How Many Processes?
By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems
How many processes do you have in your organization? On the surface, this seems like a fairly simple question to answer. If you try answering it yourself however, you might find that it is pretty tough to come up with an answer that you could place much confidence in. I have even had cases where people tell me it is an unfair question to ask, as if it is unreasonable to expect an organization’s leaders to quantitatively know how many processes they are responsible for. What do you think? What would be the reaction if you asked such a question in your organization?
All Work is a Process
One of the first books I read on quality improvement, many years ago, was by Philip Crosby. In “Quality is Free’, he shared the ‘all work is a process’ concept with me for the first time. If you study Crosby’s works today, you will find that this concept is one of the two fundamental ones (along with install good management principles) that he feels are requisite for performance excellence. I think Crosby would have expected leaders to know how many processes they own. I am also willing to bet that you will struggle to find many leaders that can give you such a number. How many processes do you own?
As I progressed through my career and began serving as a national Baldrige Performance Excellence Award Examiner, this question became even more prominent in my mind. I was convinced that all work was a process by then, but my Baldrige involvement greatly amplified the importance of this concept. This was especially true when it came to higher level work processes such as leadership development, strategic planning, and process improvement. Yes, great organizations do have a formal process improvement process.
Per the Baldrige criteria, work processes must be systematic – well-ordered, repeatable, and fact-based – to be considered processes. Without such structure, processes are tough to define, let alone optimize. That’s your key to finding them. Look for repetitious things you do day in and day out.
Do Your Process Owners Know What Processes They Own?
How hard is it to define each of the processes you own? As an Examiner and international TapRooT® root cause analysis process facilitator, I have only met a small percentage of companies where the answer to the ‘How many processes?’ question could be provided. Conversely, I will never forget visiting an accounting department where all eleven key processes had both been defined AND were also being consistently measured and improved. I will also never forget the multitude of ‘deer in the headlight’ looks I usually get when I present this question to most people.
As you might suspect, I do try to practice what I preach when it comes to knowing one’s key processes. I know that it takes between 22 and 26 processes to get from my bed at home to the hotel room bed on a travel day, depending on the destination. I won’t go as far as to say that I have mapped out, and consistently measure, each of these processes, but I am well aware of their inputs, steps, outputs, and potential defects. I have worked to improve these processes, as well, over time. After all, they make up as much as third of my work days in each operating year. Why do people struggle to identify the number of processes they own?
How Do You Find a Process?
A lot of the problem in spotting processes comes from people not really knowing what to look for. They don’t realize that those repetitive things they do daily are processes. They have never been asked to draw a map of those activities. Over time, these habits are taken more and more for granted. Others are simply not left brained thinkers – they struggle to see steps just as a left brainer struggles to creatively think outside of the box. This does not mean that the processes themselves don’t exist, or that they don’t rack up lots of time and money as costs each year. Consistent, daily resource use makes the question both important and necessary however.
Find the repetitive steps, inputs, and outcomes, and you will find the process. In the simplest sense, work is all about spending time and money via process execution to obtain some set of results. We do a much better job of defining our results than we do our processes. The paradox is that until we get better at defining, analyzing, improving, and optimizing the processes that produce the results, we will struggle to achieve and sustain excellence. Can you find all of the processes that you own?
For starters, look at these daily and important, but often ignored, work processes. Meetings are a process – their agendas are the process maps, and effective meetings have defined inputs and outcomes. Similarly, working through your daily email is a process, with its own set of process traits. These two process types make up 30% or more of most leaders’ days, but rarely are they measured and improved over time. Who owns these processes?
How Many Processes You Have Matters
I think the question is a fair one. I have consistently seen the sustained, best in class, results that people who know their processes are able to achieve versus those who are not as ‘process aware.’ I have seen the alignment, integration, and cost savings – yes, cost savings – that comes with having a solid process understanding across work teams. I have experienced the value that comes from knowing your processes well enough to modify them as needed to meet shifting customer expectations.
Here is what the best organizations do. They define all of their key processes using a process definition blueprint that defines process ownership, customer requirements, vital sign metrics, and suppler requirements for each value stream or value stream support process. All processes are mapped using some form of flow chart. Well-designed work instructions exist to guide process execution. All process users review process designs annually in the spirit of defining needed improvements.
I believe all work is a process. My challenge comes in convincing others that I am not some obsessive-compulsive whack job who needs to get a life instead of fretting over the steps they have to execute to successfully make it through life daily. I won’t be deterred however, so if we ever meet, don’t be surprised if you too get the question – how many processes do you own?
NOTE: if you found value in this article, you might also benefit from reading my book “Error Proof”, which is now for sale on Amazon.com.