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Industry Interview: The Importance of Establishing a Process - Part 2

In the first post of this series, we started our interview with Mr. Brian K. Pierce where we discussed the balance between defining a process that works vs a process that is overburdened with bureaucracy. In this post, Mr. Pierce considers some human factors that can affect good process design and definition, and makes us aware of challenges business process designers are likely to encounter.

Q3: So, we now have a definition of "process" and a better understanding of what process control is and why it's important. You've mentioned it may not be as easy to define a business process as it seems on the surface. Are there specific strategies or techniques that can make it easier and more effective for business owners to define their important processes?

There is a concept in product design and process control that focuses on mistake proofing - called “poka-yoke”. While based in manufacturing process control, poka-yoke is a valuable perspective when designing processes. It is focused on preventing mistakes by analyzing when and how costly mistakes can occur and then explicitly designing the process to prevent those mistakes from happening.

Designing systems to eliminate mistakes will bring dollars to the bottom line through decreased waste and increased customer satisfaction. Further, it will help your organization (even if it’s just you) quickly and consistently execute tasks to ensure success – especially helpful when weeks or months pass between iterations. Why? It’s all about efficiency.

I was once deep into an analysis of a competitor’s product and it suddenly occurred to me that my company’s competitive edge was not just the “what” of the specific details of the product, but equally the “how” of our processes. We had to get both the optimum product features/functionality/cost to the market, with quick, consistent execution at all levels. A constant flow of flawless new products out the door with world class business structure was our edge, and our processes ensured the consistency and quality required to make that happen.

In essence, it’s not just the power of the solution, but the execution of the plan that makes a company successful. I’ve seen very promising designs fail and very weak designs succeed all based on the quality of the execution. Absolutely, the skills of your team are the key to success, but good processes help to hone their skills and future-proof the critical execution required to dominate your competition.

Q4: It sounds like if a business owner commits to defining processes as a company strategy, and sets goals focused on defining the most important processes first, over time, they should be able to define the essential processes that need formal definition, and identify those processes that would benefit from informal definition such as a checklist or a flowchart. What are some of the challenges that you've faced in getting essential processes defined?

Does it seem like implementing processes throughout the business would be a positive, foundational concept, embraced by all and leveraged for success? Don’t expect it to happen without running into some of these common challenges:

  • The effort to analyze, define, document, train and optimize a process is a significant investment typically reserved for deliverables that require process control due to regulatory/certification (ISO 9001) compliance, safety, or process sensitive manufacturing.

  • Taking the time to develop processes is usually not one of a company’s top 3 strategic initiatives and leanly staffed departments are focused on just trying to keep their heads above water. Bandwidth to develop processes is usually not available due to other pressing priorities.

  • When actually created, process documentation can be a hodge-podge of the best understanding of what needs to happen combined with a little bit of blue-sky perfection mixed with confusing structure and deployed in rigid edict.

  • Processes are typically written by an unsuspecting, unskilled, resource unable to dodge the task when the need for a process materialized.

  • Process for process sake. Will standardizing the task really provide the ROI to support the cost of developing and maintaining a documented process? Is the task really a key component to the business? Is the proposed tool really the best solution for all possible scenarios?

  • Focusing on preferences rather than needs can pollute the process to an unnecessary level of control that will hinder compliance and generate confusion when hit with any level of variation.

  • Once deployed, processes can be set in stone, never to be reviewed, updated or optimized and are looked at as impediments to success.

  • Once deployed processes can be hindered by unintended consequences of bad updates implemented to address outliers that can be better addressed as non-standard work.

  • I’ve seen good engineers waste twice as much effort figuring out how to bypass a process than if they just followed it. Sometimes this was done in an attempt to mitigate risk of project delay due to a bad process and sometimes to hard-headedly prove that the defined process couldn’t possibly cover their area of expertise.

  • I’ve also seen staff waste hours arguing over interpretation of poorly worded documents, sometimes just as an excuse to delay work or to prove the point that the process wasn’t of value.

Additional challenges arise when staff are averse to having anyone know the details of what they do. There is a perceived security in being the expert as the company can’t replace you if you are the only one who knows how to do “X”. Usually this is a symptom of fear in the workplace and is a huge flag that there are more things going sideways than a good process can fix, but we’ll save that for another discussion. This approach inserts discontinuity in the organization whenever that staff member is on vacation, out sick, or otherwise unavailable. Convincing these employees to embrace standardized processes will require significant effort from a patient coach.

A similar challenge is having process implementation be perceived as a hindrance of “artistic freedom”. “What I do is an art and can’t possibly be controlled by a rigid process”. Certainly, we hire staff due to their specific skill sets and some skills cannot (and don’t need to) be extracted into a process. However the components that surround the skill can be standardized. The approach, milestones, deliverables, reviews, techniques, requirements, check lists, documentation structure, archiving, decision summaries, customer communication, etc. can all be extracted from and consistently support the “art” component to provide visibility and ensure consistent execution. If the process is defined, then the opportunity to cross train staff on the team to cover for each other also becomes easier. The process doesn’t have to be exhaustive – keep it lean, ensure that the basics are covered, then revisit and modify as necessary.

Make no mistake that implementing good processes is challenging and should not be taken lightly. Developing solid process documentation is a nontrivial skill that is developed over time and experience. However, returns on investment are well worth the effort and are within reach with the right guidance and approach. Having a good coach who is well versed in the concepts of distilling the essential components of complex tasks into clear, useful processes is highly recommended.

Thank you, Mr. Pierce, for taking time to share with Archimedes C&C and our readers your thoughtful perspectives on the value and challenges of defining business processes. It’s been fun to learn from your experiences and we hope to build upon these examples as we help our customers further improve their own businesses.

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