Restoring “process” to its rightful place. Principle #2: Build it for Purpose!

This post is the 4th in a series on considering the proper position of “process.” Beginning with its current stigma, to everyday situations that reveal its necessity, to the two guiding principles I submit are the keys to its restoration. The following is the second guiding principle:

Continually re-design process for purpose and environment. Just as car-makers continually update technology and release new models every 2-3 years to meet new consumer demands and regulations, process must be continually updated to meet the demands of its customers. What does this mean to you?blueprint3

  • Build processes for today, but with the future in mind. Beware! There’s a trap if you just apply the “vision & strategy principle” in isolation, because if today’s processes are built to match the 5-year vision you’ll be in trouble. Why? Because you’re probably still in “year 1” and the processes needed in “year 5” (when we’ve doubled our customer-base & added 3 product lines, for example) are too complex and high-powered for what we need today. As a previous manager once told me: “there’s no sense in measuring something with a micrometer if you’re going to cut it with a baseball bat.” The art is to build just enough process (not more) to meet the needs of today, but make sure it is aligned and can be built upon to reach the vision of tomorrow.
  • Adapt! Taking a page from the industrial design community, make sure processes are frequently updated and redesigned. From my perspective this directly challenges the traditional “quality system mentality” in which a quality department writes procedures that typically stay static for years and become the “prison” in which the business is forced to operate (or find “clever” ways to avoid, and therefore make irrelevant). What about the notion of “process designers”? – people at the cutting edge of industry trends & business-model understanding who can partner with leaders to design (& re-design) cutting edge processes that provide a competitive advantage? Rather than being seen as “prison wardens” that preach “what not to do” they’re “business partners” who continually reinvent and “make life easier” to better serve customers and produce superior results.

So, is process a lost cause? NO! Clearly not! However, we need a radically new mindset to give it a new lease on life and restore it to its proper place in the management toolbox. If this is achieved, we can overcome the stigma of confinement and complexity, recasting it as a tool of competitive advantage helping organizations continually find innovative ways to do things fundamentally better than their competition.


Restoring “process” to its rightful place. Principle #1: Strategy comes first!

In the last two posts I took a very critical look at the concept of “process.” Especially with popular management-thinking placing priority on disruptive strategies that utilize innovation and entrepreneurship to create new value, it’s fair to say there’s a “leery eye” placed on anything that’s too structured or restrictive – i.e. process. At the same time there’s universal agreement that there must be a minimum of “discipline” to organize activity and produce results (see the stories in the previous post).towing

So how do we resolve this “love-hate relationship” with process? First, let’s go back to the problem. I submit that the “process craze” went wrong when the means became the end. Since huge successes were initially achieved (especially in administrative areas that really needed it), “serving the process” and creating “more and more process” became the silver bullet for everything. Remember “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – in this case, process became the hammer.

What’s the remedy? From my perspective, the answer lies in repositioning this valuable tool – process – within the broader toolbox of management fundamentals.

I submit there are two fundamentals that put “process” back into context and help restore its value. Let’s consider the first one:

Vision & strategy come first. Or said differently, process serves vision & strategy. If process is the propeller driving the ship, vision and strategy are the captain’s wheel and the rudder. How does this come to life?

  • Get clarity on where you’re headed (vision and strategy), only then choose the map, the equipment and the crew you’ll need to get there (process). Nothing creates more “process bloat” then building processes “that can do anything” just because we’re unsure of where we’re going, and therefore need to be prepared for everything (trust me, I’ve been there).
  • Organizations that are “lean and mean” (i.e. highly effective at what they do) typically have a very clear idea of who they are, what they want to become, and, as importantly, who they’re NOT. Based on this understanding they equip themselves to perform the mission effectively and shed the rest. If you have to choose where to spend your time, spend it on clarifying vision and strategy (keeping in mind that you may have to do it iteratively). It will pay rich dividends of clarity for building everything else down the road – including process.

Your thoughts? Your reactions on the first fundamental principle?

The second will follow in the next post…Stay tuned.


Everyday Stories…Is there a place for “process”?

As a sequel to the previous post on “process” here are some everyday situations to provoke your thinking. Just read, take a step back, turn it over in your mind…share your conclusions.

