Profile: The Original Business Process Optimizer

Issues that efficiency experts wrestled with decades ago -- chiefly inertia, in the form of internal resistance to people and process changes -- still vex business process optimizers today.

You might call 99-year-old Margaret Bergmann the original business process optimization specialist, although she herself seems fine with that most hated of terms: "efficiency expert." That's what they used to call her, after all.

In a career that stretched over several decades and involved stints with Western Union, Diebold (then known as a purveyor of both safes and innovative filing solutions), the former Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Bergmann's expertise has been efficiency. In her work with Diebold, where she developed filing and organizational strategies to complement that company's rotary and visible file system offerings, Bergmann focused on the "hard" problem of making organizations -- and their then-paramount manual filing activities -- as efficient as possible. In her work with MIT, she devised a novel filing system to support a complex engineering research effort -- and was then tapped by the state of Massachusetts to bring order to the chaos of its Department of Civil Engineers.

That she accomplished all that she did in two professions -- business and outside consulting -- which were then completely dominated by men is both remarkable and inspiring. She is, by her own admission, a "tough old bird."

What's remarkable and not exactly inspiring is that some of the same issues Bergmann wrestled with some four to five decades ago -- chiefly inertia, in the form of organization-wide resistance to people and process changes -- still exist today. "The most frustrating thing about it," Bergmann says, "was that sometimes within days of your leaving, things would start to slip back to the way they were. You'd come in and you'd work with them [the internal employees] and show them the basics of your system, you'd show them how and why it was better, and by the time you left, things were operating smoothly. You'd no sooner leave, however, than they would start to backslide."

In any attempt to drive lasting change across an organization, skeptics always emphasize the likelihood of people and process bugaboos.

There's a reason for that. If any one thing can sabotage the best laid plans of business process efficiency experts, it's the tedious intractability of people, particularly when it comes to safeguarding the processes they know and take for granted -- and which give them purpose, primacy, and power.

"There are always going to be some [people] who would be endangering their positions if they went along [with a reorganization]," Bergmann points out.

Behavior of that kind is sometimes called "petty-fiefdom-ing." It seems to be about as prevalent today as it was 40 or 50 years ago. It's something that Bergmann says she struggled with throughout her career.

"You have to study it [the existing organizational structure] and think about how any changes are going to personally affect people. Sometimes a lot of it has to do with the culture of a place. If the culture itself is resistant to change, you're really going to have difficulties," she suggests.

Bergmann, for her part, has had an opportunity to study many cultures over the years. It was during her stint with MIT, for example, that she managed to transform a situation of normative chaos into a model of order. In the late 1950s, Massachusetts governor Foster Furcolo, for whom Bergmann had once worked, tapped her to devise a filing system to house the records for the Massachusetts Department of Civil Engineers.

"Governor Furcolo … knew I had devised a filing system for a very complex engineering file in connection with the research they were doing [at MIT], so he selected me to help put the Department of Civil Engineers records in order," she explains. Once Bergmann got down to brass tacks, however, she found a complete absence of order. "Nobody was keeping records! They were throwing them in a pile. If you needed one, you went through the pile. It was a very simple, a very obvious [reorganizational] approach."

The MIT project was an example of intervention in a green-field environment. There wasn't really an existing system -- only the absence of a system -- so Bergmann had little trouble introducing her own. It wasn't always that easy. Some cultures, Bergmann says -- particularly more established ones -- proved to be incredibly resistant to tinkering from outside.

"Interestingly enough, each organization attracts to it people of the same mind. Those who believe in the system understand what you're doing and adhere as best they can. Other people don't understand what you're doing and they don't find anything better than their own system," she explains. "It's a personality deal, and I don't know how you'll ever completely get around this. You speak to one man and he instantly sees what you're talking about. You can speak to another for 100 years and he still doesn't understand it. It has a great deal to do with personality. That's one of the biggest problems."

Bergmann cites the example of another client project -- in a more established environment -- where she felt the dominant culture was stacked more palpably against her. She was on site, conducting an information session about the new process, when things came to a head. One step involved the use of a standard paper cutter to crop folders down to a more manageable size. As she was demonstrating the use of the paper cutter to a group of employees -- all of whom were women -- her demo suddenly went very, very awry.

"I had some big forms that I had to chop down to put them in a standard file drawer. The women [i.e., the employees of the client company] wouldn't touch the paper cutter because they didn't trust it," she explains.

At the very moment Bergmann was exhorting the women, downplaying the danger posed by the use of the paper cutter, her assistant -- a woman named Ella -- suffered a most unfortunate contretemps: "When Ella went to demonstrate the use of the paper cutter, she accidentally cut off her finger! She went to the hospital in New York and they had to sew it back on for her." Needless to say, Bergmann's revamped filing process got off to a rough start in that organization.

In this case and others, Bergmann says, one of the most important lessons she learned was to listen -- authentically and sympathetically -- to the concerns of entrenched stakeholders. Sometimes the mere act of listening -- or of not dismissing concerns out of hand -- can gain converts, she points out. "Listen:listen. Try to incorporate what you can. Don't completely reject what they're saying," she urges.

Bergmann gives relatively short shrift to the difficulties she encountered as a woman in a field traditionally dominated by men. This is in spite of having to endure demonstrable harassment. In the course of her work with Peat Marwick Mitchell, for example, Bergmann determined that PMM could cut at least two positions, thanks largely to process improvements stemming from the use of her filing system. She reported her findings to her male liaison, “a tough old manager,” she says, who then maneuvered to put her in a tough spot.

"I came over [to Peat Marwick Mitchell] when I was at Diebold, because we had sold them a package that included the revision of their files and a different system of filing things away. I was there about two years, I guess, and at the end of that time, I recommended that they needed two fewer people than they had. So the manager turned the tables on me and said, 'Okay, which two should I fire?'"

The problem, as Bergmann tells it, was that there were two very obvious candidates. "There were these two very elderly people working there, and they were the obvious choices, but I wouldn't tell him whom to fire. We argued back and forth, and I told him that [deciding whom to fire] was his responsibility as manager. When he continued to challenge me, I couldn't help it: I broke down and cried, and then he said, 'That's women in business for you. They cry.'"

For the most part, however, Bergmann insists that her gender wasn't much of a handicap in her profession. "I don't think it ever hurt," she laughs. "I don't think it was ever a drawback. All I had to do was butter 'em up!"

Margaret Bergmann still thinks about efficiency and process optimization. She can't help it. Recently, she took a lead role in helping to catalog the video library at The Osborn, the retirement community in Rye, New York, where she now lives. The project wasn't all that Bergmann might have wished: she came in during an ongoing project and wasn't entirely happy with its filing scheme. Its original designers had settled upon the use of color codes to catalog films: e.g., red for comedy, navy blue for drama, black for documentaries, and so on.

It's a neat idea, Bergmann says, but it also has a few potential drawbacks. First people don't always see the same shades of colors. They might be colorblind, or they might have slightly impaired vision, or they might simply (and understandably) fail to distinguish between navy blue and black. Second, and nearly as importantly, the proposed system doesn't take into account genre-bending films -- such as comedy dramas, mock documentaries, or other hard-to-pigeonhole works. Her response was characteristic.

"I couldn't change the system. I couldn't change what they had already done, because [the project] was already too deeply committed. So when I came [on board], I simply continued with [the project], trying to work within the established system," she comments.

"You learn to work in each situation with what you've got. There are some things that you just won't be able to change, so you've got to adjust and accommodate and make your contributions where you can. There are different kinds of minds in this world. Some are very orderly and organized, some aren't, and there's not much you can do about it."