A core aspect of your job as a manager should be to understand your processes and improve them. Your success lies partly in having the right processes in place.
When I talk about processes at conferences and events I always get push back from managers who state they value people over process, or they don’t like to standardise, or they have no processes at all.
The reality is that all businesses have processes. Whether you are aware of them, understand them and can communicate them is the real discussion.
When any work moves through a business it is following a process of some sort – even a chaotic one. Work of a similar nature may follow a similar process, or a different one. As a manager you may know the processes work flows through, or you may not.
From my experience, the more I’ve been able to understand and communicate a process, the better I’ve been at improving it.
If you cannot understand a process, it’s pretty hard to improve it. Not impossible but hard. If you don’t understand a process it can be hard trouble shooting issues with it. To troubleshoot, you often have to understand the process in the first place.
You must be careful though not to standardise a process that needs to absorb variety. There is no harm in having many different versions of a process for different types of work.
An example would be the induction process at your company. You have a process – it may be good, or bad, or somewhere between. It may be consistent and relevant, or it may be sporadic and at the mercy of individual managers to run it. But you will be bringing in new employees through some sort of process no matter how well defined.
In my experience, the induction process needs to be flexible. It needs to accommodate the fact that each department will have specific challenges and activities relevant to just them. There will always be some commonalities though, and these should be consistent across the company.
So the process should be flexible to absorb variety but consistent when it needs to be. It should support the purpose of the process.
The purpose of induction is clear; to wow new starters, to take away some of the anxiety for them and to get them productive as quickly as possible.
To map out a process try stapling yourself (metaphorically) to the work. In the induction process example try stapling yourself to a new starter and following them through the process. What does that process look like from their perspective and does it work?
Once you have the process mapped you can start to improve it. Remove anything that is not working, fix anything you can and add in stuff that is missing. This activity is not quick and you’ll rarely get it right first time – that’s why continual improvement is so important. You’ll need to keep doing this exercise.
Once you have the process mapped, and optimised, you can start to communicate it. Improve, change, mash and hack as the nature of your team and business grow. It will never remain static. It should grow with you.
Deming said that 94% of the success of a business is down to the systems and processes. I kind of agree.
I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this:
94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management)
Dr Deming quote – https://blog.deming.org/2012/10/appreciation-for-a-system/
Hence, if you can improve your processes, one at a time, then you can improve the chance of business success.
Here are some reasons why mapping out a process is so important:
You can identify the “white space”. The bits of the process where there is a gap and work stops, or halts, or disappears.
Single points of failure and heroes
You can identify single points of failure or the reliance on heroes. Single points of failure will bring the process down if they fail. You should mitigate against this if you can. People are usually single points of failure. This leads me on to heroes, who are people who often hold entire departments up. They are valuable as they pick up problems, but the hero doesn’t share. They don’t delegate, or automate, or improve. They just remain heroic and take one for the team. If they are not there everything falls apart, and they use this to their advantage. Don’t be at the mercy of a hero.
Non-Obvious process improvements
When you have your processes mapped you can find other areas for improvement that may not seem so obvious. Look at hand-overs to other teams. Hand-overs are fraught with problems and inefficiencies. Also look at how long the overall process takes and strive to reduce the cycle time. By focusing on cycle time you’ll start to improve the process.
Does it support your purpose?
When you have it mapped out it will become clear whether this process supports your purpose or whether it goes against it. The purpose of your team is important. It’s why you exist.
By mapping and visualising the process you will be able to communicate the process. This will help you to articulate to investors, other departments, auditors and anyone else interested in your process. But most importantly it will help new starters understand what they have to do, how they do it and what you expect of them. This should make them more productive, engaged and will lead to a reduction in errors caused by lack of knowledge.
Does it have an owner?
By mapping the process, you will also identify parts of the process that do not have an owner. This is usually the main cause of process failures in companies – the lack of ownership. “Not my process”, “didn’t realise I owned it” etc etc.
Here’s where to apply caution though:
It is not about the technology tooling
Although the right tech tool will make it easier to create the process maps and associated communication, it should not be the first thing you look for. The first place to start is with in-person collaboration. Collaborate, ideally around a white-board or paper, and map out the process, with those closest to the process. It needn’t be more advanced than post-it notes or doodles. That’s all you need to get improving the process.
Don’t standardise unless the process a very standard one
Robots, machines and assembly line work may be good candidates for standards, but when humans are involved you’ll need more variety. For some creative industries you’ll need a lot of variety. Try not to standardise as you’ll end up removing the flexibility people need to get their jobs done.
In my experience mapping out high level processes leads to a better process. But standardising at a granular level leads to poor delivery against purpose. Try to find the balance between the two. And as a manager accept the fact that these processes will change. They must bend and flex with your company. And, as usual, try to make sure that the processes focus on providing a service for your customers, not on making life easier for you and your team.
So go forth and map out some processes – after all, the success of your business depends on talented people working in effective and efficient systems.