The Joy of Corporate Tidying Up

It’s a guilty secret of mine that when I get a bit stressed, I spend time at the weekend clearing out kitchen cupboards. It’s really cathartic. So the rise of Marie Kondo isn’t a big surprise to me. It’s just made it less shameful to admit to my closet, closet cleaning habit.

What it’s also done is lead me to reflect on how service design tends to spark its own form of tidying up joy.

I’ve long used the analogy of corporate services being like a composter. Every years someone comes along and lays down a new load of process, a new tech platform, regulatory programme or operating model, only for someone else to come along a few years later and do it again. Not only that, but each department is a bit like a different part of the garden, shedding its own wheelbarrow of clippings into the composter. And over time it all adds up, to the point where you can’t see the layers any more. No-one can see the logic. It’s just a mish-mash of stuff. Which is why service design is a research discipline at heart, and one of its favourite tools is “the 5 whys”, because by the fifth time of asking “why is it done like this?” people eventually shrug their shoulders and admit, “I don’t know.”

Which is where Marie Kondo comes in. Service Design is at heart a tidying up job. You talk to the business about the service and why it runs the way it does, and you talk to customers about what they really want from the service.

Then, when you’ve worked out what value customers really want, the first job is to cut away all the ‘excess value’. I say ‘excess value’ because no-one in an organisation believes their job has anything to do with waste. The problem is usually that the definition of what the customer values has become very loose and flabby.

But here comes the fun bit. Once you have a team of people joined up around a clear definition of value for the customer (a ‘value hypothesis’, in our language, based on some solid customer research), then it’s a wonderful thing to see the joy in their faces as they strip away all the unnecessary steps, words, pictures, excess and guff that suddenly so obviously is just getting in the way of the customer realising that value. It’s very similar to decluttering that cupboard on a Sunday. Cathartic, calming, empowering.

But beware. My wife has a tendency to come in halfway and grab things from the bin saying they remain essential for something she still plans to make ‘someday’. People will cling onto their own sense of value in the face of the important job of corporate decluttering.

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