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Process Detectives and Mechanics January 16, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Quality.
Tags: , , ,

Quality professionals are often called upon to investigate business processes and drive improvements because they’re typically responsible for the company’s quality management system and ensuring compliance with external standards. This can be a frustrating and thankless assignment.

There are a lot of folks who hate the very idea of process, believing that they are somehow prevented from doing their best work or “what makes sense” because they perceive any documented process to be constraining. Even those who agree that processes are necessary are often myopic. They look for ways to “improve” the process to make it suit the needs of their functional group without regard for the larger system, which obviously reduces the overall effectiveness.

It can be hard enough to get people to follow the process, and it’s just about impossible when the process isn’t working. Let’s assume there’s a good reason for this process to exist in the first place. The first step is to determine whether there’s a people problem (the process is basically sound, but isn’t being used, or isn’t being used correctly), and/or if there’s a process problem (folks are genuinely trying, but the process isn’t delivering the desired outcomes).

If a people problem is suspected, there’s a series of questions that can help identify a solution:

  • Do they even know there’s a process? I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible they don’t even know they’re supposed to be following a process.
  • Do they know how to use the process? Do they understand their role? Are they doing their part incorrectly? A little training may be in order.
  • Do they understand the process but are deliberately choosing to ignore it? Here it’s important to assess the reasons for the resistance. Do they understand the implications to their colleagues and the organization as a whole? Do they think there’s a better way, a process change that would improve the overall performance? (Let’s hear it!) Or, is there a deeper “performance management” issue?

If the process itself is the problem, the solution depends on exactly how the process is failing to deliver the required results:

  • Does the process take too long? This is a common complaint that often leads people to omit steps and make things worse. The process should be broken down into individual steps and flows to assess the overall cycle time, look for opportunities to simplify, and identify any bottlenecks that can be managed using Theory of Constraints.
  • Does the process fail to deliver the expected results? It’s useful here to take a step back and make sure all stakeholders are clear about what results are expected. In the spirit of lean production, the process should be a value-delivery system with each task and flow directly contributing to the result.
  • Does the process deliver inconsistent results? As with any production process, you have to determine the causes of variability and eliminate them. For the typical business process, the most likely source of variability is the people executing the steps. Training and standardized outputs can help.

Obviously these are just guidelines, the specific approach will depend on the process and the organization. I think what’s most important is to take a disciplined, logical approach to fixing a broken process, to give all stakeholders confidence that things are really going to get better.



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