Process or people? What matters more in your work culture?


I recently returned home from a trip to Japan for work.

One thing that struck me about being in Japan was how much some of the little things, that we often ignore in the US, really matter. Let me give you an example.

Building relationships VS efficiency? Where do you stand?|Jo Ilfeld| Executive Leadership Coaching and ConsultingMy husband and I were walking along an outdoor market in Kyoto when he saw this nice-looking fruit. He decided he wanted an apple, which ended up being the equivalent of about $1.50. Once he bought the apple, the owner of the store was eagerly trying to find a place for him to sit so he could eat it. Because it turns out people don’t walk and eat food in Japan. That’s a no-no. The owner was also taking my husband’s apple to be washed and he was racing around to find a knife and then to wash this knife, just so that my husband could cut the apple to eat it.

When my husband didn’t want to take the time to sit down, he raced around again to polish the apple and put it delicately into a bag to take with us.

As we left this market stall, I first thought, “Wow! That’s a lot of effort for a $1.50 sale. That’s really not efficient. How can you make a living, if this is how much time you spend on each sale?” Then my second thought was about how much value there is in valuing your customers and valuing the process of service delivery.

I think what can get lost in the desire for maximum efficiency, is both politeness and some of the relationships that get formed through dealing with people personally, and not just in the most efficient ways possible.

This is why I’m often recommending to my clients that instead of sending that email, maybe this is a face-to-face conversation. Or instead of Slack messaging someone about a product feature disagreement, perhaps this is worth picking up the phone to talk to them directly. So while I do value these things in my work, and for my clients, I observed that my mind also went immediately to the questions of “Is this efficient? Is this a good way to run your business?”

What was interesting to me in Japan was how many things were part of everyday polite interactions and part of a process, showing people respect in your behavior and communications with them, rather than taking the least amount of time to interact together. My hunch is, like in many things, there’s a happy medium that exists.

There is a way that you need more respect and human-ness in your corporate cultures; you need to take the time to show people that your relationships really matter to you. And yet there can be a point where the process gets in the way, not just of efficiency, but really, of effectiveness.

If there’s too much process, you start to feel like things are bureaucratic, and your company isn’t really adapting to new situations. And what we know today about dealing in VUCA environments (VUCA = volatility, uncertainty, complexity, AAAAA) is that you need to be flexible to thrive as things get much more complex.

The two questions you should be asking yourself every day in your work environments are these:

  • Am I adding enough value to this relationship and showing enough respect and care for the processes that allow us to do our work together?
  • How can I create additional ways to work with people that are adaptable and flexible when they need to be so that we can work effectively together even when we hit surprises or unforeseen roadblocks?

Now I’d love to hear from you. Which side do you tend to focus on between flexibility and process, or between building relationships and efficiency? Let me know in the comments below!

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

Leave a Comment