Making the Intangible, Tangible
"Processes aren't real — except as process models, and who needs those things?!" said or thought way too many people. The perceived unreality of processes is a very real problem.
Perhaps you've also had this experience where you talk to some people about process and their eyes light up; talk to others and the shutters come down and the eyes glaze over. It's as if some can 'see' these mysterious things called process and others are sure they are a figment of the overactive imaginations of consultants and others who clearly have way too much spare time. No time to talk about processes, I've got work to do!
If process-based management is to live up to its potential in delivering enhanced and better-controlled organizational performance, there must be a way to make processes more visible, more tangible.
I started a whole-of-organization process-based management development project with a briefing for executives. Ten minutes in, the CEO interrupted and, with a perplexed frown, asked, "Why would I want to improve processes, I'm trying to get rid of them?!" He was serious — and well-intentioned and confused. Clearly, he had a very different understanding of the importance of processes, indeed what they even were.
What he meant was that he wanted to get rid of poorly-performing processes that stop work happening efficiently and effectively (don't we all!), and, most importantly, he was sure that poor performance was a natural attribute of anything called a process. We had to reconcile that with my view that the only way we get anything done in any organization is via business processes. There was a happy ending in that he eventually became a convert.
Everyone can go to the Gemba and clearly see the many activities being performed. However, it seems that not everyone sees the processes that give flow, control, purpose, and logic to those activities. Trees? Forest?
Maybe it's like one of those pictures where if you stare at it long enough, and squint in just the right way, an 'obvious' picture emerges and then you can never unsee it.
Every organization gets its work done, i.e., executes its strategy, via its business processes. That's not optional. It's an 'organizational law', not a management choice. The only choice is whether to actively manage those processes or just hope everything turns out OK.
If business processes are so important, why aren't they obvious to everyone? How can any organization survive while ignoring them, perhaps even denying their existence?
Why is it so?
Hidden in plain sight
First point to make is that processes are never ignored completely. They may not be named, perhaps they aren't consciously considered, but a lot of work goes into stitching activities together to achieve a desired end. This happens in every organization.
Of course, if we aren't acknowledging and actively managing processes then it is very unlikely that their performance is optimized. Processes don't disappear just because we don't believe in them!
My CEO who was on a mission to eliminate processes had a process for doing that!
With rare exceptions every organization chart ever drawn shows that organizations are designed to operate as functional silos — or, if not consciously designed for that end, highly disposed to that pathway.
The tendency towards limited horizontal vision is in the DNA of organizations and is fundamental to traditional management.
Personal and team performance measures and targets often relate to functional entity performance and not the collaboration between those entities.
The result is that we are motivated and trained to measure and manage inside the boxes on the org chart and to ignore the spaces between them.
Not waving, drowning
Overwhelmed by a constant stream, if not unceasing cascade, of local problems, managers and their teams seldom have the luxury of seeing or worrying about the 'bigger picture'.
Today's problem is happening right here, right now. It's causing delays or losses or dissatisfaction and needs to be solved as soon as possible. Band-aid solutions work.
The idea of taking a cross-functional or horizontal view of value development pathways might be interesting, indeed it might even be compelling, but it requires a significant change in the way in which we view and manage organizations.
That's difficult to do amidst the hectic pace of daily operations.
It's a jungle
Cross-functional management of a process requires a collaborative management model. It requires teams of execution managers to get together and openly pursue opportunities to sustain and improve performance.
Everyone signs up for continuous improvement, not so many for its prerequisite, continuous problem finding. "Good news! I found a new problem in the process we execute/manage!" is a statement that is seldom heard.
Organization design that focusses on blinkered management of the boxes on the chart is more likely to result in a competitive culture than a collaborative one. Without active intervention, it is nobody's job to correct that problem — indeed to even see it as a problem.
Smart people and dumb processes
A more prosaic reason for the apparent invisibility of processes may also be that there is no apparent problem. Smart people make dumb processes look good as they compensate for design weaknesses.