Storytime_logo3Story 1: The airliner had been cruising smoothly at 30 thousand feet over the Atlantic on its way to London, Heathrow. Suddenly light turbulence begins to cause a bumpy ride and the captain turns on the seat belt sign as a precaution. In the next few minutes the turbulence becomes more regular to the point the airplane is moderately shaking and bumps become more significant. The flight attendant asks passengers to return to their seats. The captain contacts air traffic control to request a change of altitude to 35 thousand feet to climb out of the turbulence…

Story 2: A creative film producer is working on a commercial piece for a large company. After understanding the company’s product, its benefits and key messages to be communicated, the creative part begins…Brainstorming on messaging, narratives and possible media types – customer journey, day-in-the-life, animation, sci-fi, etc. The team finally arrives at a storyline that is validated with the customer and production begins – storyboarding, scripting, actor selection, shooting footage, etc. With 7 days left until the first screening, it’s time to bring all the pieces together…

Story 3: Wow, finally the house is quiet – kids are in bed, time to relax. Jon and Mary have spent the evening cooking, cleaning the kitchen, reviewing homework and helping the kids make their lunches…Now it’s “parent time.” Jon makes a hot cup of tea for Mary and brings it to the table. “Let’s talk about what we’re going to do for summer vacation” Mary says. Together they start brainstorming ideas and begin to make a list. After listing 5-6 ideas they talk about how they’ll decide between them – the kids summer camp schedule, Jon’s vacation days, the price, relaxing vs site-seeing etc…

These “story snippets” are from everyday life – nothing extraordinary, not “industry specific,” both personal and professional…As you casually read over them, think of them through the “process lens” and ask yourself these questions:

What about process? Does it play a role? To what degree?

…trying to provoke your thoughts…Share them!

…more to come…


Why “Process” has a Bad Rap…

In the 90s and early 2000s there was a rediscovery of “process” and it’s power to drive and systematize progress. Championed by the likes of Dr Michael Hammer (MIT) it was extracted from its deep roots in manufacturing and applied to the optimization of every conceivable part of business. Of the many distinguished members of the “management silver bullet family,” this definitely became one of the stronger siblings.

Picture-31The “process frenzy” that followed produced mixed results. On one hand, indisputable gains in terms of quality, efficiency, scalability, etc. On the other, a “people experience” often very negatively characterized by restriction, complexity and reduced autonomy. This was especially amplified by the rebirth of entrepreneurship and innovation as a “counter-force” that receives some of the credit for the economic recovery after the collapse in the late 2000s. The following became the most popular criticisms of “process.”

  • Inhibits creativity…creativity and innovation happen when we mentally “jump the tracks,” so you can imagine what happens when there’s so many rules that make you stay “on the track”
  • Inhibits flexibility…similar to the above, in an ever-changing environment, restricting options or capability to respond could be the difference between life and death. In many cases, the strands of rope so carefully braided together to pull the company forward, becomes the noose it hangs itself on.
  • Slows things down…when it becomes all about “checking the boxes” and going through the motions significant energy and time is expended just to navigate the process. Rather than working on outcomes and results, valuable time is wasted just navigating the maze.
  • Makes things complicated…while the initial version of the process may have made sense for a given scenario, so many layers have since been added to account for all the possible variables, we now find ourselves caught in the anecdotal web of forms & templates, committees, multiple levels of approvals and sign offs…all symptoms of bureaucratic complexity.

There’s no doubt we’ve experienced the above in some form or another (..and have battle wounds to show for it). So, what do we do now? Is it time to “demote” the concept of “process” or jettison it all together? Can it find some sort of redemption by being properly repositioned?

It’s a provocative and loaded topic begging for leaders like you to weigh in. I’d like to hear your thoughts…(and will share mine as well).


4 Characteristics of an Excellent Strategic Plan

John_Warden_Commandant_ASCS_1994Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend and speak at a conference on innovation. Although the speakers and content were interesting, one speaker made a particular impression on me – John Warden III, retired US air force colonel. While his talk was very short, without media supports and not necessarily about innovation, his points on “principles & characteristics of good strategy” hit home…even more so as I learned they were rooted in his incredible experience as one of the key architects of the Gulf War air strategy. John Andreas in his book John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (2007), describes him as: “the leading air power theorist in the U.S. Air Force in the second half of the twentieth century” and also “one of the most creative airmen of our times. John Warden is not just a creative airman; he is one of America’s premier strategic thinkers.”

  1. Gives a clear vision of the future: it answers the question “what does the outcome look like?” in enough detail that allows to work & plan backwards to create a roadmap to get there. It contains detailed descriptions, dates, timelines, etc.
  2. Identifies centers of gravity for change: it considers internal and external domains (inside/outside of organization) to identify key areas of change whose impact can be assessed and modularized into specific workstreams.
  3. Time compression: the longer the change takes to happen, the lower the probability of success. A good strategy can take significant time to plan, but should be swift and decisive in execution, even if this means dividing it into smaller “time chunks” with intermediate strategic outcomes.
  4. Provides an exit plan for success or failure: understands the risk of “organizational stall” by clearly answering the questions: “what happens when we get there?” OR “what’s ‘plan B’ if it’s not working…and how will we know?”

Leaders like you are always working on some element of strategic planning (or should be). What’s yours? How does it measure up? How can you improve it to be more in line with these principles?