Industry Interview: The Importance of Establishing A Process - Part 1
Archimedes C&C is excited to present an interview with Mr. Brian K. Pierce, an established engineering leader and designer with more than 30 years of experience leading design hardware engineering teams. With an extensive portfolio in engineering management, mechanical engineering and product design developed and honed throughout his career at companies including Boeing, Garmin, Cognex, and others, Mr. Pierce’s ability to excel in the highly complex and dynamic product development arena is rooted in his systems level approach to engage stakeholders in defining requirements and collaborating on solutions.
Mr. Pierce’s expertise includes expertise in the engineering science of design-for-manufacturabilty, which requires an extensive understanding of the importance of having well-defined business processes. As a progressive and engaging leader, Mr. Pierce values idea-building and problem solving as essential steps to developing business-oriented design solutions, and appreciates the impact well-defined processes make to the bottom line.
Archimedes C&C invited Mr. Pierce for an interview to offer his opinions and insights regarding the value of business process design because we are receiving increasing questions from current and potential customers regarding the value of investing time and money into formally defining business processes. While Archimedes C&C staff has extensive experience in business process design and re-engineering with a focus on coaching our customers to develop the skills needed to support process design and improvement over the life of their business, Mr. Pierce offers a pragmatic viewpoint based on his extensive experience.
Q1: Welcome, Mr. Pierce. Thank you for joining us for this interview. We greatly appreciate your time and value the experience you share with us today. Archimedes C&C is receiving more questions from people interested in understanding the value of formally defining processes. Many of our conversations start by trying to guide them in understanding what a process is. From your experience, how would you define a "process", and why should it be something business owners consider as a normal part of their business operations?
Thank you for having me. ‘Why Process?’ is a good question, and one I hear a lot. “Process” is a term frequently thrown about in business, not always with a positive connotation. Processes are natural components to life, defined or not. Getting out of bed in the morning is a process. Landing the first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 is a process.
First, let’s start with a baseline understanding of just what process is and why good process control is a foundational component of any successful business. Then, we’ll look at some human factors and essential concepts for process definition that are helpful for successfully embracing a process-oriented mindset.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines “process” as “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end.”
So, with respect to business practices, if we consider a “process” to be nothing more than the series of actions required to achieve a known and (hopefully) desired end result – then that establishes a basic definition from which to build our discussion. The formal definition is simple and without connotation. A process is a sequence of actions required to complete a job or task. In fact, everything you do is effectively a component of a process, whether it’s defined, desired, efficient, or not.
There is an existing bias in business to primarily associate the use of defined processes for manufacturing-oriented tasks, primarily due to manufacturing’s extensive historical basis in process control. However, the benefits of utilizing good processes extends beyond manufacturing and into every aspect of your organization, including design, sales, marketing, accounting and management.
Processes can be formal, informal or un-documented. Formal processes are defined in revision-controlled documents and are typically reserved for business activities that benefit from, or are required to provide, some form of objective evidence that due diligence essential to the process has been followed.
Informal processes can be as simple as a checklist used to ensure that the same mistake is not repeated twice, and are the typical workplace processes that cover most business activities. Often referred to as “best practices,” they communicate an approach or a list of items or steps that provide some level of repeatable outcome, while remaining flexible enough to allow for a considerable amount of leeway in interpretation and execution.
Undocumented processes are those activities that are either infrequent enough to justify documenting, haven’t caused issues to the extent that they’ve been identified as a problem that needs to be fixed, or are complex enough to have not been identified as a related sequence of events. As a business grows and develops, reliance on well defined and documented processes becomes increasingly important. They greatly accelerate an organization's ability to scale, so why not make process development an explicit goal, and leverage the efficiencies gained through good process implementation?
Q2: It sounds like you’ve seen processes take on many different forms, depending on the needs of the business. As most businesses have many processes to manage, it also sounds like it could be a lot of work to plan and manage those processes. You mentioned the need for good process control as a foundational component to any business. What do you mean by process control and why is it important that business owners understand it?
So, I am not expert in process control. As a design engineer I definitely have an appreciation for process control, but I’ve typically relied on my operations staff to be the resident experts. In general, process control can best be thought of as having a feedback loop embedded in the process that ensures the process is capable of predictable and consistent results. That means that once you have figured out the desired outcome, you have also established a way to measure its “goodness” and have actions that come into play if those measurements start to look bad.
This is where components like KPIs (Key Process Indicators) come into play. KPIs are great tools for measuring performance but are often misunderstood and/or misused. The main idea is the classic “plan, do, measure, act” cycle that ensures outcomes are desired. For manufacturing processes, process controls are pretty intuitive. For business process control it can get a bit confusing as measures of “goodness” can become difficult to objectively measure. For example, let’s look at customer satisfaction. In its simplest form it is digital, the customer is either satisfied or not. We’ve all taken the surveys with the “on a scale from 1 to 5..” type questions that are an attempt to obtain a more granular picture of the interaction. Unfortunately, in my experience, one person’s 3 is potentially another person’s 5. So is action really needed if your average is dropping from a 4.6 to a 4.2?
The main takeaway is that process controls are an important aspect to the exercise. They implicitly establish the end goal, institute a measuring/monitoring component, and pre-define a response mechanism if there is significant deviation from the desired outcome.
Establishing good processes and process compliance can minimize waste and mistakes in all areas of the business. As a side benefit, the increased use of online collaboration tools has also enabled a dramatically easier method to develop and deploy processes across the business in comparison to the historical methods of hard-copy or buried files in a write protected folders somewhere out on the company intranet. Consider the value of the following:
Issuing mistake-free invoices consistently and on time, no matter who generates them
Quickly and consistently bringing new hires up to speed with standardized on-boarding
Maintaining fully trained staff who can cover for each other to answer customers’ questions when the primary customer contact can’t be reached
Documenting target goals for product design and certification margins to ensure consistent product performance and minimize costs associated with over-designing
These are just a few examples of some common business tasks that I’ve seen implemented that helped to bring consistency and speed to the workplace.
Why listen to me? In truth, I’ve not always been a huge fan of processes. I’ve had to work with quite a few processes that were poorly developed and utilized, but I’ve learned to appreciate when a good process will be of benefit. I’ve worked for very large corporations where it took weeks to document approval of a design, and a considerable percentage of your job was reduced to the effort of coordinating approvals (not that the approvals weren’t important, it was just very inefficient.) I’ve also worked for very small companies where there was no document control, resulting in chaos of uncontrolled revisions, lost documents and the resulting challenge of supporting customers with a limited ability to determine exactly what shipped.
There is a Goldilocks balance somewhere in-between these two states. Just the right amount of processes and controls will provide good returns on the investment in resources required for good development. Document a process to eliminate costly errors, improve workflows, harmonize the workplace and provide customer value. Good processes are transparent, obvious to the casual observer, easy to understand and integrate tools and methods that are intuitive and repeatable.
In the next post of this series, we will continue the interview with Mr. Pierce and discuss techniques that may be helpful in defining processes as well as the common challenges many business owners face in completing this important activity. In the meantime, if you have questions about how Archimedes C&C can help you design and document processes for your own business, please contact us.