As a management consultant, I’ve come to believe over many years of experience that poor process discipline is at the heart of many performance issues. More to the point, I find an incredible amount of misunderstanding about the nature of process thinking and process management, and outright denial that process management is in any way lacking when it clearly is!
I’ve written before that listening to how clients talk about things can be illuminating, so allow me to share with you some of the things I hear people say about process discipline, what it reveals about their biases and how these misconceptions get in the way of good performance – and, more importantly – get in the way of performance improvement.
A Bias for Continuous Improvement
First, let me state my own biases. I was trained as an electrical engineer, and started my career in computer hardware design. A training in engineering disciplines forges a strong and deeply held worldview about the way things work. On top of this, by the random chance of meeting and being influenced by certain people, I came to be a believer in the Total Quality movement, and in the teachings of Deming, Juran, Shewhart, et al. For a period in my career I was a judge for a Malcolm Baldrige type quality award for the software industry. So, I do see the world through a lens of process discipline and continuous improvement.
I later came to work with Professor Tom Davenport, a brilliant colleague who exposed me to the world of business process re-engineering. This approach has brought enormous benefit to the world, but I do regret the fact that along the way, it somehow trumped the quality movement. “Don’t improve it – blow it up!” became the mantra. While in many cases, this was the right thing to do, unfortunately, the “Don’t improve it!” part rose to prominence.
“We Do Have Process Management – Our Process are Documented!”
This is one of the first clues to listen for as an indicator of process mis-perception. There’s a couple of traps here:
- If we’ve documented the process we are using process management discipline. Wrong! The fact that it’s documented does not mean that it’s being followed! That would be akin to claiming, “All our citizens follow the laws of the land because those laws are documented!”
- A central tenet of process management discipline is continuous (and, sometimes, discontinuous) process improvement. Having a process documented does not mean it is continuously improved – and may in fact be an inhibitor to improvement!
“Process Creates Bureaucracy!”
Another clue to process cluelessness! Yes, if the process management approach is disproportional to the nature of the work being performed (e.g., a highly detailed process model for an activity that is either trivially simple, or is essentially skill-based) then it does become bureaucratic and unhelpful at best, or even dangerous. (Imagine someone who is not a brain surgeon being handed a process model for brain surgery and being expected to remove a small growth from their spouses brain!)
“We Want Our People to Be Creative, and Process Stifles Innovation!”
A couple of years I posted on the distinctions and interrelationships between Improvement and Innovation. Process management, intelligently applied, as one of the core management disciplines is an enabler of innovation, not a stifler! My former colleague Tom Davenport used to say, “Process sets you free!” And he was right – and he had the right perspective within which to apply process thinking.
“We Are Masters of Escalation!”
Escalation – the final clue! I find that organizations that don’t have good process management typically have great escalation capability! They have to – in some respects, great escalation is almost a sign that process management is weak.
How about your organization – are you really good at process management? Or are you simply good at process documentation and escalation?
Cartoon courtesy of Savage Chickens
- What the C-Suite Needs to Do for Process Improvement (blogs.hbr.org)
- Six Sigma is Not Just for Projects (brighthub.com)
- Analysis of TQM Quality Concepts (brighthub.com)