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Do six dimensions make a business multiverse?

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When your typical consultant talks to your typical business executive, the consultant will probably promise to make measurable improvements in their business processes.

If the executive is unwary, they’ll jump at the opportunity, without asking (1) who gets to choose which metrics will be improved; and (2) which other metrics will worsen due to the intrinsic trade-offs in any business change.

In my consulting experience I’ve seen quite a few process improvement initiatives go wrong. Most of the failures were the result of just a few fallacies in how would-be process improvers think about the task. They are:

Conflating process and practice

Processes and practices are how organizations do their work … how they turn their inputs into outputs. They’re poles on a continuum. At one end are processes – well-defined series of repeatable steps. Do the steps right and the work will be done right. As the saying goes, a good process is designed by geniuses to be executed by idiots.

A practice, in contrast, is also a series of steps, but steps specified at a less granular level. In a business practice the expertise remains with the practitioner, and process success depends on the practitioner’s expertise and good judgment.

Which to use – process or practice – depends on the circumstances. Treat an assembly line as a practice and the defect rate will skyrocket. Run project management as a process and projects will implode.

Treating process improvement methodologies as alternative tribes

Looking for a packaged process improvement methodology? You can choose Lean, Six Sigma, Lean/SixSigma, Theory of Constraints, or Business Process Re-engineering. The unwary figure they need to pick one to use for all process improvements.

The wary know better. They understand the different process improvement methodologies have different points of focus. Lean reduces waste. Six Sigma improves quality by making process outputs more uniform. The Theory of Constraints removes process bottlenecks. Re-engineering? It only makes sense when you’re either starting from scratch or reconciling the processes in use in different, merging business entities.

Trying for a one-size-fits all process improvement methodology only makes sense if “improve” means the same thing for all processes. Otherwise, it’s like the scrambled version of the old saying: When you have a hammer, every thumb looks like a problem.

Setting improvement goals based on whatever sticks to the wall

“What are your pain points?” many consultants are fond of asking. People being what they are, they happily indulge their inner griper, leading to long bulleted lists of apples ‘n oranges complaints about How Work Gets Done compared to What Utopia Would Look Like.

The problem is the blank sheet of paper these gripe-fests start with. It’s a problem because when you’ve finished singing, dancing, and playing the tuba, processes can only improve in six possible ways … the six dimensions of process optimization. And at best, because there are always trade-offs, process improvement efforts can only optimize three of the six, which are:

Fixed cost: The cost of turning the lights on every day.

Incremental cost, aka marginal cost: The cost of processing one unit of output.

Cycle time: The time needed to turn one unit of input into one unit of output.

Throughput, aka capacity: The number of units of output delivered in a given amount of time.

Quality: Adherence to specifications or its equivalent, the absence of defects.

Excellence: Flexibility, the ability to tailor, and to adapt to changing circumstances.

Once you understand the six dimensions of process optimization you won’t look to fix an open-ended list of imagined pain points. Instead, everyone will first drive to consensus on how, for the process currently slotted for improvement, the six dimensions rank in priority. They’ll recognize that a given process characteristic is only a pain point if it’s one of the top three, and the current state is unsatisfactory.

Bob’s last word: Process optimization is a practice, not a process. As is usually the case with business practices the top three optimization dimensions are Excellence, Cycle Time, and Quality – the practice must be adaptable, it mustn’t succumb to analysis paralysis, and it must actually solve the problem it’s supposed to solve.

See? It works!

Bob’s sales pitch: I’m delighted to announce that KJR will, if all goes according to plan, continue to grace your inbox every week, albeit under new management. I’ll stay involved, curating topics, editing content, consulting on the weekly posts, and occasionally contributing a new post of my own.

The new proprietor and I have similar views about life, the universe, and everything, but not so similar that he won’t have quite a lot new to say, both about the kinds of topics KJR has been covering since its inception, and about topics I haven’t been in a position to take on.

I’ll tell you more next week.

On CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:Workplace griping: The key release valve your culture lacks.” Its point? Chronic complainers are annoying. But when employees can’t complain, that can be a whole lot worse.

Comments (5)

  • Thanks for the great news on the continuation of KJR. I have been reading your columns for over a decade and am pleased that the flow of great information will continue.

  • Just one comment, If I remember the 80’s correctly, didn’t the automakers start listening to the folks on the line on how to make the products better? In that instance, the recognition that the folks doing the work can have a good influence on how to do it better added some of the flavor of a practice into the process.

    • To the extent I can remember the ’80s (better than the ’60s, but that isn’t saying much), yes. This was part of their attempt to incorporate some of the principles of Japanese management into their practices.

      This doesn’t change what I said, though – the point of listening to people on the line was to incorporate their intelligence into the process flow, too.

  • Excellent piece! (I’ve recently had occasion to use the line about ‘in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice – in practice there is)
    And good news about the future!

  • So far, my best holiday gift is the one I got from you today. We’ve been buddies since the InfoWorld days when your wit and wisdom arrived in the mail each week (of course, you didn’t realize we were buddies, but like phone call recording, it was enough that I knew).

    Looking forward to continuing a great relationship!

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