Exploring the Program versus Process Difference

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

Between the years of 1985 and 1990, I served as a team trainer and facilitator for a roofing manufacturer. At first, people would correct me for my use of the word “program” instead of “process” to describe our company’s employee involvement effort. During my exploring the ‘program versus process’ difference, I saw other newcomers go through the same adjustment process. As I had done, people would often first ask “Is there really a difference?” or “Aren’t you just being picky about your word selection?”

For twenty years, I served as an Examiner, Senior Examiner, Alumni Examiner, or Judge for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Through my training, application review, and site visit experiences, I learned that the key word in that evaluation and feedback system is the word “process.” Baldrige recipients seem to have an effective process for seemingly everything. This includes a process to improve each process. In fact, most Baldrige recipients go as far as to say “All work is a process.” Unfortunately in many organizations, people still struggle to see the difference between the words “program” and “process.”

Do You Design Your Jobs to Support Daily Excellence?

The keys to make this important distinction lie in job design and one’s commitment to that design. For example, do you have a quality program? If so, does each employee feel like they are involved only when they participate in events that are part of the program, such as attending team meetings or collecting data? For the remainder of their work week, does their job appear to be the same as it was prior to the introduction of the formal program>?

EXPLORE MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Process Improvement Work System

Some suggestion systems serve as an additional example. Is the only vehicle your people have to pass their ideas along to management is a formal suggestion system? If so, they will see a contradiction between the concept of employee participation leaders preach and the supervisor who won’t listen to what they have to say. In other words, they only have a program.

What is a Process?

In recent years, we have seen the fads (or processes?) of lean manufacturing and six sigma make their way into the workplace. Are these concepts really fads, or are they high performance approaches that some companies embrace as a way to do business while others pursue as programs? Do all of your employees participate (think?) lean and six sigma as a part of their job, day in and day out? Would they describe these approaches as “that program that I go to meetings and training for once in a while?”

The dictionary defines process as “a series of actions directed at obtaining a particular result.” The key word in this definition is the word “series.” In a quality program, we often limit participation to the one hour out of forty each week where one gets to actively participate in improvement efforts. In a true quality process, each interaction, each day, is seen as an opportunity to make a personal contribution towards workplace improvement.

Notice the distinction in job design that would accompany this example. In one case, the job stays basically the same, with the exception of the one meeting hour that is built into the job each week. In an effective quality process, most, if not all, of the job seems different (better). The employee looks at the job differently. They feel differently about it. These feelings, in turn, lead to commitment, instead of mere compliance.

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Exploring the Program versus Process Difference – Fads, Programs, and Processes

Fads and programs go hand in hand. People struggle with commitment to a program that they only infrequently participate in or positively influences their work day only once in a while. Programs, like fads, come and go. It is tough to gain commitment that lasts. Do you have a quality program or a quality process? How would the people in your organization answer this question? Does quality touch their lives in an important, meaningful way each day?

My operational definition of commitment is where one “chooses to act regardless of what they will receive in return.” The opposite of commitment is compliance. People obediently support the program. However, management has the continual burden to motivate and manipulate people to gain this compliance. Programs last as long as management will assume this burden. Processes feed on themselves because their design impacts each employee’s job and makes it better. In turn, this helps eliminate the daily headaches that make work unpleasant.

The beauty of the Baldrige criteria lies in how many processes interrelate with each other. This integration helps create positive business results that pass the test of time. Such results are not possible if you do not have robust processes within each of the seven categories. Do you have a quality process or a quality program in your company? What would your fellow employees say? Is quality built into their jobs? Is their commitment to quality high?

Are you?

LEARN MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

Keep improving! – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

www.greatsystems.com            kevin@greatsystems.com

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