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Putting the Power of Process Thinking into Action

Process thinking, the understanding that everything is the result of a process, is the key to performance improvement. 


If you want to perform as effectively as possible, or at least not get worse, look to the process.  This article highlights the place for process thinking in operating, managing, and directing projects.


A process is a set of steps connecting a trigger or initiating event to an outcome.  

The outcome on an organizational level may be the success or failure of a project, chronic overtime, conflict, poor or effective decisions, or customer complaints.  On a personal level, speech, body language, action, inaction, or physical symptoms like tension or relaxation are the results of processes.

Processes exist even when you might think they do not – they can be unconscious, “below the surface.”  though, being conscious of the processes that affect us is critical to success.  Processes do not need to be documented nor standardized, though when it comes to project work, some formalization is useful. 

The Case of the Incorrect Spec

Office furniture is needed to complete a project to refurbish an office space to make it more effective in promoting a combination of individual and collaborative work in a hybrid on-site and remote work environment.  The office furniture has a long lead time, and its installation is critical to project success within the schedule.

The furniture arrived on time, but it will not fit in the allocated space.  A bit of research uncovers that the vendor complied with a written specification that resulted from a series of meetings, measurements, and selections.  The vendor representative had prepared and submitted the spec to the furniture manufacturer and to the project team lead responsible for furnishings.  The team lead never officially signed off on it. 

Who or What is at Fault? 

In an earlier article, Stop Blaming: Focus on the Process to Achieve Optimal Performance (, we pointed out that blaming is an ineffective way to manage performance.  Though, in a case like this, finding the person at fault is important to determine monetary responsibility – who will pay for the useless furniture, and will there be a penalty for delaying the project.

The manufacturer’s representative argued that he assumed that the team-lead approved the spec and that he submitted it without an official sign-off to expedite the delivery.  His company was willing to take responsibility and to pay for the mistake. 

The team-lead said that she assumed the spec reflected the work that had been done to create it and had rough notes to show that the correct measurements were agreed upon with the rep.  Her company, the client, agreed to share the financial burden, owning up to their failure to properly review the spec and officially sign off.

Thanks to clear thinking and a long relationship, the accommodation between vendor and client avoided court or arbitration.

Learning from Mistakes

What does this have to do with process? 

Every outcome is the result of a process, a set of steps, under a set of conditions.  Analyzing the process one can learn from mistakes and improve future performance.

When it comes to figuring out what went right or wrong, focus on what was done (or not done), why it was done, how it was done, and why it was done that way.  Then learn from what happened to continuously improve.

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In the case of the furniture spec error, the processes involved were quality management (review and sign-off of specifications) and relationship management (the ability to review the issues and come to a resolution that as much as possible satisfied all the stakeholders.)

Avoid the blame game, hero worship, and defensiveness.  Blaming and defensiveness get in the way of sustained, continuously improving performance.  Hero worship rewards reaction vs. prevention.

Instead analyze the process to determine the causes of problems and successes. Improve the process.

Categories of Processes

There are two broad categories of processes, internal (intrapersonal) and external (collaborative).  While the internal processes have a direct effect in the external ones, in most teams and organizations they are left to the individual.  The external ones are observable – speech, behavior, and outcomes can be seen, felt, and analyzed.

Processes weave together in a dynamic system.  The system, the environment we work in, is complex.  Managing its processes is more an art or craft than a science.  Documented policies, processes and procedures are useful, though it is behavior that counts.  And behavior in complex situations requires flexibility and the right balance among intuition and analysis, compliance, and flexibility.

Your Processes

There are many ways to say the same thing and there may be more categories.  The point is to assess your processes to see with which you are satisfied, and which can and should be improved?

Here is a list of processes that are involved in project management: 

  • Communication
      • Demeanor, decorum, and respect for others – emotional and social intelligences, rules of order
      • Structure – purpose, position, evidence, dialog (questioning, opposing views, and rebuttal), conclusion.  Why is one saying what they are saying?  Is it the best way to address the purpose, meaningful, as brief as possible and to the point?
    • Active Listening – sensing one’s own and other people’s meaning through “vibe”, body language, tone, and content; asking questions to better understand; open to what the other person is saying as opposed to what you think they are going to say
    • Transparency – what was decided, why it was decided that way, what is being or was done, the outcome, implications, and changes.
  • Conflict Resolution, Problem Solving, and Decision making
  • Operational performance
  • Management
    • Project, portfolio, and program
    • Operational
    • Human resource
    • Quality (reviews, compliance, performance analysis and continuous improvement)
    • Procurement
    • Stakeholder (managing expectations, informing, obtaining input)
    • Financial and Accounting
    • Legal
  • Direction
    • Strategy and policy
    • Stakeholder relations and politics
    • Accountability and performance evaluation
    • Decision making
    • Values and principles

Going Forward

Even though you may have a good track record there probably are parts of your process which can be better understood and improved, particularly in the areas of communication, decision making, stakeholder relations, and quality management. 

How best to address process?  Cultivate process thinking.  Ask yourself what processes are behind chronic performance problems?  Are processes too rigid or too loose?  Is process documentation sufficient?  Is everyone aware of process thinking?

Make the time and take the effort to manage your processes.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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