September 19, 2021

Management by Exception: The Key to Flexible Workflows

Winston Churchill once said that “plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” No matter how concrete plans may seem, something will inevitably go wrong. Creating a sound game plan for your workflows is vital, but you can’t predict every uncertainty. Managers and team leaders who create workflows with this advice in mind stand a good chance of weathering unforeseen storms.

Creating protocols for the unpredictable can help you meet your goals even when plans fall through. Project managers and team leaders can establish a flexible and secure workflow process through a strategy known as management by exception (MBE). MBE is traditionally used in accounting or finance departments, but project managers have much to gain when pairing MBE with their workflows.

What Is Management by Exception (MBE)?

Management by exception is a management style in which team members handle trivial issues while more serious problems are escalated to a manager or team leader. Managers step in when unexpected events happen, and junior staff continues to execute their normal responsibilities. In short, this strategy acknowledges operational breakdowns will eventually happen but provides a predetermined safety net for when they do.

Think of a stereotypical micromanager who gives every minor snafu more attention than it deserves. Team members are given little autonomy, and management becomes distracted. There is no trust between management and their team members, and productivity quickly bottlenecks.

Management by exception completely reverses this scenario. Team members retain more responsibility and discretion while managers focus on important tasks until a considerable challenge, or exception, arises.

What Are Exceptions and How Are They Handled?

Exceptions are defined as any irregular deviation from a planned process or workflow. These unexpected challenges can occur internally or externally.

Once MBE has been folded into a workflow, teams and managers should be able to identify any possible exception they may encounter. Once team members can consistently recognize exceptions, they can be appropriately singled out and handed off to a manager. Managers will then intervene through a process known as exception handling.

Consider how exception handling might occur for a customer support team. Reps will handle any challenges surrounding the user experience, billing, shipping, returns, or general FAQs. Managers will only step in when a client or customer requests to speak with a manager or has a high chance of churning.

The exception handling structure enables team members to work confidently and without confusion. When they’re not handling exceptions, managers can prioritize more important duties that impact the whole team.

Benefits of Structuring Workflows Around MBE

Management by exception enables team members, managers, and workflows to remain flexible when exceptions or deviations occur. This adaptability is especially helpful as teams naturally grow and change over time.

Better Team communication and Performance

Indecision and bottlenecks occur when the delegation of responsibility isn’t clear. Management by exception alleviates this confusion by establishing a consistent escalation protocol. When unexpected challenges pop up, your team won’t waste time deciding who should handle them and why. And when there are no exceptions to deal with, managers can prioritize high-level initiatives while junior staff handles smaller tasks.

Faster Problem-Solving

When teams identify anomalies over time, they build a deeper understanding of their workflows. If they see the same exceptions repeatedly, team members may decide to recognize it as a norm and adjust their escalation process.

After developing this familiarity with the same types of exceptions, reps and managers become more seasoned at neutralizing problems. Tracking common patterns increases the chances of eradicating repeat deviations altogether. This consistent exception handling strategy can translate to smarter team members, faster response times, and a more efficient workflow.

More Trust and Professional Development

Autonomy and a sense of responsibility can go a long way in terms of team morale. When managers allow their subordinates to perform their duties without constantly standing over their shoulders, they’ll feel trusted and empowered. This sense of ownership often encourages employees to innovate and enhance performance. After handling exceptions over time, relationships will grow stronger between managers and team members.

How to Apply MBE to Your Workflow

Management by exception can fit into any team’s process or workflow. Follow these steps to help you and your team understand what designates exceptions or deviations. If you read our article about process improvement methodologies, some of these steps will look familiar.

Identify Workflow Goals

Your first priority is to decide how you want your workflow to change and improve. An easy way to start is to think about the most common problems your team faces. At what point in the workflow do these problems appear? How long do they take to solve? Are they caused internally or externally? Who on the team is regularly solving these problems? Using the answers to these questions to identify a goal would resolve this problem.

Once you have an outcome in mind, you can set a benchmark metric that will gauge whether you’re meeting your objective. A customer support team might use average resolution time to assess whether they’re achieving their goal: to decrease resolution time by 50%. Keep your benchmark metric handy as you’ll use it throughout the MBE process to identify exceptions.

Monitor Performance and Find Exceptions

After establishing how you want your workflow to improve, you can now start management by exception. Anything that detracts you from reaching your goals can be classified as an exception or deviation.

Let’s return to the customer support goal of decreasing average resolution time by half. After several weeks of monitoring the key metric—average resolution time—you notice a handful of events that deviate from your set outcome. In other words, these situations make it difficult to decrease resolution time because the issues are frequent or complex.

  • Some customers are getting billed twice: This leaves customer support in a tight position and also makes your company seem untrustworthy and incompetent. Helping customers get their funds back is a huge hit to resolution time.
  • Your product’s mobile app is on the slow side: Any time your team members need to help a customer with the app, they’ll also have to suffer the long load times. Another strike against your resolution time goal.
  • There are considerably more email tickets than calls: In contrast to phone calls, the back-and-forth of emails can significantly delay resolution time.

Now that you’ve discovered the exceptions, you can start organizing them.

Classify Exceptions for Delegation

Which exceptions are best suited for managers and which ones can team members take on? You may decide that your team can handle mobile app issues, but situations in which clients have been accidentally billed twice should be immediately escalated to management.

Whether a team member or a manager handles an exception should point back to the goal—resolution time. If a team member has the experience and bandwidth to handle an exception, they should probably take on the issue. If a manager can neutralize the problem in half the time, it should be escalated.

Create Team Protocols

Once you’ve developed a hierarchy of exceptions and deviations, you can create escalation protocols for your team members. Now all of your team members know that as soon as a customer is billed twice, the situation is escalated to management. They don’t have to worry about the pressure of solving the problem, and they can keep resolving less complex issues.

As the manager, you’re now free to focus on high-level responsibilities when you’re not handling exceptions. Perhaps you now have time to work with the engineering team to optimize the mobile app.

Keep in mind this MBE strategy isn’t set in stone. New and different exceptions could be on the horizon, so continue tracking your metrics from the first step to detect improvements or setbacks.

Automate Your Workflow with BrightReps

Understanding how to optimize your workflow is largely dependent on a consistent library of data and analytics. To incorporate MBE into your workflow, you’ll need to track benchmark metrics. After collecting data about the performance of your workflow, you can begin to discover exceptions and brainstorm how to handle them.

Automation can provide much insight and quality of life upgrades for teams incorporating MBE into their workflows. BrightReps’s solutions can help you and your team optimize your workflow by saving time on manual tasks and pinpointing deviations that are hampering your goals.

After implementing management by exception, you can design your team’s new workflow with our drag-and-drop, no-code workflow builder. Anyone on your team can collect feedback in real time and use that to continually keep your workflow updated and ready for the next challenge.

If you have any questions or would like a demo, we’re here to help! 

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