HomeIndustry Commentary

Is it a Process, or just a process? (first appeared in InfoWorld)

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

Steven Wright once asked if shaving cream does anything at all beyond helping you keep track.

It’s a good question.

It isn’t just shaving cream whose only role is helping you keep track. Sometimes, that’s the role of the “repeatable, predictable processes” that so many of us high falutin’ consultants promote as the solution to every business problem.

Before we had process redesign we had Taylor’s “scientific management” and its time-and-motion studies, which tried to turn industrial processes into precisely defined repetitive motions. Beginning with the assumption that business works best when human brains aren’t involved in running it, scientific management led inevitably to repetitive stress disorder. Oops.

We’ve replaced scientific management with process redesign. According to the process perspective, “everything is a process,” a phrase I’ve heard often enough to make me want to argue, just out of spite. “My desk isn’t a process,” I hear myself retort cleverly while I watch ’em fold like pawn-shop accordions. “Neither is my car. Or my …”

“No, no!” they sputter, nonplussed. “We meant to say, everything you do is a process, because everything you do is a series of steps that gets you to the end result.”

Which is absolutely, true — everything you do is a process. Everything you do isn’t, however, a Process, a distinction process design consultants often fail to make in their zeal to craft high-quality-producing methods for achieving results. There are three big differences between processes and Processes:

1. Most of the intelligence needed to create the desired results has been built into Processes. In contrast, most of the intelligence needed to successfully follow a process is in the minds of the individuals following it.

2. The products of Processes have well-defined specifications; quality is defined as adherence to those specifications and can be objectively measured. A Process generates either large numbers or a continuous flow of its product. A process also creates an output. That output may be unique or a custom item; often its specifications aren’t known in advance.

3. People fulfill roles in Processes — the Process is at the center. It’s the other way around with processes: People use them to make sure they do things in the right order without forgetting anything. Lower-case processes play a role in employees’ success.

Don’t buy it yet? Think of the difference between the Process of manufacturing a car and the process of creating advertising. You can specify the steps for building a car so precisely that industrial robots can handle it — all of the intelligence is in the Process. Every last detail of the product has exact specifications and tolerances. If you follow the Process exactly, you must end up with a high-quality car.

You can also specify the steps needed to create advertising — you may analyze the marketplace, determine the product’s tangible and emotional benefits for each market segment, and so on. When you’re done, you’ll never end up with a process that can be handled by industrial robots (although many advertisements certainly look as if they were authored by automata). There’s no tight specification for distinguishing good ads from bad ones until you test-market to find out which ones make the cash register ring.

In our quest to make systems development and integration repeatable, predictable, and most important an activity we can reliably budget, we keep trying to turn it into a Process.

Systems development should follow a well-defined process, if for no other reason than to make sure we don’t leave anything out.

But a Process? Nope.

A great system is a work of art, both internally and in use. The processes used to create it help programmers focus on getting the job done instead of figuring out what the job is. Following the methodology facilitates great results. Only talented designers and programmers can cause them.

Here’s the wonderful irony of it all: Process redesign consultants don’t follow a Process. Only a process.

Comments (1)

Comments are closed.