A Flowchart for the Queen
By Dominic Dayta
When she returned to her office, a rainy Monday morning late in August, after two whole months deployed on official business in New York, Adrienne Alcazar, vice president and head of the Corporate Quality Control division, was brimming with excitement. Humming off-tune to some indecipherable song, she handed her dripping umbrella to Pam, her executive assistant, and greeted her good morning in singsong.
Pam handed her a pile of sticky notes bearing messages accumulated since the morning, one of which was an alert from one of the executives that plans were being fulminated towards restructuring the company, but it scarcely diminished Alcazar's good mood. She gave each message no more than a cursory glance, then slipped them into one of the pockets on her suit. She continued into her office – hopping, Pam noted. She was so excited she hardly bothered to close the door behind her. Her assistant stood dumbfounded in her wake, eyes wide with growing terror.
At her desk, Pam roused her laptop from sleep and found the messaging app used by the office. On a group message where she and the rest of the employees on the floor communicated without visibility to Alcazar, she hastily typed her warning.
"We have a problem," she said.
The rest of the employees, knowing about Alcazar's return from her overseas deployment, already had an inkling of what may be ahead. Joan, manager in charge for data analytics, was quick to confirm the details: "How's the boss?"
"Excited," replied Pam. "Very excited."
"Was she humming?" seconded Isagani, manager-in-charge for customer care.
"This is going to be a problem."
The reason for everyone's alarm was that Alcazar returning from her deployments in such state meant she had attended another one of those corporate conferences which she so adored, and had come out of it with another of her 'big ideas'.
Sometimes those 'big ideas' were harmless, such as when she attended a Safe Workplace conference in Tokyo and on her return decided to dedicate an entire week to workplace safety appreciation, wherein all work was halted so that they could learn from paid speakers about workplace safety regulations and attempt, in cases both staged and surprise, the building's fire exits and earthquake protocols; sometimes they were also a little beneficial, as when she attended a Financial Management conference in Dubai and decided the following month to have a speaker from a local investing firm teach the office the basics of investing, whereupon everyone had a brokerage account opened for them with a minimal fee of two thousand pesos.
Every now and again, however, given exactly the right kind of conference, Alcazar would come home with an idea so wild, so ambitious in scope that it was almost admirable, and the entire office would be conscripted into a day, a week, in rare cases even a month, of activity that bordered on the Faustian, the Borgesian, the Kafkaesque. To this day, everyone in the office hired prior to 2012 still live through the traumas physical, emotional, and otherwise borne out of their ghost hunting activity in Baler, all due to an 'Inject Some Adrenaline To Team Buildings' talk some misguided bloke gave at a conference in Boston.
After half an hour getting her makeup retouched and returning a few missed calls, Alcazar was out of her office and directing everyone on the floor to stop all work and come into the meeting room immediately. There, she revealed to everyone her latest idea. She even had a PowerPoint prepared.
"I don't know if you agree," Alcazar began. "But I find that our processes here in our division to be quite inefficient. I ask for a report today, and I'll only get it at the end of the week. Sometimes it wouldn't even reach me at all. But when it does, it's so messy and incomprehensible."
Her managers in charge for division functions sat silently in the front row. Those behind in the lower ranks murmured various complaints for why they were experiencing such inefficiencies, all having to do with their managers. Photos included with the PowerPoint revealed the latest culprit seminar: a process excellence conference given in New York, where an unheard-of firm introduced an innovation that apparently was "shaking" the industry to its foundations.
"Today, our priority is to correct that," Alcazar continued, "and at the conference last week, I discovered exactly what we need."
Alcazar beamed. "Flowcharts," she said. "We're going to make flowcharts."
Granted, the idea was simple. The division handled a number of different processes in line with its mission and vision, which in turn was aligned to the company's mission and vision, from auditing supplier facilities to conducting trainings, documenting protocols to be followed down the corporate hierarchy, and assessing everyone's – including their own – compliance to such protocols. There were also the processes done internally, such as collecting and storing data, developing and calibrating tools, generating reports, and conducting internal trainings. What Alcazar wanted was to have each of these functions mapped out using flowcharts, highlighting process dependencies, required platforms, and lead times. She wanted to identify which steps were value-adding and which were non-value-adding, and she wanted risk assessment done for each step of the way. Then she wanted each process linked to assess hierarchy and complexity, starting with the Vice President's own processes (hers) and branching out from there.
What's more, she wanted it done on easel sheets, so that they could be posted on the bulletin board outside the meeting room for everyone to consult every day, so that they would be aware and could appreciate the value they gave to the company. "Each of us," she emphasised in her speech, "is a key player in the company's success, and it's important for us to remember that in order to stay motivated in our work. Knowing we're a part of something big – doesn't that motivate us more than salaries or awards?"
Her managers all nodded a resounding yes. Those in the lower ranks murmured that, actually, a little salary increase would not be unwelcome.
Finally, Pam came in carrying a year's worth of easel sheets and a big bucket of permanent markers. She dumped all of these in the table in front of everyone. Alcazar, more excited than ever now that they can carry out the vision which she'd been turning over since the long flight from the United States, took the first easel sheet and a marker from the bucket. "Alright," she said. "Let's begin."
The activity easily took the better part of the day. Charts were made, only to be later scrapped. Sometimes a process, upon being mapped out, turned out to actually be two processes together, so another easel sheet had to be brought in. Certain stages seemed to loop with each other endlessly, and managers fought tooth against tooth on how they got anything done at all in that state. They discovered that steps supposed to lead to step A actually branched out to step B instead, and that angered a number of people in high positions. When Alcazar came to inspect their work, she complained that the flowcharts lacked certain details, that certain independent steps had been combined, some omitted, and demanded they start over, this time making sure every step was specified in minute detail. The original stack of easel sheets ran out too soon and Pam had to dash to the nearest office supplies with her revolving fund to buy a new one.
When the flowcharts were done at last, it was time to connect them together. This proved to be a much more complicated activity than the first. Some flowcharts were not laid out properly on their easel sheets to connect with the others, so the makers had to revise them. When connecting one process to another, other intermediary steps, even intermediary processes at certain points, were discovered, and flowcharts had to be made for those as well. Sometimes, a process known to link from process B also happened to link to processes C and D, so someone had to make copies for that flowchart.
At the strike of five o'clock, Alcazar's flowchart was ready. But by that point it had gotten so large, so complex, that it extended out of the meeting room, into the office, over everyone's desk, in the pantry, and even into Alcazar's own office. They had designed a flowchart so detailed, it covered up the entire floor of Corporate Quality Division. On their way home, everyone had to crawl under the patchwork of taped-up easel sheets to reach the door, and on subsequent office days, everyone continued their work slumped under the flowcharts like little children in their blanket forts. Alcazar couldn't even marvel at the grandeur of her creation, for she too was underneath the flowchart, but from the traces she could make out on the easel sheet through the light of the florescent lamps on the ceilings, she could see the details on the flowchart they'd made, at least the section of it that was right on top of her, and thought that it was good.QLRS Vol. 18. No. 4 Oct 2019