the business risk is defined and contained, problem solving the process at the root cause will provide you with a stronger, more effective process than before.

No Work Arounds