Process as the exception
What’s the point of processes? To tie down what needs to be tied down. To make what has to be reliable entirely reliable. To waste no more thinking time than is absolutely essential on stuff that doesn’t merit it. To free up as much of our time as is possible to do the interesting, the unique, the creative.
Processes should be about freeing time, not about using up time – about enabling choice not about constraining choice. In many cases, processes are generated for entirely the wrong reasons. They are written (often against the clock) to satisfy the demands of quality audits and the like. They are written by the quality staffers, tucked away in their broom cupboard under the stairs, some distance from the action. They are preserved in aspic in the Quality Management System, safely away from prying eyes. Originally this was achieved by keeping them in big books where no-one could find them. Now that the systems are all online, they are simply made impenetrable, so that nobody in their right mind would attempt to read them.
The essence of a good process is:
- It only exists if it needs to exist
- It makes sense in terms of the things that fit around it
- It makes sense in terms of the bigger picture – of what the organisation is trying to achieve
- It is in the place and in the form that is most natural for its users
- It is no more detailed than it absolutely needs to be
- It is easier to go through than round
- You know when it isn’t working
The world is full of bad processes. Whole industries have grown up around them. Please don’t add to them. They don’t help.
Who will invent a process wiki?
One of my pet peeves about processes is the way they turn people into control freaks. The processes are padlocked into place, and, in case their impenetrable language isn’t enough, they are surrounded by a virtual armed guard, guaranteeing that people are kept at arm’s length. It’s time we approached this in a radically different way.
The real process experts are the people who work with the processes – applying them, trying to make them fit the circumstances – every day. They know what works and what doesn’t, but we rarely ask them what they think. In most cases they are not allowed to make changes, to make the processes fit their needs better. In many cases it is made difficult for them even to suggest better ways of doing things. In those rare situations where they are at least consulted, their ideas are mediated and moderated, stewed over a low heat until most of the goodness has evaporated, and then eased with great caution and over extended periods of time into the precious system.
It’s time to let go and make it easy for the real experts to take control. The content of our processes now may be mostly right, but it is also usually late and most of the time roundly ignored. Process wikis would change all of that.
The wiki is the tool, familiar to us through Wikipedia, which gives everybody the power to make whatever changes they think best. Anyone with information to contribute to the sum of knowledge on a subject can add to it, right then and there, on the live entry. Changes are trackable and reversible, so it isn’t a complete free-for-all. I can see that, depending on your point of view, using wikis for processes will strike you as downright reckless or extremely exciting. The processes would be built on the combined wisdom of the people working with them day in and day out. They would be alive, organic, and able to evolve in a way that current mechanisms just don’t allow.
When to build a wall
In the book that originally launched the concept of business process re-engineering (Re-engineering the Corporation), Michael Hammer and James Champy paint three scenarios to answer the question: when is the right time to re-engineer?
You’re travelling along the road and you run headlong into a wall. You have to re-engineer now, or you can’t get past it and continue your journey.
You’re travelling along the road and you see a wall in the distance. You have time to re-engineer and identify a good path around the wall.
You’re travelling along an open road, and you think to yourself: “This would be a good place to build a wall”.
Re-engineering may not be what you want, but however you go about reinventing your strategies, the relentless pressure of market changes and fast moving new competitors will not let up. So when is the right time to build a wall?
I would suspect that few business leaders feel as if they are on an open road. Today’s issues always feel like big boulders. Is the forward order book healthy? If it is, can we grow our resources fast enough to satisfy it? How happy are we with the cost and quality of our work? There is always urgent stuff to do, which makes it all too easy to leave wall-building for the future.
The challenge is to find a way to continue to perform at your best for your customers today while simultaneously focusing on innovating for the future. If doing the day job today consumes all your attention and resources, there will be nothing left for the future. It’s no good either to tuck a few innovators safely out of the way of those of you doing the day job. This is a mainstream activity. How can you build up the capability to give it the attention it needs?
Order and structure is vital in any organisation – up to a point. What we tend to see, though, is organisations that are either under-ordered, tending to chaos, or over-ordered, and constipated by their processes. This section explores the issues around achieving an effective balance. (more…)