Blog Barista: Bob Marquis, CPA, PMP | Feb 26, 2020 | Project Management | Brew time: 5 min

 Following process seems to get bad press these days. For example, the Agile Manifesto suggests “People over Process.” Managers say, “don’t let following the process stand in the way of satisfying the customer.” But is following the process really the problem?

Successful organizations that satisfy their customers are differentiated by how they do things; their processes. Take McDonald’s for instance. McDonald’s is obviously very successful, but no one would claim that it’s because they have the best hamburgers in the world. McDonalds is successful in large part because of their processes; how they do things. The service is fast, the food is prepared consistently, and their people know what to do. McDonald’s also uses technology to optimize their processes which helps to keep their prices low. People go to McDonalds not because of their great hamburgers but because they know what to expect.

This is similar for Amazon. Amazon doesn’t sell anything you can’t buy somewhere else. But Amazon is differentiated from their competitors because of their processes. They make it easy for customers to buy. They fill orders fast. Their error rate is very low. Like McDonalds, they apply technology to optimize the way they do business. People shop on Amazon not because of what they sell but because of how they do things.

McDonalds and Amazon are very good at satisfying their customers. And they are very good at following their processes. The lesson is simple; satisfying the customer should not have to occur outside of the process. Satisfying the customer should be the result of following the process.

In many business situations, a root cause analysis of customer satisfaction issues often finds that the following process is not the problem at all. In fact, process is often the answer to some of the real problems.

For example, in some situations we find that organizations don’t actually have a process; or the process has changed so much over time that no one is sure what it’s supposed to be anymore. No one really knows how things are supposed to get done. One or two key people seem to be the ones who make things happen. In other situations, things have to get newly figured out each time they get done. Using Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) terms, the organization is at Level 1 where processes are unpredictable, poorly controlled and reactive. When things go wrong, it’s not because the process failed, it’s because there was no real process in the first place. 

In other situations, there may be a process, but employees either don’t know it or they don’t use it often enough to remember it. Either they haven’t been sufficiently trained, or the process is not documented for infrequent use. In these cases, employees can feel frustrated. They point to the process as being an obstacle, but the process itself is not the problem. 

Sometimes employees just don’t understand why they need to follow the process. They don’t see the bigger picture or the reasons the process is in place. This is particularly true in large organizations.

There are also some people who enjoy being heroes. They like using their position to save the day. Unfortunately, this usually disrupts everyone else who is trying to follow the process. Everyone else ends up having to jump through hoops, outside of the process, while the hero pats himself on the back for “breaking down barriers.”

Of course, just having good processes isn’t enough. Execution of the process is often more important than having the perfect process. An average process that is flawlessly executed may outdo a very streamlined process that is poorly understood or inconsistently followed.

Time has to be spent on processes. Time is required to develop good processes in the first place. Time is required to document them. Time is required to educate the people performing them. Compliance efforts are required to make sure people follow the processes. Metrics are required to improve them. Then time is required to continuously refine them, update documentation, and retrain people. 

All of this comes at a cost. But the cost, in time, dollars, and customer satisfaction is less over the long run than not doing this. Quality used to be thought of as a cost until Philip Crosby taught us that quality is free; that an investment in improving quality pays itself back very quickly. The same is true for processes. We will spend less time developing good processes and educating our people on them than in confusion, doing rework, holding clarification meetings, sending emails, etc. that result from having poor processes. And customer satisfaction improves when things run smoothly.

Organizations should, of course, be adaptive and open to better ways of doing things. Business, and processes, evolve. It is healthy. Processes should undergo continuous improvement just as they do at McDonald’s and Amazon. Both of these companies are not just adaptive, but they are leaders in introducing better ways of doing things. However, when processes do change, diligence is required to ensure the change is properly absorbed by the organization. Process changes are just like system changes. They require the documentation to be updated, communication to occur, and training to be provided. If these things aren’t done, we end up in familiar territory with people blaming “the process,” circumventing it, and being counter-productive to the very objectives they are trying to achieve.

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