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The Importance of Process Thinking

Process thinking is a critical success factor in managing projects as well as operational processes. At a recent meeting, after the term had been used several times, the question “what is a process?” came up.

The answer was narrowly defined as “a documented, standardized set of steps to accomplish an objective.”

Related Article: 5 Steps to Creating a Process-Centric Organization

Every Outcome is the Result of a Process

In fact, a process is any set of steps to reach an outcome. It need not be documented nor standardized. Every outcome is the result of a process, under a set of conditions. Processes exist even when you might think they don’t.

Why Process Thinking is Important

Processes are what add value. Processes cut across functions, departments, and organizations.

The concept that any outcome is the result of a process is fundamental to effective management. Whether you are managing personal relationships, projects, or any operational activity, knowing that the end you wish to reach or have reached is the result of a process enables you to be better at what you do.

If you are looking forward, as in planning a project, it is pretty clear that you will be defining the way you will proceed. You will be defining your process.

Looking back in time, as in trying to figure out how you either succeeded or failed at something you have done, you will be defining and assessing the process that was used. You do that because you know that every outcome is the result of a process under a set of conditions.

You would think this is obvious. Well maybe the idea of planning processes is, though, there are plenty of examples of plans that do not resemble processes. They identify deliverables, dates, and costs without describing how they will be delivered. The process is often left open to the discretion of the performers and defined at the time the work is performed with a focus on silos rather than the process as a whole.

It is a better practice to step back to see and define the process up front; keeping options open for changes that might be needed as real world conditions become known.

The 85/15 Rule

When it comes to figuring out what went right or wrong, there is a common tendency to focus on who did what as opposed to what was done.

Dr. Juran, a pioneer in quality management, described the 85/15 rule. This wisdom says that people making errors cause 15% of problems while process issues cause the rest.

Process thinking makes it less likely that the blame game will be played, or heroes venerated. Instead, analyze the process to determine the causes of problems and successes. Fix the process and the people will succeed in their work. Ignore the process and failures will be repeated.

The best people can be brought down by a bad process.

Conditions of Processes

Processes take place under conditions. The same process may have different outcomes if it is performed by people with different skill levels or cultural norms, or under different temperature or weather conditions.

That is why a well thought out project management process will allow multiple variations to be applied as conditions such as project size, the sophistication of stakeholders and other factors vary. That is why the people doing the work need sufficient flexibility to adapt, moment to moment, but in the context of process constraints.

Attempting to apply a “one size fits all” approach in complex situations is a recipe for failure. Forcing people to follow an inappropriate process is a recipe for failure.

Documented and Standardized Processes

Most processes are neither documented nor standardized. A documented process is one that has been explicitly described graphically or in text. A standardized process is one that has been made common across a number of performers; doing the same thing ion a common way.

People can work towards a common outcome in any number of ways. For example, the members of one department responsible for sales and service in one district may do their job following different procedures than another department doing the same thing in another district. Two teams may achieve their similar project outcomes using different tools and approaches.

The process can be made common so that everyone does their work in the same way, using the same tools and templates, following the same steps.

Why Document and Standardize Processes

Processes are any set of steps, documented, standardized or not. Documented and standardized processes are quite desirable. They are necessary parts of achieving high-quality results.

Documented processes can be analyzed, evaluated, refined, standardized and made repeatable.

According to W. Edwards Deming “If you cannot define what you are doing as a process, you do not understand what you are doing.” If you do not understand what you are doing, you are more likely to do it poorly – inefficiently and ineffectively.

At the same time, the documentation is not the process. The documentation describes the process; it is not the process itself. Knowing this helps performers in complex processes to expect that they should and must not stop thinking, following the process blindly. At the same, time there are situations in which the process documentation should be followed exactly as written. Process documentation should clearly state the risks of following and not following the process as it is written.

Standardized and Repeatable Proceseses

Standardized processes, ones that are used across multiple departments or by many people, make training more efficient, are easier to control and improve and enable easy transfer of people between departments or projects. Standardized processes are repeatable. They can be done the same way over and over again.

Standardization and repeatability are great, but they come with a warning. Make sure they are good. Clearly, you don’t want to repeat a process that is ineffective or inefficient. You need to bring process quality into the picture. In addition, you must consider the conditions and build in alternative paths to address predictable alternative situations.

As said, the best people can be brought down by a bad process.

Process Analysis and Improvement

Define your process. Break it down the steps into bite sized pieces, define expected outcomes, establish acceptance criteria, test it and continuously refine it as it is performed.

Remember, everything is caused by something – a set of steps under specific conditions; a process.

Processes cut across silos. Step back and focus on the steps and the outcome. Establishing roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities is critical. However, avoid sub-optimization — making one department’s process great at the expense of the effectiveness of the whole.

Stop playing the blame game. Critically evaluate your process to make sure that it is as good it can be and to identify exactly where things go wrong and how to avoid repeating the same mistake over and over again. Remember Juran’s 85/15 rule.

Document and standardize wisely.

Take a process view

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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