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Looking for the Perfect Process?
Business Journal

Looking for the Perfect Process?

by Glenn Phelps

As senior executives strive to increase productivity or tackle a host of other corporate objectives, they continue to search for a perfect process that they can impose company-wide.

Here's the problem: The "perfect process" doesn't exist. But that doesn't stop companies from trying to develop one. After all, the perceived benefits -- such as increased quality and lower costs across an organization -- are substantial. What enterprise wouldn't want a process to achieve those ends?


Even though the perfect process doesn't exist, some processes are better than others. And the key characteristics of the most productive processes are known and can be summarized in this statement: Processes that are owned by the people using them are the most productive.

What does that mean? Simply that the most effective processes are those created and driven by the people who use them in their work. This idea runs counter to the common notion that there are universal magic steps to a process, and -- once those steps are discovered -- following them will bring quality and efficiency.

The functional implications of this notion seem counterintuitive. The idea here is that a perfect process (if one existed) that employees were ambivalent about would be less effective than an imperfect process that they owned.

Now, if you're a manager who follows a philosophy of "managing performance by manipulating processes," this idea may give you fits. In fact, one of the basic conundrums of management in the new millennium is poor performance in spite of "improved processes." And management's unquestioning acceptance of a process-centered philosophy is one of the limiting factors that has resulted in stagnant growth for traditionally managed companies.

Most process improvement gains are long gone

Most of the big gains from systemic process improvement are long gone -- they were realized during the 1980s and 1990s through Total Quality Management (TQM) and reengineering initiatives. So companies that look to process improvement to generate growth in profitability and productivity are chasing ever-decreasing gains. Yet companies keep trying to use process improvement to manage their way out of this dilemma.

Nevertheless, there is tremendous potential in creating a workflow to which employees are committed. This effort represents a step beyond TQM and reengineering; it provides a link between centrally controlled processes and the human beings who work the processes.

To see this idea in action, let's look at a case study of an organization that does sensitive engineering work under a U.S. government contract. This organization's quality standards are high, and process adherence is strictly enforced. There is no tolerance for failing to meet standards or for deviating from accepted processes.

In this company, workgroups consist of technicians who are led by a master's-level engineer and a government minder. The job of the technical team is to execute the processes required by the government. (From a functional perspective, this could be considered a "perfect" process because it meets exacting government standards.)

The government minder's job is to ensure quality through process compliance. The minder has a checklist, and every step in the process must be evaluated as a "go," or all work stops until it is. For every process violation, the government deducts revenue from the contract in the form of a penalty. If the company accumulates enough penalties, it makes no money or loses the contract altogether.

The company must accomplish difficult work, and under these circumstances, you might assume that there wouldn't be much variance in performance at the team level. After all, teams all follow the same strict rules and are observed by a minder who ensures absolute compliance with the process.

But nothing could be further from the truth: There is a vast range of performance among the teams working for this company. The number of process violations and the jobs completed in a year vary greatly from team to team; the top teams complete two or three times as many jobs in a year as the bottom teams, while committing a fraction of the violations. Needless to say, the top teams generate enormous financial benefits for the company.

Are ever-tighter processes needed?

So how can this engineering company boost the performance of its bottom teams? Create a better process? Hardly. Instead, if you take a closer look at the teams within this engineering company, you'll find that the difference between best and worst performing teams can best be characterized as a successful adaptation to a strict process. The successful teams focus on how to adapt their workflow to meet process requirements, while the weak teams gripe about how difficult the process is to implement.

But beware: If you think you can duplicate success by forcing bad teams to follow the workflows developed by good teams, think again. Each successful team creates a unique workflow that fits it as a team and that it owns. And ownership seems to be the key to success.

Perhaps the best example comes from looking at a process common to many companies: problem resolution. Let's define successful teams as those who find a solution more quickly and with fewer missed steps than others. When looking across companies, Gallup has found that teams solve problems in their own unique ways, but there are two primary workflow strategies common to these teams. One strategy involves asking a single individual to investigate the problem until he or she comes up with a solution while the rest of the team focuses on other activities that will advance the project. The second strategy is more collaborative: Each member of the team takes a piece of the problem and is responsible for solving it.

Which strategy produces the best result? Surprisingly, the answer is "neither." The strategy a team adopts does not predict its success in resolving a problem. Examples of successful problem resolution can be found using both strategies, as well as others. Instead, team ownership of the problem and freedom to work toward a solution the way team members see fit ultimately distinguishes successful teams from those that are unsuccessful.

The question is, how can a company instill a high level of team ownership? Unlike a process, ownership can't be established by management dictate. Instead, it comes from the magic of creation. Teams that build a workflow and have control over it are capable of far better performance than teams that don't. The challenge is in adopting a management philosophy that emphasizes supporting individuals and teams over processes.

To be successful, teams require objective measurement of their performance, an engaging work environment, and a financial stake in the outcome of their work. When organizations focus their attention on these fundamentals, teams can successfully adapt to strict process, and exceptional performance becomes possible. Managing process in pursuit of increased performance, however, is a fool's errand.


Glenn Phelps, Ph.D., is a Senior Consultant with Gallup.

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