The problem with process

The problem with process

It starts with Great Intentions. If we formalise, codify and specify we will have intelligible and comprehensible uniformity. We don’t usually put it like that – we just say it will work better. And it may very well seem to do so. But not always. Let me tell you a little story. When I was building Cerebos Pacific Ltd I decided that our dependence on the core products was dangerous. I wanted other sources of revenue and jobs. So I bought two Pizza Hut franchises in Singapore and Malaysia. Both grew dramatically and within three years were worth 100 times what I had paid for them. Here’s what illustrated the problem of process.

After about eight months of owning the first franchise I still couldn’t understand the figures. I asked the manager running the Pizza business to explain them to me. “Well,” he said, “it’s rather difficult. You see we have to report our figures on a form that is designed for a factory product. But we aren’t producing a factory line.” Our accountant had told them to use the same forms we used for our factory products so that he could consolidate accounts easily.

Process had driven the decision. It was wrong. How should he have set about designing the reporting form? By understanding the business, of course. But, the accountant insisted, he DID understand the business – OUR business, the business he produced monthly figures for. What he had failed to do was understand the business we had moved into. He quickly corrected it. An easy mistake but one made many times a year, even in Singapore.

Car producers have found that the nearer the workers are to the finished product the more productively they work. Process logic says have a long production line with each robot or person contributing a tiny part of it. That’s good for robots, bad for humans. Why do we need people to be nearer the finished product? Why do we need them to be involved at all?

When my wife was having children, fathers were strictly forbidden to be anywhere near the actual birth. Today we encourage them to be present, to feel part of the process of making a new human being. Their role in helping with the child’s day to day needs is thus established early. When I was a young man the birth of a child was virtually a signal that the man should spend his evenings at his club.

So before we design a process we need to ask ‘what this process is for?’ If it is to help customers and those who will do the work, then it will get off to a good start. If it is for the convenience of analysis be careful that it does not cause more trouble than it is worth. If it is to increase profits, well and good but don’t forget the hidden price.

We all have mobile phones and very useful they are too. Many people also have a charming habit of a family lunch at the weekend, perhaps on Sunday. All the siblings gather in a favourite restaurant to share stories and compare notes. Only today they sit throughout the meal looking at their mobile phones and contacting their friends. The price they have paid for the process of the mobile is breakdown of social cohesion in the family. In the end it leads to quarrels and divisions that sometimes cannot be healed.

Here are six key points I suggest you consider when introducing a new process:

How can those using it be helped to get more satisfaction from doing so?
How can it encourage those using it to think more about the quality of their output?
Will the process be complete or will there be room for those working it to improve it?
If the process frees up thinking time will there be incentive to use that time fruitfully?
If the addition of this process makes work duller how can we compensate by making other aspects of it more interesting?
If I were asked to incorporate this process into my work what would be my reaction?

I do not suggest that we should stop process or add costs simply because a process isn’t very interesting for those who must employ it. Where process encourages us to think less, to make a smaller contribution to our work or is downright dreary, our duty as a boss is to see that those running it have ways to find greater not less satisfaction in their work.

Your responsibility as a person is to enable others to enjoy their personal rights.

It’s how you will enjoy yours even more.