All About Going with the Process Flow

Yes, this is the week that I’ve been looking forward to. Where I zip down my outfit to reveal …. Processwoman! So today we are exploring processes, procedures, how they interact, why we bother with them and why they are essential to the long-term success of any organisation.

Processes and procedures are essential to the operation of any organisation regardless of whether they are documented or not. They are how any result is achieved on an ongoing basis and how any material is converted into a final product (be that a physical asset, a useful service or a conceptual step toward one of them). Processes and procedures are not projects (which have results on a one-off basis), but repeatable ways of producing an outcome. This is probably not the time for me to muddy the waters by talking about to what degree projects and process development can be proceduralised!

Taking this week’s definitions again from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, processes are “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end”, whereas procedures are “a series of steps followed in a regular definite order”. Unfortunately, this does not provide the clear distinction that I was hoping for.

However, it is commonly understood – by business analysts at least – that while processes are ‘a series of actions’ they are more high-level actions that may be undertaken by multiple people. Meanwhile, procedures are ‘a series of steps’ that are quite explicit and detailed, and which must be followed by one person from beginning to end (ie they are from only one employee’s perspective). In fact, each action within a process can be broken down into multiple procedures that are followed by the different actors in a process. There is a place for both processes and procedures being documented, but it is useful to think about the purpose and audience of this documentation and how they will interact within your organisation before you go full steam ahead with both.

Visio process flowThere have been many books written about processes – Alec Sharp’s book on ‘Workflow Modeling’ was my enjoyable introduction to process-mapping literature – and I am a firm believer that the documentation of processes and procedures is critical to the long-term success and sustainability of an organisation. It is sad that many organisations recognise this only when a critical staff member decides to retire or move on – when they realise that all the know-how is in one person’s head.

So why document processes and procedures?

  1. Retention of corporate knowledge –‘How things are done’ is key corporate knowledge.  If no one in your organisation has the know-how to undertake key business operations, your business will not succeed. This enables new starters to be trained up quickly and allows their actions to be easily checked and audited. It is sad that many organisations recognise this only when a critical staff member decides to retire or move on – when they realise that all the know-how is in one person’s head.
  2. Improving efficiencies, cost effectiveness and appropriateness of outcomes – Unfortunately humans do not have infallible memories and therefore to be able to measure time and cost, identify improvements (especially in conversation with other people) and then make the improvements stick, it must be put it on paper!
  3. Quality accreditation – Many of the generic and industry-specific ISO standards require processes to be documented. How else can you be sure that the employees of an organisation are reliably going through the same safe steps to deliver the same quality product, time and time again?
  4. Systematisation – Further down the line, if a very mature organisation wishes to do so, staff workflows based on manual processes and procedures can form the basis of sophisticated administration and decision support systems.

The Carnegie Mellon University’s Capability Maturity Model defines the following five stages (copied and pasted from Wikipedia) that an organisation goes through in developing and eventually (hopefully) optimising its business operations. I think this model is useful to be aware of in auditing how well business processes are covered by an organisation and understanding what further gains can be made from process and procedure documentation.

  1. Initial (chaotic, ad hoc, individual heroics) – the starting point for use of a new or undocumented repeat process.
  2. Repeatable – the process is at least documented sufficiently such that repeating the same steps may be attempted.
  3. Defined – the process is defined/confirmed as a standard business process, and decomposed to levels 0, 1 and 2 (the latter being Work Instructions).
  4. Managed – the process is quantitatively managed in accordance with agreed-upon metrics.
  5. Optimizing – process management includes deliberate process optimization/improvement.

It is therefore clear that while business processes and procedures are in their own right useful and valuable intellectual assets for an organisation, they are also the springboard for further optimisation and greater success in achieving and exceeding business goals.

Processes and Procedures are:  respectively, the series of high and low level steps required to undertake a business operation.

The benefits of documenting processes and procedures:  The list is almost endless! Retention of valuable knowledge, business improvements, accreditation, systematisation…

What do you think?

Can you think of any other reasons to document processes and procedures? And what is an effective way of presenting the interaction between them?

What do you think?