Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 3;   January 20, 2016: Virtual Clutter: Part I

Virtual Clutter: Part I

by

With some Web searching, you can find abundant advice for decluttering your home or office. And people are even thinking about decluttering email inboxes. But the problem of clutter is far more widespread.
Clutter in the Leonardo Module of the International Space Station

Clutter in the Leonardo Module of the International Space Station. In the background, you can see Astronaut Don Pettit, who has published a detailed blog entry describing the processes that lead to this level of clutter. One lesson: focus on the immediate task at hand can lead to failure to restore the working environment to its requisite state when the task is completed. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

It's easy to estimate the cost of physical clutter at home or at work. Obvious costs include the cost of the items themselves, plus the cost of the space they occupy. Other costs include the effort required to find an item among all the clutter; cleaning, heating, and cooling; insurance; fire, flood, and other casualty losses; unnecessary purchases to replace what can't be found among the clutter, and on and on.

Most physical cost sources of home clutter have clear analogs at work. In the workplace, though, we have forms of clutter that have few clear analogs at home, because they're virtual, which makes them difficult to recognize. We rarely account for the burdens imposed by virtual clutter.

Here's Part I a short catalog of forms of virtual clutter, including brief discussions of the burdens they impose. Let's begin with the highest-level forms of virtual clutter.

Policies
Most organizations have collections of policies and procedures. Over time, these edicts accumulate virtual clutter: policies that no longer apply, or exceptions that are no longer needed. The virtual clutter can make it difficult for policy authors to notice internal contradictions, or to discern the gaps in coverage for new cases that have arisen since the policies were created or last revised.
Many organizational policy documents are now available on line. They're searchable, which makes them easier to use. Searchability also facilitates removing internal inconsistencies and updating the policies to remove virtual clutter. Excuses for virtual clutter in a searchable policy base are rather lame.
Strategic plans
Some strategic Some strategic plans contain
initiatives that cannot work if
funded at the low levels that the
organization can actually afford
plans contain initiatives that cannot work if funded at the low levels that the organization can actually afford. Underfunded initiatives yield too little benefit, too late to matter. They are virtual clutter. They defocus the strategic plan, and disrupt its coherence.
How such initiatives persist is a topic for another time. For now, let's just begin to recognize them as virtual clutter, and do what we can to end them as soon as practical. Until we address the root causes of their existence, we'll likely see more examples in future strategic plans.
Processes
Organizational processes tend to have interfaces to other processes. When we alter processes, we don't always review the processes with which they interact. Consequently, over time, some processes develop now-unnecessary baggage that was once intended to support the needs of other processes, or make up for their shortcomings. An example: requiring the approval of a manager who no longer has appropriate authority, or worse, requiring the approval of a representative of a department that no longer exists.
When processes change, review all processes with which they interact. When we reconfigure the enterprise, we must systematically review all processes that control the activities affected.

We'll continue next time, exploring virtual clutter at lower levels of the organization. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Clutter: Part II  Next Issue

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