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How do we ever get anything done round here?

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In many organisations there will be a process for that – whatever ‘that’ is.

These processes will cover everything from how you tender for a new contract, buy things, pay invoices, get a new IT account, review and measure the performance of staff, promote them, support those with high potential to how you initiate, manage, measure, review and handover a project. In short, you name it and there is likely to be a process for that.

There are many good reasons for organisations having processes including:

  • To make sure people do things right. The more regulated or the more safety related a company is then the more processes there will be;
  • Capture and institutionalise good practice;
  • To compensate for lack of competency. Processes can make an activity feel like painting by numbers; and
  • To implement learning. In the event of an incident or accident learning will show this cannot happen again.

Processes provide a comfort blanket for an organisation, reassuring them that they have consistency and good practice built into all that they do with a mechanism to learn as they go. This comfort blanket can also be a substitute for training, because you have a process you do not need to train people to do their job. This may be good for infrequent activities where they are unfamiliar, however, care is needed – if people need the process to do their job then they may be the wrong people. Sometimes what looks like a process is more towards the skill or craft end of the spectrum.

Be honest, how many times have you looked at your processes, much less how they all work together? There are interfaces between processes across silos and departments so measuring performance and integration is difficult. In general, the volume and depth of processes is driven by an organisation’s priorities and risk appetite. When you look at each of these processes, they are all good, right and proper.

Processes are a great way to embed good practice, ensure things are safe, learn from experience and comply with legislation. However, when you add these processes all together and a manager has to read, understand and work with these, it is a wonder they manage to achieve anything at all. These processes have evolved organically over time in their specialist silos and as a result they pile on each other, very rarely integrating into a holistic business model. There are few companies I have seen where there is such good control over the evolution of processes ensuring they are, and remain, integrated and when updated, people are informed about the new ways of doing things. It is death by a thousand cuts. As David Cote (ex-boss of Honeywell) said: “Over time all organised systems evolve towards chaos.”

Other downsides of excessive use of processes are that they stifle creativity and constrain the individual who cannot draw on their experience and initiative to achieve an outcome. Many processes are designed for one way of doing things. There is the famous US Airforce story where in 1926 they measured a few hundred pilots and designed the seats and cockpits to meet the average. After a number of accidents, a researcher in 1950 measured 4063 pilots to see how many were within 30% of the average for 10 of these critical dimensions, there were none. The same is true of many processes they are designed for the average activity, whereas in the real world there may be no such thing. Finally, some people can be maliciously compliant, they know the process will not provide the outcome, but they follow it nonetheless to avoid being criticised.

But (there always has to be one), as Douglas Bader said in Reach for the Sky: “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools”. It is a brave person who will scrap all process and rely on the initiative and ingenuity of individuals, but this has been done. An example of this is in the home care sector in the Netherlands with Buurtzorg who shifted decision making to the front line and cut out management. I do not think this is appropriate for all organisations, but to make sure you get the best out of your processes you do need to train and develop your people and constantly challenge the value and alignment of a process. People who use these processes can also tailor them, documenting what they do. I have seen so many organisations where this permission to challenge and adapt is built in, but very few people use it.

Ask yourself, do my processes align, do I need all of them, can I slim some down and make people more competent at what they do?

Be nimble and creative, think, tailor and triumph.

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Sira Anamwong/


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  1. Jon Broome
    Jon Broome 17 October 2020, 01:07 PM

    As you know, Alistair, being a Contracts & Procurement person, I love following process 😱 ... sorry, being a self-employed management consultant of 20+ years, I love designing process for other to follow 😊. Seriously, would a better approach be train people to be competent, and then have 'guidance' rather than mandatory process, but design systems to be easy to use, yet have the mandatory stuff embedded in them. I.e. you can't short-cut the mandatory stuff.