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.

When I launched this column as Infoworld’s “IS Survival Guide back in 1996, it introduced the three bedrock principles of good management: (1) Customers … real, external, paying customers … define value; (2) form follows function; and (3) everyone involved must be aligned to a common purpose.

In the 28 years since then I’ve figured out, read about, and otherwise discovered one or two additional notions worth the attention of IT leaders and managers. But none of those notions have led me to jettison any of the big three I started with.

So I figured, as Keep the Joint Running winds down, it wouldn’t hurt to revisit them. And so …

Customers define value

Start by defining terms – the starting point for any rational conversation. And so, what is a customer? A customer is the entity that makes the buying decision about your company’s products and services. I say “entity” because while it might be a person who makes the buying decision, it also might be a committee, or, in these strange times it might be an AI. And so, “entity” it is.

Not the entity that uses them? No, although the sales process is a whole lot easier when the entity that uses a product or service also makes the buying decision.

So we need a different term for those who use, and as someone once pointed out, “user” sounds like someone who enjoys recreational pharmaceuticals. So for our purposes we’ll call those who use our products and services “consumers.”

We also need a term for those who provide the money used to buy products and services. Call them “wallets.” As anyone in sales will explain, everything is easier when the customer, consumer, and wallet are the same entity.

Then there’s the deficient oxymoron, “internal customer” – a term that conflates customers, consumers, and wallets. To be fair, IT does have these. But few IT leaders understand with clarity that the CIO’s internal customer is, personally, the person who can fire them or retain their services. Organizationally IT’s internal customer is the budget committee, which makes the decision as to how much the company should spend on information technology.

Form follows function

I was meeting with a CIO and his direct reports. My goal: Demonstrate to them that engaging my services for improving IT’s organizational performance by helping them construct a useful system of IT metrics was a good idea.

The CIO asked me a question: “What metrics do most IT organizations use?

I made the mistake of trying to answer his question. And worse, because I didn’t have any survey data to rely on, it was obvious I was tap-dancing, too.

The right answer was to answer a question with a question: Form follows function. Different IT organizations have different organizational performance goals. That’s what we needed to discuss.

“Form follows function” is the centerpiece of all successful designs, whether the subject is the organizational chart, the company’s compensation system, or minor matters like your company’s products and services. Start by nailing down “function” and take it from there. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what happens to stick.

Align everyone to a common purpose.

Imagine you’re the captain of a galley – one of the oar-powered warships the Greeks and Romans used in their naval battles.

Imagine your galley’s crew is divided into 50 port oarsmen and 50 starboard oarsmen; also imagine you have two direct reports (mates; call them the p-mate and s-mate). The p-mate thinks the galley should head in the bow’s direction, and instructs their 50 oarsmen to push their oar handles as hard as they can. The s-mate thinks stern-ward is the better direction and tells his half of the crew to pull their oars as hard as they can.

What does the galley do? It spins, of course.

So you reorganize. Instead of a p-mate and s-mate you decide to have a bow mate and stern mate. Now, the front 50 oarsmen push their oars as hard as they can; the rear 50 pull their oars as fast as they can. What’s the galley do? It churns, taking all the power exerted by the oarsmen and using it to neutralize the oarsmen’s efforts.

Don’t believe me? Check this out: Dragon Boat Racing Teams Compete In Epic Tug Of War (Storyful, Sports) – YouTube .

This is what happens when those in your organization aren’t aligned to a common purpose. Each does what they think is best, but because they have different goals they mostly neutralize each other’s best efforts.

Bob’s last word: Please don’t think leading and managing IT, or any other organization for that matter, is so simple that three core principles are enough to get you by. Enough? No. But they’re a pretty good place to start.