Why Some Solutions Scale, and Some Solutions Fail

By Meera Sampath

Meera Sampath
“Get people, processes and technology right, and you’ve got a solid foundation for consistent, profitable growth.” – Meera Sampath, vice president of Innovation & Business Transformation for Xerox.

As your company grows and changes, you will need hundreds of new or re-engineered processes, disciplines, solutions or even whole departments.

When the relevant stakeholders evaluate these new solutions and processes, it can be tempting to choose the solution that fits perfectly for today’s needs. But often that means picking solutions that don’t scale; that can’t keep up with inevitable growth and change; that start to fall down soon after launch and need replacing again.

At Xerox, we’ve designed and deployed new solutions and processes in a huge variety of organizations – large, small, public and private – and a wide range of industries and disciplines, including healthcare, transportation, customer service and commercial printing. We’ve seen what makes some solutions scale and others fail. The principles seem to apply everywhere.

And those principles all emerge from the interplay of three factors: People, Process and Technology.

1.   People

Solutions that scale successfully require everybody to be on board, from the C‑suite right down to the frontline. With big growth can come big challenges, so a shared vision and a sense of involvement is a must.

Scalable solutions mean clear roles and responsibilities, quick thinking and proactive decision making based on hard facts and insight. Communication both internally and externally should be clear and focused. Silos hamper growth, so they need to come down.

Continuous training of staff is key to the process, as the solutions grow and evolve. Nothing is more frustrating for staff and customers alike than outdated information or approaches. So knowledge should be shared with all your people, and made available to automated self-serve systems.

Closing the skills gap is crucial to success. As McKinsey puts it: “Making services scalable involves more than standardizing processes: Companies must ensure that their employees have the organizational capabilities necessary to carry out the tasks involved. Indeed, any suspected skill gaps should sound warning bells across the C‑suite.”

Vital to any solution that grows and improves over time is constant refinement based on feedback, which can be internal or external. And it shouldn’t be a reactive process: Feedback should be actively solicited from staff and customers, to help identify and eliminate their pain points.

Scalable solutions may mean more boots on the ground, but smart resourcing can minimize your exposure. Outsourcing your staff requirements gives you the flexibility and backup you need, while controlling your risk and reducing your overhead. In addition, tools that support accelerated learning ensure that outsourced staff are skilled-up fast, so quality never suffers as you scale.

In short, solutions that scale are solutions that bring people along with them.

2.   Processes

A solution is itself a process or set of inter-related processes. But not all processes are made to scale.

When you’re planning for scalability you need to design for tomorrow, not for today. In a world of change, processes can never stand still. So you need planning and structure, but also flexibility to respond to changes in the market, customer expectations or competitive landscape.

A rule of process design is that small inefficiencies get magnified and multiplied at large scales – sometimes to unsustainable levels. So rigorous process design at the test stages, with a keen eye for any extra steps, needles complications or built-in waste is essential.

Scalable solutions aim to make processes as friction-free as possible, and repeatable on a large scale. So you should document all processes in detail, learn from every interaction, and set up a feedback loop for constant change and improvement.

It’s always a good idea when scaling to plan for the best, but prepare for the worst. Analyze risk so you can reduce it. Anticipate problems and plan for them. Visualize best- and worst-case scenarios. Model spikes in demand.

Perhaps the most challenging thing to do is to learn to live with uncertainty. It’s human nature to want to eliminate it, but processes need to be fluid to cope with a changing environment.

However fluid they are, you need to ensure that scaling doesn’t affect business continuity. It can’t impede or slow down current operations. Build in redundancy and elegant failure.

Remember also that scaling can involve moving outside of national boundaries, so processes should be flexible enough to allow for multilingual support and localization.

3.   Technology

At a practical level, scalable solutions need to work as well for a thousand, a million, or 10 million users or interactions. So IT systems need to be stress-tested to cope with projected demand, and should have built-in redundancy to cope with system failure.

The best way to avoid failure is to fail constantly, much like Netflix does as it scales. They developed a ‘Chaos Monkey’ team to stress-test their system. “The Chaos Monkey’s job is to randomly kill instances and services within our architecture,” says the Netflix blog. “If we aren’t constantly testing our ability to succeed despite failure, then it isn’t likely to work when it matters most – in the event of an unexpected outage.”

As for infrastructure, computing power these days is virtually limitless, and storage cost has long since ceased to be an issue: One gigabyte cost $100 in 1995, $1 in 2005, and now costs just 10 cents. [Source: Matt Komo]. Cloud computing offers almost endless scalability and flexibility, without the need to over-provision.

When it comes to software solutions, is it better to go for something customized or off‑the‑shelf? It’s often a choice between proven and unproven systems, slower and faster deployment, flexibility and constraint.

The ideal balance is to have a best-of-breed solution with a proven track record and high levels of customizability. Systems need to scale both in departments, and across the company – and for that, those systems should ideally be joined up and have a common core.

Most large-scale solutions involve more than one application or database. So paying attention to integration is essential. In general, hard-coded integrations will be less flexible and scalable than abstracted layers that communicate through open APIs.

And because the data that supports large-scale solutions often comes from many sources, intelligent data management – including data cleansing, mastering and distribution – has become a critical success factor. Look underneath any successful large-scale solution and you’ll see professional data governance in place.

Self-serve systems may appear infinitely scalable, but automation is not a miracle solution if it’s depersonalized. It needs to match or exceed human interaction. That’s now possible in the era of big data and intelligent automation, allowing mass personalization.

Processing massive volumes of data in a consistent, repeatable way is key to scalability. So Medicaid payments and electronic tolling, for example, have high volumes but need to be super-accurate and reliable.

Scaling Up, Scaling Down

One of the biggest challenges is dealing with different types of scalability.

Linear scalability is easier. Year-on-year growth based on projections is predictable and budgetable.

Spikes are much more challenging. They could be seasonal (tax-return time, summer or Christmas) which are expected, but hard to predict. They could be promotional (new offers, products or services) or topical (a news story, PR, viral issues).

It’s a fine balance between readiness and over-provisioning of people or technology. The best solution is the most flexible one. For people, it’s an outsourced model with extra resource when you need it, either onshore or offshore. For technology, it’s also outsourced: a scalable solution based on public cloud computing and Everything-as-a-Service.

This ensures you remain flexible and agile, with no drop in quality or response time when there’s increased demand. And as importantly, it gives you the ability to scale back when you need to: when seasonal peaks end, or an economic downturn happens.

Scalable Solutions for the Challenges of Tomorrow

Scalability isn’t any one thing; it’s many things.

It involves talking a holistic view of business, the market and the customer. It means maintaining the agility and flexibility to seize opportunities and act fast.

It also means balancing control and uncertainty. Doing more with less, designing inefficiency out of the system and creating economies of scale. So you get the exponential growth without the exponential cost.

But that requires total alignment and complete clarity of vision.

And it always involves the three pillars of scalability: people, processes and technology. Get those right and you’ve got a solid foundation for consistent, profitable growth.

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  1. Keri little September 4, 2015 - Reply

    Very good read, your preaching to the converted here. The day I work for a company who have all three aligned, will be a good day indeed.

  2. […] L’article de Meera Sampath a été initialement publié sur le blog SimplifyWork. […]

  3. Stephen September 15, 2016 - Reply

    Interesting article, I think that you could make the case that the scalable people resources allow you to manage the bumps and the uncertainty, and to resolve issues related to efficiency. Then companies can also grow staff at lower risk, once the bumpiness/lumpiness is handled by resources that quickly onboard and offboard.

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