A key question — in life and management — is what's the problem we are trying to fix? If there is no material problem, why would anyone care, indeed, why should they care. Operational workarounds camouflage process deficiencies.
Some process problems validate the mechanisms that were implemented to correct them. Remove the problem and you remove the role, perhaps even the team.
I call these lost luggage processes. They may be necessary, but we should remember that they exist because of a problem another of our processes causes, a problem that our customers, at least, think should never happen.
If you work in the Lost Luggage Office, you would be forgiven for having some reservations about eliminating the loss of luggage.
Making it real
So, how to make the intangible, tangible? What practical countermeasures can we employ to make it real? I see two broad approaches dealing with importance and visibility.
Make the unimportant, important
Firstly, there has to be a reason to care. If senior decision makers think of processes as low-level activities, then they will leave them to others to worry about. Even if they agree that the processes are important, their management will be someone else's problem.
So, how can we make processes important enough to be everyone's concern? Two suggestions.
Keep it strategic
Make the link between processes and strategy execution. The idea, indeed the fact, that the only way the organization can execute its strategy is through its cross-functional business processes will attract attention. It's a seemingly simple idea that has powerful consequences.
Once that link is seen, it can't be unseen and, more importantly, it can't be ignored.
Be a solution, not a new problem
Those we would like to engage in process-based management have problems to be avoided or solved, improvements to deliver. They don't have lots of spare time to be filled with some new 'hobby'. If our process work doesn't provide a solution, it's a new problem.
The first three mandatory requirements of process-based management are deliver, deliver, and deliver. The next three are communicate, communicate, and communicate.
First make a positive difference to organizational performance, then tell everyone about it.
An effective marketing and communications plan will target the different cohorts of decision-makers and influencers and get the right messages to them through the right channels.
Make the invisible, visible
Intangible. Abstract. Disembodied. Unreal. Insubstantial. Such adjectives are not the best start to our marketing campaign!
If processes are to be seen to be important, we better make them visible.
Process models are an obvious aid. The model is not the process, but it does give a diagrammatic sense of what it's about, a multi-level canvas on which the hierarchy of process elements and characteristics can be ordered and recorded. Take care though — there is no organization with a business problem called "we don't have enough process models." Model for a good purpose and do so just-in-time not just-in-case.
If you have a good model, good data, and you know how to do it well (three VERY BIG IFs) you might develop a simulation model to bring a static model to life.
Processes can also be made visible through practical use. Show how process models and related artifacts are used to good effect. Allow people to participate in — experience — the process execution. Perhaps sight is not the only sense that can be used.
Visibility might just require more time and concentration. A walk through the process (often called a Gemba Walk) might reveal the process. "Walk(ing) through" may not be enough; it may become a box-ticking exercise to allow managers to say they walk through the office/factory regularly.
Perhaps an Ohno Circle will help. Taiichi Ohno, the developer of the Toyota Production System, is credited with a unique way of 'forcing' people to see a process and its wastes and cadences. He would draw a chalk circle on the floor, and then ask someone stand in it, possibly for hours, and observe the repeated execution of the process. Hours later Ohno would return and ask what the person has seen, and an unsatisfactory answer would reset the timer for another couple of hours.
I appreciate that it will be a little difficult (and career limiting) to constrain your executives in a chalk circle for hours, but the point is that a short artificial 'walk' through a process is not enough. To see we must look…and think…and look again.
Tangible: (adj) real or actual, rather than imaginary or visionary
We can't expect our organizations and their decision makers, to take processes seriously unless they can 'see' and 'feel' them, and understand their vital importance. Making this more than a little challenging is the fact that a business process is an abstract concept.
Some people are better than others at dealing with abstract intangibles. To be successful in promoting process-based management we need practical strategies for making the intangible (more) tangible.
 Johnson & Johnson, the Band-Aid trademark owner, reports 100 billion Band-Aids sold since World War II.
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