5 Reasons Process Is Bad

I once volunteered to lead a "Kaizen" event. (In Lean Manufacturing a Kaizen event is a big get-together re-engineer a bad process.) The event failed miserably. The proposed solutions were larger than the problem, did little to address the problem, and had no hope of being implemented. 

Process problems have fascinated me ever since. After years of trying to “fix” bad processes, I have found the solution for ninety percent of them: do not create them in the first place.

Good processes are designed for work that is highly repetitive and that requires very little thought. If fixed output and fixed quality are the goal, a well-designed process is in order. Where people’s brains are employed, though, process is usually bad, and here are some reasons why.

1. Process Confines Strategy.

A good business leader helps us all understand vision and strategy. Then the rubber hits the road and we have to do something about it. Each time we encounter a new problem, our lizard brain says, “Create a process!” So we do.

Then we take it a step further. We build a tool to facilitate our process. It might be a spreadsheet or an access database. Maybe we buy a software package and customize it beyond recognition. Now our process is enshrined in a tool.

Fast forward. The leader announces a strategy shift. As the shift trickles down through the operation, what do we start to hear? “That’s not our process." "Our tool won’t let us do that.” And so the process, created in response to a tactical issue, threatens our strategic maneuverability. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you might be the author of many complex processes of which you are very fond.

2. Process Punishes Innovation.

I once worked for an IT organization that found itself under new management. The new management had a process for everything. The outputs of these processes were predictable. So is the output of a Rube Goldberg machine, but who needs a bowling ball, dominoes, a flame thrower, and a flock of carrier pigeons to flip a light switch? As anyone can guess, the innovators in the IT organization immediately began streamlining or bypassing processes in favor of speed and effectiveness. Question: Did IT praise them for their innovate spirit or condemn them for breaking rules? Answer: They all found their way out of the organization.

3. Process Rewards Unproductive Compliance.

A new Director of IT once restructured our operation to focus on trouble ticket resolution. It involved new processes, new rules, lots of meetings, and threatening language. Those who closed many tickets quickly were to be lauded and those who did not were to be punished.

Amazingly, turnaround time on tickets improved drastically. As an added bonus, the number of tickets closed nearly doubled! How did were those results achieved? It was simple. Employees who added little value immediately figure out the new program. They turned every customer call into two or three tickets and closed them fast, whether resolved or not. The gains in trouble ticket management were vapor, and everyone knew it except the IT Director and his SLA charts. Senior, project-lead-type folks were marginalized and bottom feeders were lionized. Compliance trumped productivity. People who thrived on productivity left.

4. Process Stunts Accountability.

One of the most subtle, yet profound ways that process impacts an organization is the way that it reduces or eliminates accountability. When you point "A" players in the right direction and empower them, they feel accountable for their results. Process, on the other hand, is a vampire feeding on the blood of the "A" player. It says, “Don’t use your best judgment, employ your talents, or think too hard. Just do what you’re told.” For “C” players, this is a boon, because they can focus on output rather than outcome. Maybe it’s no coincidence that “B” players like writing processes and they like to hire “C” players.

5. Process Creation is a Form of Elitism.

When people create processes, they usually create them for other people to follow. Apparently the creator of a given process is so adept that he or she can outthink everyone else, and the process is so good that it will work for everyone. This elitist view never delivers excellence; it rarely even delivers adequacy. When the process doesn't deliver, it's creator will always blame others for not following it. (Wanna know a little secret? People who create processes have trouble following them, too.)

Next time you’re trying to solve a problem, if your first impulse is to create a process, ask yourself the following questions:
  • Are you more interested in solving the problem, or implementing your process?
  • Will your process enhance the creative power of those who use it?
  • Do the people to be affected by the process think it’s a good idea? Do you care?
  • Will your process encourage results, or just compliance?
  • Can the process change easily when needs change?
  • Could you accomplish just as much by merely setting guidelines?

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Anonymous said...

OK - what about this - everything we do is a process. It can be a good and efficient process or a bad one. Having no process at all just isn't an option.

The principles of Kaizen Lean are valid - but the Lean process itself may be broken

my 2c worth

Mark Johnson

Mark said...

Everything we do follows a process - good or bad. Eliminating process is not an option. The problem is not that processes exist but that they are very hard to fix.
my 2c worth
Mark Johnson

Mark said...

Everything we do follows a process. The process may be either efficient or inefficient. The challenge is finding a way to fix or improve broken processes.

2c from the peanut gallery
Mark Johnson